Agents of women's suffrage

With the University of Adelaide in its infancy and the suffrage movement brewing, women’s education and voting rights walked hand-in-hand in late-19th century South Australia.

Final year Bachelor of Social Sciences student Courtney Eckert

Beyond suspicion, no one has ever formally endeavoured to connect the University to the women’s suffrage movement which, in December 1894, led to South Australian women becoming the first in the nation to obtain the right to vote and stand for parliament.

That is, until final year Bachelor of Social Sciences student Courtney Eckert undertook the monumental task ahead of the state’s 125-year anniversary of suffrage in December 2019.

A colonial Adelaide

In 1834, the South Australia Colonisation Act was passed in the UK providing for the settlement of South Australia.

Paired with a growing divide between the Church of England and non-conformers, this led to a new wave of British migrants travelling down under, enticed by the prospect of populating a new city unconstrained by preconceived ideas of religion.

“A whole range of religious groups wanted to make their mark in a new place,” explained Courtney.

“That’s why Adelaide is known as the city of churches, because there were so many families coming over here and setting up churches of their own.”

These were largely middle class family groups with South Australia quickly developing a reputation for its healthier social and moral climate, thanks to a high proportion of young married colonists.

Courtney Eckert at Barr Smith Library

Educated women made better mothers

With an influx of religious families came an influx of ideas and particular attention to a woman’s place in society.

“There was a very religious culture of Protestantism and women were very much in the household, taking care of the children and doing the housework,” said Courtney.

“But the understanding was if you educated women, it would make them better mothers, better homemakers and better wives.”

Reflecting the colony’s desire for educated mothers, the University of Adelaide welcomed non-matriculated female students from its inception in 1874. At this time many men would return to the UK in pursuit of education from well-established institutions.

As a result, the University’s debut cohort comprised just six matriculated students and 52 non-matriculated students, of which 34 were women.

Guideline changes later allowed matriculated women to graduate, paving the way for the University’s first female graduate in 1885, Edith Dornwell.

“Edith was our first female graduate but she was also the first person, male or female, to graduate with a science degree in Australia.

“This was roughly ten years before women had the right to vote, so in that respect the University was slightly ahead of women’s suffrage.”

Education as the foundation for suffrage

Education laid the groundwork for the suffrage movement by levelling the intellectual playing field.

“As women came to the University, they realised their say needed to be heard in Parliament,” said Courtney.

“Some women had the same education outcomes as men. They were getting degrees, they had the same academic minds, and so that’s where the notion came from that they should also have the right to vote.”

Courtney Eckert at Barr Smith Library
“After doing this project and learning about where we’ve come from, our history and our people, I was really impressed with how historically important this institution is."Courtney Eckert

What began as scattered committee meetings in churches and town halls, took more than ten years to eventuate in women’s suffrage, with arguments against the movement centred on the very facilitator of women’s education in the first place: their domestic destiny.

“They questioned why women would need to have a vote if their purpose in life was simply to be a mother, but this ideology stood in juxtaposition to them being educated.”

A lost history

As a current student of the University, Courtney developed a new-found appreciation for her alma mater through delving into its suffragist past.

“After doing this project and learning about where we’ve come from, our history and our people, I was really impressed with how historically important this institution is,” she said.

“The Vice-Chancellor of the time, Augustus Short, was firmly in favour of women studying here and had to do a lot to make that happen.” Today, the state’s suffragist past holds great value for a young woman focused on the equality issues that lie ahead.

“Gender equality and women’s rights are, unfortunately, an ongoing issue,” said Courtney. “I think it’s really important to celebrate suffrage and for people to understand what we have now. Who we are is a credit to those who fought for change.”

The Proud family

The Proud Sisters, photo courtesy of State Library of South Australia

The Proud Sisters, photo courtesy of State Library of South Australia

Such catalysts for change were active South Australian suffragists Cornelius and Emily Proud, who raised their three daughters Dorothea, Millicent and Katherine in a liberal, Baptist household.

“The three daughters were too young to sign the petition, but both parents were very involved in the suffrage movement,” said Courtney.

“It’s my belief, after researching them, that Cornelius and Emily’s outlook around women’s rights ultimately influenced their children,” she said. “It’s one thing to express these things quietly in the household, but because their parents were actively involved [in the movement], their daughters looked up to them and were motivated to be active members of society also,” said Courtney.

This influence was evidenced in all three daughters’ success as University of Adelaide students. 

Dorothea commenced an Arts degree at the University in 1906 before investigating the industrial conditions of female factory workers as the inaugural recipient of the Catherine Helen Spence Scholarship. 

She later undertook legal studies at the University, was admitted to the Bar in 1928, and pursued women’s rights through law, community service and research.

Millicent and Katherine also achieved academic distinction, the former graduating with a Master of Arts in 1915, and the latter becoming the first woman to graduate with a Diploma of Commerce from the University in 1908.

Story by Michaela McGrath
Photos by Meaghan Coles

Tagged in lumen, lumen Summer 2019, alumni profiles