History tells us women can turn elections: the Liberals should have listened

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

In the autumn of 2021, simmering rage over issues of women’s safety and respect in the workplace, triggered by Brittany Higgins’ allegations, galvanised into the March4Justice rallies. Tens of thousands of women – young and old – and their male, trans and non-binary allies, came together to declare enough was enough.

One of the features of the mass demonstrations was the array of pithy homemade placards, held aloft to create a sea of verbal dissent, a cardboard homage to the finely crafted banners of the early 20th-century suffragette rallies. My favourite placard, held by a grey-haired woman in a purple T-shirt, declared “My arm is tired from holding up this sign since the 70s”.

But the most common sign was a take (down) on the infuriating adage “boys will be boys”, now updated and edited to read “boys will be held accountable”.

Related: Women are not fighting a culture war when it comes to alleged rape and harassment. It’s about time some men realised this | Katharine Murphy

Last night, Australia showed us what happens when the boys in power are held accountable.

The 2022 federal election has delivered a demonstrable, undeniable reckoning of the gendered balance of power in this country. The pattern is clear: a Morrison government that stubbornly refused to listen to women was punished by the electoral death of their, if not firstborn, then at least favourite, sons.

Some have wondered – even lamented – that the orchestrated fury of the March4Justice rallies rapidly dissipated. But it’s now clear that the women of Australia were following another adage, the feminist exhortation: don’t get angry, get organised.

Make no mistake: what happened last night was not an aberration.

If Australia’s history wasn’t so conveniently parsed and packaged to exclusively showcase the achievements of white men, we might have seen it coming.

We’ve been here before.

In 1902, Australia became the first country in the world where white women could both vote and stand for parliament. With the passage of the Franchise Act, 800,000 new voters were instantly added to the electoral rolls.

As one American journalist at the time put it, “the world fairly stood aghast”, breathlessly waiting to see what effect this paradigm-shifting political experiment in representative democracy would create.

The answer came in 1910. The Women’s Federal Political Association (WFPA), led by Vida Goldstein, Australia’s most influential and internationally recognised suffrage campaigner, had been assiduously educating female voters in the exercise of their new citizenship rights. Goldstein had become the first woman to stand for election to a national parliament in 1903. She ran as an independent because she fundamentally repudiated party politics, believing it encouraged mediocrity and inspired corruption.

But Goldstein’s aim was always collective, not personal. “I believe it is the duty of woman to take her share in the work to protect her interests”, Goldstein said in her first campaign speech in 1903, “and that she should take the deepest interest in political matters.”

By 1910, the WFPA’s service-oriented, educational efforts paid off.

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As even a cursory glance at Wikipedia will tell you, the 1910 election heralded several major political milestones.

It was Australia’s first elected federal majority government as well as Australia’s first elected Senate majority.

The first time that a prime minister, in this case Alfred Deakin, was voted out in an election.

And perhaps most significantly, the world’s first Labor party majority government at a national level.

What you’ll have to dig a little deeper into the archives to discover is that when Andrew Fisher became Australia’s fifth prime minister, it was widely acknowledged that he and his party owed their victory to women. At a time before compulsory voting, female voters vastly outnumbered male voters. Crucially, the Labor party, mindful of the nation’s new constituency, campaigned on three discreet “female” virtues: moderation, respectability and competence.

Challenging the boys’ own bravado of politics-as-usual was rewarded at the ballot box.

But it was not only women’s votes that mattered. Just as critically, it was their organising abilities that attracted the attention of political pundits. Deakin himself conceded that the Labor leagues had worked hard to enrol female voters – and that it was mostly women who worked as the recruiters. “Their women pass from house to house”, Deakin noted, “enlisting those of their own sex … an army of unpaid volunteers, discipline, unity … and the complete efficiency of its machine.”

Writing (under a pseudonym) in the London Morning Post, Deakin announced “it is a new era in politics without precedent for its methods”.

Those methods – door to door, kitchen table conversations, local fundraising networks, word of mouth – became key to political campaigning.

And the progressive side of politics was not the only beneficiary of women’s enfranchisement and political education. The Australian Women’s National League, a conservative organisation established in 1904 to buttress the monarchy and empire in the antipodes, fight socialism and educate women in politics, quickly became largest women’s association in the country. It’s now widely acknowledged that the financial and organisational support of the AWNL was critical to the formation of the Australian Liberal party in 1944.

But what the 2022 election demonstrates is that, today, both major parties have failed in offering policies and leadership on issues that clearly matter to the most women: climate action, integrity and gender equality.

Many will rightly conclude that the results of the 2022 election represent a rejection of the way that parliamentary politics is currently conducted in this country: centralised, stage-managed, aggressively partisan.

But this is not new. The “teal wave” of centrist independents, backed by the grassroots, community-fuelled “Voices of” movement, represent the historic power of women’s systematically coordinated, organised, laser-focused anger. Not placards. Not street protest but realpolitik.

Turns out there was nothing “fake” about the sensible white-collar women challenging so-called moderate Liberals in affluent electorates. (Another sexist tactic to undermine the credibility of professional women, suggesting they are merely puppets of wealthy men pulling their naive, impressionable strings.) The fact that Zoe Daniel dedicated her win in Goldstein to the woman the seat was named after is an indication that her moral compass had a clear true north. “Today I take her rightful place,” Daniel announced.

Daniel will be joined in that place – a seat at the table, a voice in parliament – by a record number of female MPs. Not only that, but perhaps more importantly, the winning candidates – independent and Greens, House and Senate – have committed to action on women’s safety, domestic violence prevention, pay equity, universal childcare and other measures which will appreciably benefit the lives of all women.

Related: Senior Liberals say party must address women problem and regain centre after election loss

The results of this election also prove, if empirical proof was needed, that enough men will use the power of their own electoral privilege to vote for female candidates and the issues and values they represent, recognising that good governance is gender neutral.

In her book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, the American political commentator Rebecca Traister notes that “the righteous fury of the unrepresented” has always been feared, and therefore brutally suppressed, at the point of bayonet, yes, but more insidiously by the gaslighting of history. The confidence trick comes when “we begin to hear one another and understand that we [are] not as isolated in our rage as we had been led to believe”.

Women have always been the sleeping giant of Australian politics. I suspect the leviathan potency of women’s electoral rage will never again be underestimated.

  • Clare Wright is professor of history at La Trobe University and the author of You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World (Text 2018)

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