Women’s Advances in Australia: A Compilation

Originally published 26 November 2014 by Spook Magazine.

Julie Bishop was recently named Harper Bazaar’s Woman of the Year. In receiving the award, Bishop explained that she doesn’t find feminism helpful. Rather, her advice to women was to “stop whinging, get on with it and prove them all wrong.” Despite the prevailing social, economic and institutional gender inequalities present in Australia, Bishop implored women to “not let it get to you and do not become a victim, because it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim”.

While Bishop and her conservative female counterparts claim not to subscribe to feminism, these women do not actually eschew the notion of political, economic, and social equality between genders. Indeed, Bishop has clearly benefited from the rewards the feminist movement has achieved for women in Australia; without these advances she would not be in the privileged position she finds herself in today.

To help Bishop (and others who are confused about what feminism is and what it has achieved), I’ve constructed a compilation of advancements the feminist movement has accomplished for women in Australia over the past 100 or so years.

The Dawn

The front cover of the first issue of the '"Dawn. The magazine was the first feminist journal published in Australia.

Founded by Louisa Lawson in NSW in 1888, this early feminist magazine was a raging commercial success. Published fortnightly and run solely by women, The Dawn included a selection of articles on household advice, poetry, fashion, and politics, and was central to galvanising Australia’s suffragette movement. Lawson was a mother of five and separated from her husband; a passion for writing clearly ran in the family, which she passed on to her son Henry Lawson, the poet.

Right to vote

In 1902, after federation, women in Australia were granted the right to vote and stand for parliament at the national level. Prior to this, South Australia and Western Australia had already awarded women this right in 1895 and 1899 respectively; it was another 60 years before Indigenous women were granted the same rights.

Vida Goldstein, by Phyl Waterhouse. National Library of Australia

Vida Goldstein was a feminist at the forefront of the suffragette movement in Victoria. Goldstein, along with her mother in 1891 spearheaded a petition of over 30,000 signatures, arguing for women’s right to vote and stand for parliament, which they presented to the Victorian Parliament.

This black-and-white photograph taken on 6 September 1898 shows 13 suffragettes, posed in ranks of three, about to march on the Parliament of the colony of Victoria. It was published in the Australasian on 17 September 1898.

Edith Cowan, another pioneer of the suffragette movement, was the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament in 1921, winning a seat in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly. Cowan’s advocacy for women’s rights and social justice was informed by her own experience of navigating the world independently as a woman; her mother died during childbirth, and during Cowan’s teenage years, her father was hanged for murdering his second wife. Her activism was not confined to her tenure in parliament, and throughout her life she campaigned heavily for women’s and children’s rights, migrant welfare, and sex education in schools.

Edith Cowan's portrait appears on the Australian fifty dollar note.


Women’s employment grew during the First World War, however this was primarily in industries that women already worked in, such as clothing and food services. Their involvement in charitable organsiations such as the Country Women’s Association and the Red Cross took off during this time.

Women's Land Army members working on Fowler's Farm at Home Hill in the Burdekin district during WW2.  L - R: Kath Kettleton, Meg Campbell, Lois Beur, and Freda Beur

During WWII, women stepped out of the domestic realm and into the economic sphere. In 1942, The Australian Women’s Land Army formed, providing employment opportunities for women in manual farm labour as a result of the vacancies left by men who were away fighting the war. This caused radical social and economic changes for many women who had previously been confined to the home. For the first time, women of all classes were able to support themselves financially through assuming non-traditional gender roles.

Women in Bars

Women were banned from drinking in public bars in Australia, and instead were confined to the adjacent ‘ladies lounge’. In 1965, Merle Thornton (mother of actor, Sigrid Thornton) and Ro Bogner were refused service at the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane. In retaliation, the women chained themselves to the bar in protest. This kick-started a wave of similar protests around Australia, and in the early 1970s, women were finally accepted into public bars alongside men.

Vietnam War

A Save Our Sons float on a Brisbane street during the 1967 May Day parade.

Australian women in their masses took to the streets to voice their opposition to the wildly unpopular Vietnam War. A group named Save our Sons was established in Sydney in 1965, by a group of middle-aged, middle-class women, whose sons were conscripted to join the war. In 1970, five members of the group known as the ‘Fairlea Five’, were jailed for handing out anti-conscription pamphlets. These women were dubbed “communists, rabblerousers, naive mothers and neglectful wives”. Their willful dissent had the profound effect of politically mobilising women, including those who had never been politically active before. Many of the women of Save our Sons continued campaigning after the war and went on to join the women’s rights movement in Australia.

Women in the Public Service

Women who worked in the public service were required to resign from their jobs after marrying until 1966, when this ban was lifted.

Equal Pay Day

In 1969, Zelda D’Aprano was fed up with the inequalities she witnessed while working at the Meat Workers Union. D’Aprano decided to take matters into her own hands by chaining herself to the Commonwealth Building in Spring Street, Melbourne, demanding equal pay for women. She later reflected: “I just couldn’t believe this, and I thought, here are all the women, here we are, all sitting here as if we haven’t got a brain in our bloody heads, as if we’re incapable of speaking for ourselves on how much we think we’re worth. And here are all these men arguing about how much we’re worth and all men are going to make the decision.”

Zelada D'Aprano chains herself to a Commonwealth government building as a part of her campaign for equal pay for women.

As a result of D’Aprano campaigning, that same year the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission recommended that “equal pay for equal work” would be phased in by 1972.

The Female Eunuch

In 1970, Australian feminist Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch. This ground-breaking work shattered the myths that supported women’s traditional roles in western society. Greer implored women to reject prescribed notions of gendered behaviour by relinquishing domestic servitude and instead encouraged them to question patriarchal authority figures. Her writing had a profound impact on the women’s rights movement in Australia.

Germaine Greer by Sandra Lousada, archival pigment print, 1970

The Pill and Gough Whitlam

Women’s sexual liberation began with access to the pill in 1961 and Australia was the second nation in the world to make oral contraceptives available. In the early days, the pill was not readily accessible: prescriptions were expensive, doctors were reluctant to prescribe, and contraception could not be written about or advertised until the early 1970s. Second wave feminists in 1972 pushed newly elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to lift the tax on contraceptives and the ban on advertising. Whitlam oversaw many welfare reforms which advanced women’s autonomy, including the establishment of sexual health clinics and universal healthcare, paid childcare, single mother’s benefit, no-fault divorce (Family Law Act 1975), and free tertiary education.

Sex Discrimination Act and Affirmative Action

In 1984 the Federal Government enacted the Sex Discrimination Act which made discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender, martial status or pregnancy illegal.

In 1986, the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act was passed by the Commonwealth Government. This legislation required employers to promote equal employment opportunities in the workplace. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999 was a further extension of the 1986 Act.

Domestic Violence

In 1988 the National Agenda for Women was launched, uncovering the pervasive presence of domestic violence throughout Australian society. The Federal Government responded by launching a national, multimillion-dollar education campaign on domestic violence.

In 1987, domestic violence became a criminal offence in Victoria, with other states duly following suit.

Female Heads of State

In 1989, Rosemary Follett became the female first Head of State in Australia, assuming the role of Chief Minister of the ACT. Carmen Lawrence followed Follett as Premier of Western Australia in 1990, while Joan Kirner served as Premier of Victoria from 1990-1992.

 Rosemary Follett became the female first Head of State in Australia

Marriage and Rape

Under common law, marital rape was legal until 1991, when it was unanimously rejected by the High Court.

Decriminalisation of Abortion

Since the early 1970s, feminists have campaigned for abortion reform. Laws were altered to clarify that a woman could choose a medical termination in South Australia in 1969, the Northern Territory in 1974 and Western Australia in 1998. In 2002 the ACT became the first jurisdiction to decriminalise abortion, with Victoria passing the Abortion Law Reform Act in 2008, which was lauded as a feminist victory, along with Tasmania in 2013. In Queensland and NSW, abortion is still criminalised.

Governor General

On 5 September 2008, Quentin Bryce became the first female Governor General in Australia, adding the title to her long list of accolades, including lawyer, academic, human rights advocate, and former Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

First Female Prime Minister

Julia Gillard sworn in as Australia’s 27th and the first elected female Prime Minister by the Governor-General Quentin Bryce

Almost 60 years after the first woman was elected to federal parliament, Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister, on 24 June 2010. Gillard was an unashamed feminist, who rejected marriage and motherhood. While she was subjected to an inordinate amount of gender-based criticism from the media and fellow politicians alike, Gillard led the most productive parliamentary term Australia has ever witnessed, passing more legislation than any other government in the nation’s (current) history. She also launched a blistering attack during parliament on then opposition leader Tony Abbott over his sexism and misogyny, which remains to this day one of the best feminist smack downs I have ever witnessed. While feminists everywhere rejoiced, Gillard’s sound words sadly had no lasting impact on Abbott.

Where are we now?

The status of women has come a long way over the past century, thanks to the tireless work of the feminist movement, yet there is still a way to go before equality is truly realised. The pay gap between men and women is at an all-time high, and domestic violence an ongoing societal scourge, along with pervasive notions surrounding gendered behaviour. When non-feminists such as Julie Bishop are in positions of power and Tony Abbott is the Minister for Women’s Affairs, it is clear that much work needs to be done, which is indicative of feminism’s continued relevance today, just as it was to the early suffragettes of the 19th century.


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