“A Splendid Object Lesson”: A Transnational Perspective on the Birth of the Australian Nation


In June 1902 the passage of the Commonwealth Franchise Act through the Commonwealth Parliament meant that Australia’s white women became the first in the world to win both the right to vote and to sit in parliament. Drawing on original empirical research, this article demonstrates that at the turn of the twentieth century, Australia was internationally recognized as a world leader in democratic practice. This little known claim to geo-political fame holds significance for both transnational histories of women’s suffrage and for Australian narratives of nationhood, neither of which tend to identify Australian women as critical to the history of modern democracy. Further, re-investigating the origins of women’s suffrage helps recall the potency of radical idealism in an era that now privileges militarism—in Australia, embodied most clearly in the ANZAC legend—over maternalism as the primary source of nation building.