Women Say...on the Republic

Women Say...on the Republic

Deakin University Public Lecture: Women in Leadership Daughters of Federation, Mothers of the Republic

Susan Ryan AO

Last month, marvellous Melbourne hosted a week of celebrations of the birth of our nation. I was one of the fortunate Australians able to attend these events. In that celebratory environment of a sustained, highly visual narrative of the beginnings of modern Australia, I found myself contemplating some important dimensions of federation that I had previously overlooked.

To be frank, until the media and other public events leading up to that week in May impinged on my consciousness, I had not given a great deal of thought to those protracted, contentious processes that culminated in the establishment of the Australian nation. Like a lot of my fellow citizens, I had tended to take much of that achievement for granted.

During the years I spent in federal parliament, particularly in my work as a Cabinet Minister, I had, inevitably, become acutely aware of the practical effects of our federal arrangements. In fact I developed into a vociferous critic of the complex and frustrating, often fiendishly inefficient allocation of powers between the Commonwealth and the States. In my daily work of attempting to reform our system, I was much more aware of the limitations of the Constitution than its achievements.

While I had often noted with pride the glorious fact that at the start of the 20th century, what was created by our forbears turned out to be not only one of the world's first democracies, but one of the most successful, I had not made a causal link between the robustness of our democracy on the one hand, and the protracted debates, arguments, conventions and campaigns that culminated in the act of federation on the other. I now see that there is a link, an important connection.

As we contemplate the next big step for our nation, the achievement an Australian republic, we should consider what is to be learned from the people, processes and events that brought about federation.

The obvious lesson, and a powerful rebuttal to those monarchists who keep whining that because one referendum was lost, the matter is settled and Australia must continue with an English monarch as Head of State, not just for another hundred years but for eternity, is this: democratic societies take a long time to make important decisions.

In a democracy citizens go in for a lot of argument and negotiation before they arrive at a consensus. And, in a democracy, when a big decision is finally taken, the form of it is certain to be a compromise. Because our society is pluralistic, open and robust, our citizens not only hold a wide variety of views but also express them forcefully. In arriving at a conclusion, no one individual or group will get everything they want.

The Australian Constitution settled in 1901 was not a perfect design emanating from the mind of just one father of federation. Decades of argument, campaigns, convention, and yes, failed referenda preceded it. And so it is with this new century's great agenda, the Australian Republic.

Within the Australian Republican Movement, we have done a stock take of where Australians stand on the issue one hundred years after federation. All polls show that a big majority of Australians support the idea of a Republic. This support mainly takes the form of wanting an Australian Head of State.

In the 1999 referendum, a majority of those voting voted No to the particular model proposed: the selection of an Australian Head of State by the parliament.

The rejection of that model at that time sent a message, one that active republicans have taken to heart. We are now engaged in a great deal of open debate around different models, including a form of direct election of the Head of State by all citizens. This discussion is hard work, just as the proponents of federation had to engage in years of hard work before we agreed to become a nation.

For the next move to a Republic to succeed, we need not just favourable sentiment but active participation from many more Australians. Analysing the pattern of the No votes at the referendum, we realise that just as there was a people's movement for Federation, we need to create a people's movement for a Republic. The debate must involve Australians living outside the capital cities and those who want a lengthy discussion of various models before they make up their minds to change. Young people want more action, as do minority groups.

There is an even bigger question; one I believe is relevant to the Deakin University Women in Leadership program 2001.

This big question is posed starkly to anyone looking at the recorded images of federation. Last month's Centenary celebrations brought to life some wonderful historic photos, archival film footage and crackling but strangely moving voices of our leaders from the early years of the last century.

In those old photos, movies and reprinted texts of stirring federation speeches a significant part of Australian society is conspicuously absent. We see or hear no Founding Mothers.

Those making the nation and talking about it appear to be exclusively male; in their heavy three piece suits, starched collars and bushy whiskers, quite overwhelmingly so. We do not see film of Vida Goldstein out campaigning, nor do we hear the intelligent and persuasive voice of Catherine Helen Spence. Mainstream history records an all male event. Is that how it really was?

Women were effectively excluded from the decisions leading up to Federation, as they were from all positions of power in public life. In a publicly acknowledged sense we use the phrase Fathers of Federation advisedly.

This is not to say that Australian women at the time didn't care about the federation issue, or see it as linked with broader questions of political rights for women. They did. For those of you interested in some highly informative and stirring accounts of women's actions in these events I commend an excellent publication edited by the outstanding federation scholar Helen Irving, A Woman's Constitution?

This is an important text for anyone interested in the question of women and leadership.

Women aspired to community and political leadership through organizations like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which had branches in all colonies. All states except Tasmania had separate suffrage leagues. In Western Australia, the Karrakatta Club, which Helen Irving believes was possibly the very first women's political group in Australia, had as its first secretary Edith Cowan. Cowan in 1921 became the first woman to be elected to a parliament in this country. These organizations all provided forums for women to discuss the issues of Federation, and proved effective political training grounds.

As Irving and her distinguished fellow contributors point out, women did a great deal of work for federation, but got little recognition for their efforts at the time or subsequently. They were given no formal roles or powerful positions. Yet they did demonstrate leadership at this crucial time for Australia. They did see that the extension of the right to vote and stand for parliament would be greatly accelerated by federation.

They also believed that a national government could and would deal better with the provision of welfare and other support for women and families than the separate colonies. They were proved right in both cases.

We have a lot to thank those women for. They may not be acknowledged as Mothers of Federation, but because of them, two generations on we were able to achieve many of their political aspirations .We are surely the Daughters of Federation. We have a lot to thank our invisible "Mothers" for.

If feminist groups had not seen the possibilities of federation for female suffrage, and had not worked so hard to achieve it in the context of framing the Constitution, it is likely that Australian women would have had to wait much longer for their political rights.

As it is, the Constitution of 1901 gave all women except Aboriginal women full political rights, the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament. This made Australia the most advanced democracy in the world at that time. Only New Zealand got there before us.

Having won political equality in constitutional terms, women had to wait a long time and conduct many more campaigns before these rights delivered real power.

The first women were not elected to the federal parliament until 1943, the year after I was born, when Enid Lyons, Liberal, was elected to the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney, Labor, became a Senator for Western Australia.

In 1975, Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, Liberal, Victoria, became Australia's the first female cabinet minister, a member of Malcolm Fraser's government.

In 1983, I went into the Hawke Cabinet as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister assisting the Prime Minister on the status of women, the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in a Federal Labor government.

Ironically, although Federation led swiftly to the extension of the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament for all Australian women except Aboriginals, women exercised these new political rights cautiously.

Since Federation female voters have more often than not adopted a conservative attitude to change. When women voters have supported change it is where they have had a chance to shape the debate.

The Republican referendum was no exception. Fewer women voted "yes" than men. If women had supported the "yes" case as strongly as men, it may have got up. Why the gender difference? It should not be explained in terms of the demeaning stereotype of female readers as mindless captives of women's magazines and their obsession with British Royalty.

Perhaps the gap is better explained by the failure of the republican movement to include women fully at every stage, to ask their views and listen to their concerns. A mother struggling to support a couple of children on a low and irregular wage is unlikely to respond actively to an academic argument about the reserve powers, however elegantly phrased. She may well however, welcome an invitation to a local community event where while the children are enjoying themselves designing a republican logo, her opinion about being an Australian is taken seriously.

When I'm challenged about my prediction that properly consulted, most women will want a republic, I hark back to a time in our history where women in all circumstances throughout Australia did support radical change.

At the beginning of 1972, the position of Australian women had hardly advanced since Federation. The Great Depression and the aftermath of the Second World War had all but destroyed the achievements of the early feminists and that talented minority of women who had moved early into the professions and other influential positions. Women, despite their heroic wartime efforts, had been put firmly back into their officially sanctioned place, the Home.

In 1972, with scant resources, no experience, and virulent opposition from community leaders and the media, a small group of women, young mothers, students, age pensioners were able to spark a movement for women's equality that took off nationally, helped elect the Whitlam Government and ensure that it delivered on its promises to women.

Coming from nowhere, the Women's Electoral Lobby in a few months had branches in all states, in remote country towns, in Darwin, Cairns, and Launceston. In every federal electorate in 1972, candidates answered the lengthy and confronting WEL questionnaire, because they knew that winning the seat depended on it.

With that bit of history firmly in mind, we are about to establish an ARM women's network for women all over the country, especially country towns and outlying suburbs. It will operate through forums organised by local women's groups. I envisage that women will discuss not only various models for an Australian Head of State, but what sort of new and improved community life we might have in a Republic, what sort of artistic expression it might inspire. Will we have a republican domestic architecture as enduring, practical and distinctive as the Federation house?

In another hundred years time, how would we like the visual images of 2001 to appear to our great grand children?

Women at the end of the nineteenth century struggled and achieved important rights, but we had no recognised Mothers of Federation. But we, all of us in tonight's forum as beneficiaries of their struggle are truly the daughters, or perhaps the granddaughters of Federation.

The big challenge before us, in the campaign for our own Head of State is to ensure that we become the Mothers of the Republic.

We don't want our great grandchildren, at the celebrations of two hundred years of federation, looking at images and listening to voices that are all male.

This is our moment in the nation's history and we must not let it pass us by. We owe it to those federation activists, for whom public political activity was so novel, and so strongly resisted by society, to bring women into full partnership in the national enterprise.

We owe it to Maybanke Anderson, Catherine Spence, Vida Goldstein and many others, perhaps our own grandmothers, whose names have not survived the neglect of a century of male dominated history. They were leaders, unacknowledged.

We in the year 2001 can lead in public and in our communities. Leadership is about many things and is pursued in many forums, universities, business, government, community, the media.

Wherever it is pursued successfully, it is built on attitudes that are common to all leadership. Intelligence, passion, altruism must always be present. A degree of risk is inescapable. Imagination, clear purpose, hard and relentless work also characterise successful leadership. As does the capacity, which I know women possess in spades, to do more than one thing at the same time.

While working on leadership in our workplaces and communities we can also dedicate some of our energy to leading Australia to the next big stage of our history.

I invite you all to accept the challenge and help us give birth to the republic.

Susan Ryan AO is a Deputy Chair of the ARM. She was a founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby, and as Minister Assisting on the Status of Women in the Hawke Cabinet she was responsible for extensive equal opportunity laws and policies for women. Reference: A Woman's Constitution? edited by Helen Irving, Hale and Iremonger1996

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Last modified:
11 May, 2002