Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2018

You Daughters of Freedom, by Clare Wright

The amazing thing about reading Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom is the switch from reading the wholly unfamiliar story of Australia’s history of suffrage to the familiar story of English suffragettes in Part III. How has this happened?  How come we all know the story of the English suffragettes, but we don’t know about the Australian women (and men) who led the world into modern democracy with votes for women??

Well IMO there are two answers to that and only one of them is that until comparatively recently Australian history took a back seat to British history in the school curriculum.  The other reason is that the mayhem and violence of the British suffragette campaign makes a more dramatic story than the story of the Australians who achieved votes for women with principles and logic and strategic nous.  Hopefully You Daughters of Freedom will put the tabloid version in its place.

What will help with that, is Clare Wright’s pop-hist-doco style.  This history is written with an eye to a young audience.  She uses metaphors with jaunty panache, describing, for example, the 1902 Federal Parliamentary debate about who would qualify to vote as

like a game of citizenship Kerplunk: pulling out democratic planks and watching which marbles might fall through the gaps. (p.117)

Senator Pulsford, in the same debate, thought that WA and SA might in their wisdom consider it to drop woman suffrage (which SA had granted in 1894, and WA in 1899).  This female franchise was causing trouble because SA was threatening to derail federation if their women were to lose it.  Human rights had to be uniform across the nation,  but the Parliament could hardly legislate that the enfranchised women of SA and WA could vote in the forthcoming first federal election, but not their sisters in the other states.  So yes, as Clare Wright says, the senator was dreaming.

Much later, when the indomitable Australian women were over in England helping Englishwomen with their struggle to achieve the vote, Wright uses a pop term to describe the strategic savviness of the Australians:

The intransigence of the Liberal government had provided fertile ground for activism.  Soon there was the Actresses’ Franchise League, with Cicely Hamilton at the helm, and the Writers’ Suffrage League.  The WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union] said that what was needed to wake up the nation was propaganda.  Information and posters and badges, banners and essay and plays.  A speech was one thing, and lord knows the suffrage leaders had made hundreds of those.  But something to hold in your hand, or wear at your breast was another.  They needed merch.  (p.215)

This is a piece of merch:

I’ve had this framed poster hanging on the wall in my house for a long time, and every time I look at it, I am reminded of the importance of the right to vote and how we should never take it for granted.

The colours we now associate with the fight for female suffrage was one of those pieces of merch, but one of the most wonderful pieces of merch was long forgotten. It was a propaganda masterpiece which won a prize (see it here) and a banner, one which is now on display in Parliament House Canberra, and you can see it and listen to a podcast about it here.  The woman who created these artworks was Dora Meeson Coates (c 1870-1955), and she was one of five Australian suffragists* profiled by Clare Wright in this very readable history.

NB *Suffragists are people who advocate votes for women. Both men and women are, and have been suffragists. The Suffragettes were a specific group of (mostly) women defined by their membership of certain suffrage organisations at a certain time in British history. (p.xi)

Besides Dora Meeson Coates, the other women who feature most prominently in You Daughters of Freedom are:

  • Vida Goldstein, the most well-known because a federal electorate is named after her, and many of us heard her story when the seat was named. She was a Senate candidate in 1903, one of the first women in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament.  Goldstein made a further four attempts to be elected to Federal parliament. She was never successful because she always stood as an independent, at a time when party politics were emerging, which made it difficult for independents to win.
  • Nellie Martel,
  • Muriel Matters, and Clare Wright’s favourite:
  • Dora Montefiore.

What prompted Dora Montefiore to action was her appalled discovery that when her husband died, she didn’t have legal custody of her own children, and that was also the position of women who had less in the way of resources than she did.  A lifelong socialist, she devoted her life to bettering conditions for women and children, and the workers of the world.

In the first chapter, Wright tells the story of the little-known woman who propelled Vida Goldstein into the fight for women’s franchise.  Vida met Margaret Heffernan behind bars, where she was under sentence of death for the murder of her child.  A ‘fallen woman’ from a respectable family, Margaret was discharged from the Women’s Hospital in Carlton with two shillings in her pocket and a baby to look after. Homeless, she knocked on the doors of two church charities, who turned her away.  Through mischance, a letter to her parents went unanswered.  Homeless and penniless and suffering from puerperal insanity, she held her starving, screaming baby under the murky water of the Yarra until he screamed no more.  Goldstein knew that there would be never be any support for women like Margaret Heffernan until women had the capacity to make the rules.  They needed the vote so that their needs and opinions counted in the parliament.

It is galling to learn that Victoria, currently Australia’s most progressive State, was the last to enfranchise women for state elections, not until 1908, long after the federal franchise was won.  The villain of the piece was the intransigent Tommy Bent (Bent by name and bent by nature), aided and abetted by class privilege in the upper house.  Bent and his pals in the Legislative Council were an aberration, because as Wright makes clear, quoting Goldstein:

Vida herself had always emphasised that Australian men were core to the solution, not part of the problem, of women’s political emancipation.  Indeed, it was a feature of the Australian suffrage campaign that made it radically different from any other country, this readiness of our men to admit that our cause was a just one and entitled to immediate recognition.  (p.226-7)

I’ll leave it to historians to evaluate this book as a work of history, but as a piece of merch I think it might be a game-changer.  Last night I went to hear Clare Wright talk about her book with journalist Sally Warhaft (IMO one of the best interviewers on the circuit) and there was a discussion about the reasons why the wonderful story of Australia as a progressive nation was derailed by the creation of a dominant mythology of Gallipoli.  Hundreds of millions of dollars – more than all the other dominions put together – have been spent on marketing Gallipoli as the making of our nation.  This myth is founded on the masculinist idea of manly blood being spilt in war, and thus proving ourselves as a nation.  Wright thinks that John Howard championed it to justify taking Australia into two wars.  She thinks that at the turn of the century, Australia was known around the world as a progressive social laboratory, and the women’s vote was recognised as a crucial element in the election of the world’s first democratically-elected socialist government.  She says that it was the women’s vote which led to a raft of progressive changes including wage fixation, pure food laws, tighter controls on drugs, alcohol and gambling, and welfare reform which led to a decrease in infant mortality rates.  (All these things were issues women had campaigned on without result before they had the vote.)

And it was the concrete improvement in the living conditions of ordinary Australians that made the rest of the world sit up and take notice.  The sky had not fallen in, as opponents of female franchise had predicted, and women had not become manly.  (Teddy Roosevelt invited Vida Goldstein to meet him at the White House, because he wanted to see what an emancipated woman looked like!)  It was because Australian women had been successful in getting the vote that British women were grateful for their savvy help.  It was because the Australian women’s vote had enabled improvements in living conditions that people turned out all over Britain to hear what they had to say.

We should be proud of those early reforms, and the women and men who achieved them, and we should give them greater prominence in our history.

This new history You Daughters of Freedom, means that many more people are going to be aware of Australia’s importance in the international struggle for women’s franchise, but it’s not just a single issue history.  It also champions Australia’s rightful place as a progressive nation from its inception.

Ah yes, I hear the murmurs.  Wright has not forgotten that shameful exclusion of Indigenous people from the franchise.  She reproduces some of the excruciatingly awful debate that took place.  She covers the White Australia Policy too.  It’s embarrassing to read, but IMO it’s not a reason to bury the history of the achievements that took place in that exciting time.   It’s a reason for someone to write an equally palatable pop-hist-doco style history of the Indigenous road to citizenship so that I won’t hear young people claim in question time (as I did so recently elsewhere) that they’ve never heard the story of Aboriginal dispossession in this country… (Because of course they have heard it, they just weren’t listening, at school).

PS The book includes photos of the women and their banners, reference notes and a comprehensive index.

PPS The cover design is by the inimitable W H Chong.

Author: Clare Wright
Title: You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, 432 pp.
ISBN: 9781925603934
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available everywhere, including Text Publishing and Fishpond: You Daughters Of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World


  1. I’m looking forward to reading this book. I hadn’t heard of Muriel Matters until just this week- and now I’ve heard her mentioned several times. Did you find the very colloquial tone offputting?


    • Hi Janine, I’m looking forward to your review and Yvonne’s too, I hope, because there’s nothing like an historian’s eye to evaluate its methods and style.
      However, I didn’t find the tone off-putting – I don’t have much confidence in the reading habits of the young, (and (with exceptions, of course) the evidence is in on that score) – and so I hope that the readability of her lively narrative style will lure that generation to read it and enjoy it. (It was a bit disconcerting to see the age of the audience last night. A great many stalwarts of the women’s movement but not so many young women.)


    • Hi Sue, I romped through this in four days or morning reading (reading something else at bedtime), and I loved it. I think you will love it too… it made my heart swell with pride to see what the collaborative efforts of a great bunch of women and their male supporters achieved.


  2. Good piece Lisa Hill!

    Sent from my iPad



    • Thank you Tony, lovely to hear from you!


  3. I’m sorry my favourites Catherine Helen Spence, Louisa Lawson and Rose Scott don’t (or don’t seem to) get more of a run. My understanding of 1902, mostly from reading Miles Franklin, was that the first Parliament was elected under the old rules, but that universal (white, adult) suffrage would be automatic from the second election (1902) on, presumably because it was in the constitution but needed to be enacted by Parliament.


    • You’ll be pleased to hear that all three do indeed get (more than a mention) but I haven’t referenced them all in a review of such a big book. (479 pages).
      But the vote wasn’t automatic. The new parliament had to pass enabling legislation and that was where the sticking points began. SA & WA women had the vote; the other states didn’t. And then the question of who should be excluded arose in the course of that enabling legislation.
      I chose not to explain all the ins and outs of it in my review because I think people should read the book!


  4. Thanks for a detailed review Lisa – I’m still writing my reflection on last night (thank you for inviting me) and will link it this:)


    • Gosh, Mairi, it was only when I started to write it that I realised how much I would have to leave out, and even then I couldn’t keep it under 1000 words!
      But do click on those links to the banners, only one of them is illustrated in the book, and they are wonderful.


  5. One day I might get to read this! As you say we don’t know enough about the movement in Australia. I know some names not all of those you mention.

    The embarrassing thing is that we’ve always seen Australian history as less dramatic than that of Europe – completely ignoring the drama of dispossession – but it’s true I think that in the area of social change (suffrage, workers rights, etc) things did happen relatively – not completely – more smoothly?

    As Resident Judge asks, is the tone TOO colloquial? Your post suggests that it might be.




    • That’s a coincidence, China, I have been watching an old BBC series called A Family at War, with a friend born in America who’s never seen it. It’s a vivid picture of the impact of WW2 on an ordinary family. Have you seen the series Land Girls? That was an interesting insight into what they had to put up with. I think that was BBC as well.


  7. Hate to say it but these wonderful women make some of the so called feminists of our age look rather ordinary. Will read when I can find the time Lisa as I follow up so many of your suggestions based on your oh so lively reviews. Thanks. And I do get most frustrated at the lack of historical knowledge in the Australian community even in quarters where i would expect it to be up to the mark. Shame for it is both interesting and uplifting.


    • LOL You were eavesdropping on my conversation with the friend I went with, weren’t you?!
      You know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see those young people who bleat about democracy being irrelevant, drop their hashtags and their ‘like’ buttons and get together and form a grass roots movement to raise hell about homelessness. That’s an issue that everyone can support, no matter what their politics are, and if they applied their energies to it, and used the WEL strategy of interviewing every candidate for their position on it, and made the government realise that they as a bloc had voting power, things would change and they would see their power. What a great thing that would be to see…


  8. […] companion to Clare Wright’s recently published You Daughters of Freedom (which I reviewed here).  That’s because Wright’s book about the struggle for women’s suffrage in […]


  9. Well, now that I’ve started reading it – albeit still only 50 pages in (I’ve been out four nights in a row this week and have two events tomorrow) I think it’s not too colloquial as I wondered if, from your post, it might be. Your “kerplunk” quote reminds me of Thomas Carlyle on the French Revolution – as I recollect, his language was similarly fresh and evocative rather than staidly formal.


    • Yes, it’s cheerful writing, not academic, not pompous, an easy, flowing narrative style.


  10. […] You Daughters of Freedom, by Clare Wright […]


  11. […] Michael Atherton (A Coveted Possession, the rise and fall of the Piano in Australia); Clare Wright (You Daughters of Freedom)— there are two I haven’t read yet: Chloe Hooper’s  The Arsonist and Gillian […]


  12. Compelling review and added to my wish list.


  13. […] Clare Wright in conversation with Angela Savage.  I had already heard Clare speak about the book (see my review) but Angela had a fresh take on the topic of Australia’s role in women’s suffrage and […]


  14. […] You Daughters Of Freedom by Clare Wright, see my review The award-winning historian shares the story of the fight for the right to vote for women through […]


  15. […] (ANZLitLovers) has also reviewed this book. She liked it […]


  16. I have finished it and written my post. It took me four weeks, with breaks to read other books, but I was engrossed the whole way. Such wonderfully interesting women, and I loved all the newspaper reports, plus other primary sources. A wonderful book.


    • Yes, I liked it even more than Eureka:)


      • Hmmm, hard to compare, but those three women were so very interesting weren’t they – and the suffrage history feels more close to home.


        • Yes, and BTW, the story of Mary lee by Denise George may interest you too. This feisty South Australian woman who basically badgered the parliament into woman’s suffrage is really the mostly unsung hero of the whole show, because it was only because the SA women had got the vote and wouldn’t give it up, that all women got it at federation. The style is different but the book is much shorter… and oh yes, there is a statue of Mary in Adelaide!


          • Thanks Lisa… And of course she is mentioned, along with Spence, by Wright. I’d heard of Spence but not her.


  17. […] You Daughters of Freedom, by Clare Wright […]


  18. […] indefatigable suffragist to find out how suffrage was achieved, and ditto for Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom to learn about other heroes of the suffrage […]


  19. I read this recently, and enjoyed it.


    • It’s great, isn’t it? It enlightened me about a whole lot of things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree. And I want to see the banner next time I visit Parliament House.


        • Yes, me too. I’ve been to PH half a dozen times but I don’t remember seeing it…


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