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  • The Gendered and Racialised Self who Claimed the Right to Self-Government
  • Marilyn Lake


It was no accident that white men had a monopoly over the exercise of responsible and self-government in the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century. The self that claimed the right to self-government in British colonies of settlement was gendered and racialised in conception.

As Goldwin Smith, the politician and political theorist, explained in his book Empire in 1863, nations, like men, were intended “by nature” to form their own character through self-exertion and self-control:

They have in them the faculties of political life, which they must develop, as we did, by their own efforts. Every hour that an adult Colony is kept in leading strings, a mischief is done to its political character… They have a right above all… to be released from the childish thraldom which, if it is prolonged, will be fatal to their hope of attaining the manly strength and status of great nations…1

Effort, exertion and self-control. These were the masculine capacities required for the demanding business of self-government. It was significant that Goldwin Smith, the great theorist of independence, was strongly opposed to women’s suffrage.2 White men alone were recognised as possessed of ‘manly strength.’ They alone were qualified for self-rule and the responsibility of ruling over others that colonial settlement entailed. Understandings of white men’s personal and racial constitution informed their project of drawing up political constitutions.

Other groups were offered white men’s “protection,” which meant, in effect, they were subject to a spatial politics of divide and rule: separation, segregation, elimination or exclusion. In the ideal Commonwealth, women would be governed through the doctrine of “separate spheres,” which allocated the public domain to men and the private home to women; Indigenous people would be eliminated, amalgamated or segregated on missions, stations and reserves; Chinese and other “Asiatics” would be governed in “protectorates” or ideally, excluded; Pacific Islanders would be deported.

White men’s distinctive political capacities were theorised in Australia (as in the United States) as a distinctive racial legacy—an Anglo-Saxon inheritance from Teutonic forebears—as outlined, for example, by Isaac Isaacs, Victorian delegate to the federal constitutional convention of 1897, Liberal politician and future Australian governor general.3 Drawing on the writings of leading Anglo-Saxon historian, E.A. Freeman, Isaacs argued that the extension of self-government achieved in the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia expressed “the ancient traditions of the race”: “We are gradually taking away the crust that lies over the original germ of self-government and we are coming back to original principles.”4 Freeman was one of the most commonly cited authorities in the Australian constitutional debates of the 1890s.

For the most part, however, the subsequent history of self-government in Australia has ignored its racial and gendered dimensions. Histories of democracy and colonial self-government distanced themselves from Aboriginal history, and also women’s history, because the histories of responsible government, manhood suffrage, self-government and sovereignty were not usually seen to have gendered or racial dimensions.5 Yet it is clear that understandings of race and gender were constitutive of conceptions of the self-governing subject in the nineteenth-century Australian colonies and elsewhere.

A number of separate studies have documented the ways in which Aborigines and women were excluded from or denied political rights. Less historical attention has, however, been given to the disenfranchisement of Chinese colonists and few historians have investigated these processes within the same analytical frame with a focus on the subject of self-government.6 It is only by enquiring into the identity of the settler self who claimed the right to self-government—and the accompanying the processes of disenfranchisement as well as enfranchisement—that we are able to see the centrality of both gender and race to this tangled and uneven history.

The history of democratic reform and the extension of self-government is not a smooth tale of linear progression. In the Australian colonies, as in the United States, the nineteenth century saw 2 contradictory forces at work. For some groups, the franchise became more...