The 1891 Victorian Women’s Suffrage Petition - Did your ancestor support the cause?
In honour of International Women's Day I thought readers might enjoy reading the following article I initially wrote for the Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra back in 2017 about the historic Victorian Women's Suffrage Petition. Read on to discover how to search for your ancestors' names in the petition. And it's good to know the data is online and free!
Women’s Suffrage Petition, 1891. PROV VPRS 3253/PO, Unit 851. Photographer: Laura Daniele, Public Records of Victoria. Reproduced with permission of the Victorian Parliamentary Library.
Finding information beyond birth, death and marriage details for female members of a family tree can be a frustrating exercise. Unless they were convicts, famous, or indeed infamous, they seldom left a traceable footprint in the same way as their male counterparts. Even less likely is finding evidence of their political views.
However, thanks to the efforts of a handful of dedicated women who took to the streets in 1891, there is a unique (and now digitised) record of names and addresses for 30,000 women in Victoria who signed a petition seeking that “Women should Vote on Equal terms with Men”. Ordinarily, women's voices are missing from historical accounts, however, the suffrage petition provides a lasting record of these women and their commitment to political and social reform.
The petition was initiated following a deputation to the Premier, James MUNRO, by the Victorian Alliance and other temperance groups. Among the group was Betsy LEE who argued that “Women had to obey the laws, therefore they had a right to a voice in making them”.
The Premier undertook to introduce a bill into the Victorian Parliament if they could demonstrate that ordinary women wanted the vote. As a result women were urged to gather signatures for the petition which stated in part “That Government of the People by the People, and for the People should mean all the People and not one-half”.
The Hon. James Munro, Premier. Published by David Syme and Co. 1892. From the State Library of Victoria collection.
The petition had the Premier’s support and he was quoted as being “unable to find an argument against women’s suffrage which cannot be used equally well against manhood suffrage”.
Many others, however, objected based on their views of women’s place in society, women’s ignorance of and incapacity to understand politics as well as concerns that women were more likely to support working class and temperance causes.
There were also numerous cases where petition forms were returned to the organisers with names erased and a footnote reporting “These names were erased by order of the husbands”. Conversely, some politicians argued in the Parliament that many women did not want the vote and had signed the suffrage petition only under pressure.
Granting women the right to vote in Victoria was debated frequently in the Parliament. On one occasion Premier MUNRO quoted an anonymous poet:
They talk about a woman's sphere
As though it had a limit.
There's not a place in earth or heaven;
There's not a task to mankind given;
There's not a blessing, or a woe;
There's not a whisper "Yes" or "No";
There's not a life or death or birth,
That has a feather weight of worth,
Without a woman in it.
An Honourable Gentleman on the opposite side of the House who held different views quickly responded with his own quote from an American newspaper which objected to the enfranchisement of women:
When women's rights have come to stay,
Oh, who will rock the cradle?
When wives are after votes all day,
Oh, who will rock the cradle?
When Captain Mama walks the decks,
When Banker Mama's cashing cheques,
When all our girls have lost their sex,
Then pa must rock the cradle.
The first poem resulted in “Hear, hear” from parliamentary members. However, the second recitation resulted in cheers and resounding laughter which is perhaps indicative of the male view of the so-called fairer sex at the time.
In one of many articles criticizing women’s suffrage, an editorial in The Argus newspaper called Premier MUNRO a freak for supporting the cause and stated that “The woman’s vote, taken as a whole, would be the vote of absolute and unconditional ignorance, and on that ground it is to be sturdily resisted as it is fraught with danger to the community.”
With such strident public opposition it is not surprising that in spite of 19 private members’ bills supporting women’s suffrage from 1889 onwards, Victoria resisted introducing the vote for women until 1908 when it was the last State to do so. This was six years after the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which set a uniform law enabling women to vote at federal elections and to stand for the federal Parliament. Victorian women were finally able to exercise their right to vote in their first State election in 1911.
Margaret McLean, Head of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. Reproduced with permission of the East Melbourne Historical Society.
Approximately ten percent of Victoria’s adult female population from over 800 different towns and suburbs signed the petition. The location where most signatures were collected was Richmond, while Warnambool had the most signatures per capita. It was signed by women from of all walks of life and was the largest petition ever presented to the Victorian Parliament.
The signatures vary in quality and are in different types of ink or pencil. In order to collate the petition for presentation to the Parliament, organisers pasted every page onto a continuous length of fabric which acted as a backing which was then rolled onto a cardboard spindle.
It was nicknamed the Monster Petition due to its size (260 metres long by 200 mm wide). According to the Victorian Parliament’s website, it takes three people three hours to carefully unroll the petition from one spool to another.
Several signatures appearing on the first page of the petition include:
Margaret McLEAN (Mrs William McLEAN), head of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and campaigner for women's rights and the vote; Jane MUNRO (Mrs James MUNRO), the Premier’s wife who presented the petition to Parliament; and
Bessie LEE, a working-class woman who became a famous temperance campaigner and author.
Front page of the Women’s Suffrage Petition, 1891. PROV, VPRS 3253/P0, Unit 851. Photographer: Asa Letourneau, Public Records Office Victoria. Reproduced with the permission of the Victorian Parliamentary Library.
The Genealogical Society of Victoria and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria transcribed the Suffrage Petition in 2006 and there is now an online database of the petition’s signatories on the Victorian Parliament’s website. The database includes both a transcription and an image of each signature and address on the petition which can be searched by name or locality.
The petition was the centrepiece of commemorating the centenary of Victorian women’s suffrage in 2008. A wonderful, large scale, scroll-like sculpture of the petition was unveiled the same year. It is located on the Burston Reserve in Macarthur Street, Melbourne, near Parliament House. Made of steel and bluestone, it is an imposing site on the reserve.
I was initially delighted to find that one of my great grandmothers and two great great aunts signed the petition in Stawell and Boort respectively. I was then, in turn, disappointed that more of my relatives had not done so. Perhaps their husbands forbade it!
How to find your ancestors in the petition
To determine whether your own female ancestors were among the great women who signed the petition and made a significant contribution to women's rights which we take for granted today:
Go to the database search engine at:
Enter your ancestor’s Name or Suburb and click <<Go>>
A list of all signatories matching that name is returned. Scroll down until you find the correct person. (Note: there may be several pages with the same name.)
Click on the corresponding pdf link in the Page,Line column.
An image of the original petition will appear showing the individual’s signature and address on the relevant page.
To see how many people signed the petition from a particular locality, leave the Name blank and enter the place name in the Suburb field. (NB: This includes towns and cities despite the term “Suburb”.)
Database search result.
PDF image showing signatures and addresses (including my great grandmother Bessie Barnes).
How did you go?
The Women's Suffrage Petition is a wonderful, if little known, resource for family history, particularly for our female ancestors.
Let me know in the Comments Section below if you found any of your own family in the Petition. And don't hesitate to share this blog post with anyone else you think might be interested.
Your Family Genealogist
Deborah Hutchison. ‘Monster Petition’, State Library of Victoria Blog at http://blogs.slv.vic.gov.au/such-was-life/monster-petition/.
Parliament of Victoria. ‘Legislative Assembly Parliamentary Debates’, Session 1891, Vol. 67, page 1614.
Parliament of Victoria. ‘Women’s Suffrage Petition’ at https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/about/the-history-of-parliament/womens-suffrage-petition.
Trove. The Age, 30 September 1891, page 6.
Trove. The Argus, 7 May, 15 September and 30 September 1891.
Wikipedia. ‘Women’s Suffrage in Australia’ at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage_in_Australia.
Victorian Parliamentary Library.