The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

The right to vote

Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson) c1890
Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson) c1890. By Mitchell & Co. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, SPF P1/A, Mitchell Library
With the NSW election this weekend, we thought we would take a look at the history of voting in Sydney. New South Wales was one of the most progressive states in Australia, and indeed the former British Empire. New South Wales achieved self-government in 1856, and the floor of the Legislative Assembly, in Parliament House, has been the venue for every major debate in the state's history. It's always been a rowdy place – the bear pit – and when you consider that, between 1856 and 1900 there were no fewer than 28 ministries, you can get a sense of the pace of change in the period between self-government and Federation. New South Wales has always had a bicameral parliament, meaning it has a lower house, the Legislative Assembly, and a house of review, the upper house, or the Legislative Council. At one stage the Labor Party's platform was the abolition of the Legislative Council and Jack Lang was one of a number of leaders who gave that a red hot go, but the institution has stuck around. After 1880 members of the Legislative Council were voted in, and it's from that point that we can trace the beginnings of what is now a tablecloth ballot paper. The Dictionary has a great image of the first New South Wales legislative assembly from 1880 – of course there were no women. Votes for women New South Wales was comparatively early to give women the vote, although it was nearly ten years behind South Australia and New Zealand. Full male suffrage was granted in 1858, but not everyone could afford to run for Parliament until 1889, when politicians began to be paid for their work. New South Wales women only got the vote in 1902, but were denied real political power - they could not sit in the Legislative Assembly until 1918, or the Legislative Council until 1926.  Some of the best profiles we have in the Dictionary are of women campaigners for the vote. Maybanke Anderson, then Maybanke Wolstenholme, was a self-supporting mother and divorcee who founded the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. Their mottos were 'Equality is Equity' and Tennyson's lines from The Princess: 'The woman's cause is man's; they rise or sink  Together, dwarfed or God-like, bond or free'. Maybanke was first vice-president and then president during the vital years from 1893 until 1897. Always, for Maybanke, the vote was 'the kernel of all reform'. She was a writer and teacher, and a lifelong campaigner for the rights of women and children. One newspaper called her "the most intellectual woman in Australia" but I am not sure that was intended as a compliment. Maybanke Anderson's allies included Rose Scott, Mary Windeyer, Annie Golding and the inimitable Louisa Lawson. These women were teachers and agitators. Rose Scott, a cousin of David Scott Mitchell, and Mary Windeyer moved in the highest circles, while Louisa Lawson and the teacher Annie Golding were labour activists. They all had slightly different takes on feminism, and politics. Nevertheless, these disparate women united to form the Women's Literary Society, which was the forerunner of the Womanhood Suffrage League. Maybanke perceived opportunity for women in Federation, so left the Womanhood Suffrage League to form the Women's Federal League of New South Wales. Right to vote for Indigenous Australians There is a common misbelief that Aboriginal people gained the right to vote in 1967 but in point of fact Aboriginal people were always able to vote in NSW, if they wanted to. Few knew they had the right but they were not prohibited from voting if they chose to do so. Aboriginal women gained the right to vote in NSW along with other women in 1902. However, Federal elections were a different matter. From 1902, the Federal Constitution specifically excluded Aboriginal people from voting and only returned servicemen could vote federally from 1949. Aboriginal organisers found it more effective to campaign outside the Parliament. John Maynard has written an excellent article on Aboriginal politics in the Dictionary here. You can read Zoe Pollock's article on the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Dictionary here. You can listen to this morning's podcast from 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more Sydney history at 8:20am, 107.3 FM. Further reading