In Queensland the path to federation was somewhat different to that of other states. For Queensland women, the question of Federation and the drafting of a constitution were secondary to the matter of achieving suffrage. Indeed, there were no women’s federation leagues established there. This may be partly explained by Queensland’s paradoxical record in the federation movement. Although influential in the early thinking about Federation in the early 1880s and represented at the 1885, 1890 and 1891 gatherings, there were no delegates at the Corowa Convention in 1893 nor at the 1897-98 Convention, brought about by an impasse about the method of electing delegates, and procrastinating premiers. In addition, unlike most of the other colonies, there was only one, the second, referendum to ratify the draft constitution, held in Queensland (September 1899) and that was carried by the smallest margin of any of the colonies, and with a very low turn-out of voters. In Queensland the focus appeared to be on territorial issues rather than on nation-wide issues. The boom in gold and mining industries reinforced Queensland regionalism, reflecting the earlier moves to excise northern and central Queensland to form separate colonies, based on strong regional loyalties.
Pressure groups such as the Australian Natives’ Association were less prominent in Queensland than in NSW and Victoria. Organised labour was also lukewarm about the need for Queensland to embrace Federation and outright opposition came from the farming and business sectors, fearing competition from NSW. It was the only colony with a developed tropical industry – sugar and bananas – which could be threatened by free trade in a federation.
Brisbane and its hinterland were the heartland of resistance because the federation proposal was seen as propelling them into the south-east economic sphere where their interests would be subordinated to Sydney and Melbourne interests.
In the period before an entrenched party system the 15 years of the women’s suffrage campaign between 1890 and 1905 saw seven changes of governor, nine premiers, three state elections, and two federal elections.
It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that the focus of women’s political activity in Queensland in the 1890s was on suffrage and labour matters, rather than on the question of federation. Two women, from very different backgrounds, and with contrasting political allegiances, were pivotal in the context of suffrage and labour reforms. The following notes are a very brief introduction to the activities of these two women, and detailed references for further reading on each of them, and of the suffrage movement in Queensland, are provided below.
Emma Miller (1893 – 1917)
Emma was born in Derbyshire in 1893, the daughter of Martha and Daniel Holmes. Her father was a bootmaker and a chartist, whose political beliefs had a lifelong influence on Emma. She had four children with her first husband, was widowed at 31, and remarried and emigrated to Australia at the age of 40. She was again widowed the following year and remarried her last husband in 1886.
She had worked for her father as a shoebinder and had become familiar with the social problems the industrial revolution brought to towns such as Manchester and Chesterfield where she had moved with her first husband, a bookkeeper. Once in Australia she was in contact with progressive thinkers, such as William Lane, and in had strong links with the labour movement. In her periods of widowhood she returned to her trade of seamstress, describing herself as a ‘gentleman’s white shirt maker”.
It was after her third marriage in 1886, to Andrew Miller, that she became more involved in union affairs, founding with May Jordan in 1890, Brisbane’s first women’s trade union, the Female Workers’ Union, since membership of other trade unions was denied to women. She was also a travelling organiser for the Australian Workers’ Union.
Emma Miller saw the establishment of a workers’ political party, women’s suffrage and equal pay as the means to improve the lives of working people. To this end she was a foundation member of the Workers’ Political Organisation, the forerunner of the Australian Labor Party, and a founding member of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association in February 1894, later becoming President and remaining in that position until 1905 when women were finally enfranchised for state elections in Queensland. She was a determined and effective campaigner, determined that the plural vote be abolished before women’s suffrage could be achieved, a stand supported by the labour movement with which Miller involved the WEFA more and more.
She is considered the mother of the Labor Party and was proud to be known as ‘Mother Miller’. She is remembered by a bust in the Trades Hall and a statue in King George Terrace.
Léontine Cooper (1837 – 1903)
Less is known of the early life of Léontine Buisson, the daughter of a French merchant and an Englishwoman, before her marriage to Edward Cooper, a surveyor, in London in 1869, and their emigration to Australia in 1871. In Brisbane she taught, first in a government school and then at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School, and later turned to journalism, contributing articles and short stories for William Lane’s The Boomerang and Louisa Lawson’s The Dawn. She was concerned about the failure of the law to protect women and women’s lack of property rights and believed that central to women’s lack of rights was the lack of their right to vote.
She was the founding Vice-President of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association, formed in 1894, but resigned shortly after over disagreement over the organisation’s objectives and its ideological approach to women’s suffrage. The WEFA sought the vote for women on the basis of one-adult-one-vote, whereas some of its members, Cooper among them, sought the extension of the vote to women on the same basis as men, which might have involved the perpetuation of the plural vote.
Léontine led a breakaway group from the WEFA to form, within a month, the Women’s Suffrage League, an organisation with a more conservative bent, but one which continued its campaign until the turn of the century, and published a suffrage paper, The Star, between 1894 and 1985.
She died suddenly in 1903, sadly before she was able to cast a vote in the Commonwealth election on 16 December.
Australian Women’s Register entry
Jordan, Deborah. ‘There is no question more perplexing at the present time and more frequently discussed than women’s place in society: Léontine Cooper and the Queensland Suffrage Movement, 1888-1903’. Hecate, vol. 30, no. 2, October 2004. A link to the article is here.
And many mentions in the works of Lees and Oldfield (below).
Australian Dictionary of Biography entry
Young, Pam. Proud to be a rebel: the life and times of Emma Miller. St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1991.
Young, Pam. ‘Emma Miller and the campaign for women’s suffrage in Queensland, 1894-1905.’ Memoirs of the Queensland Museum: Cultural Heritage Series, vol. 2, no. 2, 2002.
Queensland suffrage movement
Centenary of Queensland Women’s Suffrage
Lees, Kirsten. Votes for Women: the Australian story. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1993
McCulloch, John. The Suffragists: 100 years of women’s suffrage in Queensland. Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, 2005.
McCulloch, John. ‘Why frontier Queensland beat urbane Victoria to women’s suffrage.’ Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 79, no. 2, November 2008
Oldfield, Audrey. Women suffrage in Australia: a gift or struggle? Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University press, 1992 (Queensland chapter)
Background to federation
Irving, Helen (ed). A Woman’s constitution: gender and history in the Australian Commonwealth. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1996
Irving, Helen (ed). The Centenary companion to Australian Federation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999 (chapter on Queensland by Geoffrey Bolton and Duncan Water