Trust the Women
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
With an election upon us, and Anzac Day fresh in our minds, let’s remember an event in 1911 that brought together Australian and New Zealand women calling for a fairer, better world.
By ACFP Guest Writers, Deborah Sims and Matt Dickson
In London in 1911, four years before Gallipoli, a contingent of Australian and New Zealand women, fired by the revolutionary moral argument of equal rights for women, brought their cause to the very heart of the Empire. There they challenged perhaps the most powerful cabal of males in the history of the world, demanding that they allow women to participate in Britain’s national polity.
They marched beneath a banner proclaiming a consciously feminised message: “TRUST THE WOMEN MOTHER AS I HAVE DONE”, and an image that positioned women, not men, as the holders of wisdom and leaders of progressive thought.
The banner, now on permanent display in Parliament House, Canberra, was designed, painted and carried by Australian artist Dora Meeson. It shows Britannia being addressed by the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia, who urges the mother country to grant British women the same voting rights Australian women had enjoyed since 1902.
Not enough people know that Australia was the first nation in the world to enfranchise women (though not Aboriginal women). New Zealand had been the first dominion to do so, even earlier, in 1893 (including for Maori). British women were fully franchised only in 1928.
The Australian and New Zealand marchers included Margaret Fisher, wife of the Australian Prime Minister; Emily McGowan, wife of the Premier of New South Wales; and Lady Anna Stout, wife of New Zealand’s Chief Justice and former Prime Minster, alongside leading Australian activist Vida Goldstein.
40,000 marched in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession, which took three hours to pass by and brought together 28 different suffrage organisations. Timed to precede the coronation of George V by just a few days, the demonstration was watched by tens of thousands, who filled public viewing stands erected for the coronation. The Australian and New Zealand marchers were the undoubted stars, cheered all along the route.
Unlike at Gallipoli in 1915, where Australian and New Zealand men were incidental players in an ill-conceived military diversion, under the command of a foreign government, Australian and New Zealand women marched in London in 1911 as leaders, not followers.
In the home of the Westminster System and the Magna Carta the marchers’ aim was nothing less than to redefine the meaning of democracy in the centre of the modern world.
In the eloquent words of historian Clare Wright, Australia “reverse-colonised the landscape of ideas” in London. Dora Meeson’s banner, painted in London in 1908, is tangible proof of that.
Dora Meeson was a lifelong feminist, a fighter for women’s rights, a disrupter a century before the term became fashionable. Born in Melbourne in 1869, she remains one of Australia’s great political artists.
It’s important that Dora Meeson’s story be heard, loud and clear, especially right now. We see Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Chanel Contos, and many others who are bravely speaking out for Australian women, as the inheritors of Meeson’s righteous and tenacious fight. We want the extraordinary energy of the past year of agitation and advocacy to bear fruit. Here we are in 2022 once again preparing to vote and Australian women (and women all around the world) still must demand to be given what men take for granted: respect, equality, safety.
“Anzac” – the devastating experience of men, on a remote shore thousands of miles from Australia and New Zealand – has been the foundational myth of the Australian nation and the dominant narrative of Australia’s historical record for over 100 years.
Yet before Gallipoli, universal suffrage - equal voting rights for women - was arguably the defining marker of the new Australian nation’s identity. As the title of Clare Wright’s book puts it, Australian “Daughters of Freedom” won the vote and inspired the world.
Gallipoli has displaced women from their place in Australia’s national story.
An apology for a scandalous culture of disrespect and abuse of women within Parliament House itself, the very home of Meeson’s glorious banner, shows how great the need for change.
So more than a century on, let’s at last know her name and celebrate Dora Meeson the artist, radical thinker and activist. In doing so we’ll give long overdue respect to the Australian and New Zealand women’s own “Anzac” moment.
Perhaps in the process we’ll be inspired to remake Australia a fairer, safer and more respectful place.
Deborah Sims and Matt Dickson are writers and curators based in the Hunter Valley. They acknowledge the work of historians Clare Wright and Myra Scott.