Civil Rights, History, Now

The right to vote has been a struggle the world over. Agitation for the right to participate in the election of the government is a common them in the history of many nations. Associated with the right to vote are a host of related rights: the right to equal access to public venues, the right to equal access to education, to equal treatment by the law…

In recent weeks there have been many fiftieth anniversaries of momentous events of the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights movement had its heart in the United States but pulsed throughout the world. Recently in Australia the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Student Action for Aborigines’ freedom ride was marked by the original freedom riders revisiting the places in country New South Wales where in 1965 they had shone the spotlight on how Aboriginal people were barred from accessing public venues. Aboriginal people had already gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1962, but it was not until the end of 1965 that Queensland became the last state to granted Australia’s indigenous people the right to vote in state elections.

Nearly two weeks ago thousands of people marched across a bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965. It had been fifty years since an orderly group of people had marched across the same bridge in their quest for African-Americans in that locality to be allowed to vote. At this bridge they were repelled by police who charged with batons, tear gas and horses. Broadcast live nation-wide, this unprovoked attack by police galvanised the nation and contributed to the passing of the Voting Rights Act by Congress.

At the foot of the same bridge two weeks ago, President Obama’s oratorical powers were unleashed. It was a speech replete with a rhetoric that spoke truth and was delivered with the rhythm, the pauses, the softness, crescendos and diminuendos that are rarely heard from public speakers in Australia.

President Obama’s speech had depth of content. It was a lesson on how to use history to meet the needs of society today. Throughout the speech President Obama reiterated the exceptional nature of the United States, yet as pointed out on the ABC, ‘The Drum’ website, most of his comments are applicable elsewhere in the world. Obama had pertinent things to say about drawing on history to inspire change today. Before I highlight these passages take the time to view his entire speech via the video above. Continue reading

Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum – 1910

Members of the executive committee of Queensland's Bible in State Schools League

The executive committee of the Bible in State Schools League. They were all men but this photo fails to convey the importance of the work of women in the campaign. Source: John Oxley Library

My honours thesis, Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum 1910: A Case Study of Democracy, is now available to download from the University of Sydney eScholarship Repository. In it I explore a fascinating era of Queensland’s history where women, Labour politicians and the Protestant clergymen of the Bible in State Schools League were key participants in a public debate about whether Bible lessons should be reintroduced in Queensland’s state schools. These lessons had not been held in public schools since the introduction of Queensland’s free, compulsory and secular education legislation in 1875.

I loved doing the research. At times I was sitting in the Fisher Library at University of Sydney silently remonstrating with the politicians as they were debating the issue in parliament. At other times I was incredulous. The Legislative Council spent twenty-one hours debating the issue and this was after the referendum had been passed by Queensland voters! I was a bit suspicious of the Hansard recorder. The debate was rather sparse at around two o’clock in the morning. Was he taking a cat nap?

Women were instrumental in the campaign for the passing of the referendum. The Bible in State Schools League was in financial trouble and turned to women to help them out. Not only did women rescue the organisation financially through their fundraising, they wrote letters to newspapers, were part of delegations who visited parliamentarians about the issue and were conspicuous as they manned the polling booths on the day of the referendum. However, while researching this referendum I was mindful of the fact that women do not all think the same way. Sure enough newspapers such as The Worker had letters from women who opposed the introduction of Bible lessons and expressed their opposition to the referendum to the Bible in State Schools women at the polling booths. Continue reading

Sausages and Australian Elections

After casting their ballots voters around Australia were greeted by cheery volunteers raising funds for their local school.

After casting their ballots voters around Australia were greeted by cheery volunteers raising funds for their local school.

Sausages and elections go hand in hand in Australia.  The schools and community centres which are used throughout the country as polling booths take advantage of elections to do some much-needed fundraising.  The most popular fundraising event is the sausage sizzle.

DSCN9935 White BreadAll that is needed is a barbeque, sliced white bread and tomato sauce to make a sausage sandwich.  Often fried onions are included.  I have no idea why manning the barbeque is traditionally a male thing.  In my family it isn’t.

But I digress.

Stumbling Through the Past was born a little over three years ago on the day of the last Federal election in 2010.  I was writing up my thesis which included discussion of the Federal election of 1910.  Writing about the Federal election of one hundred years ago was an obvious topic to launch my new blog. You can read that post here.

So I had to write an election day post today to celebrate the third anniversary of Stumbling Through the Past and pay homage to the event that helped me start my blog.  But what to write about?  I had planned to write a serious post about technology and elections, but it has been an intense week this week.  I was in no mood to write a serious post.

It came to me when I saw that “#sausage” was trending world-wide today on Twitter:

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Utopia Girls: Historians and the Media

Women inside the gate of the city polling station, voting for the first time in a Queensland state election, May 1907. State Library of Qld

Women inside the gate of the city polling station, voting for the first time in a Queensland state election, May 1907. State Library of Qld

Historians don’t just write books.  They write pamphlets, construct websites, conduct walking tours, talk about their work on radio…  Communicating history is a creative process and this process starts with the choice of the medium and method to share the history.

The diverse forms that historians use to share history are well recognised.  The Australian Historical Association demonstrates the profession’s regard for other forms of history through their journal, History Australia.  This journal publishes reviews of history in exhibitions, film and radio in every issue.

The NSW Premier’s History Awards also recognises the diversity of the work of historians through the Multimedia History Prize.  Two documentaries and one blog have been shortlisted for this year’s awards. The other day I watched one of the shortlisted documentaries – Utopia Girls.

Clare Wright portrait

The presenter of Utopia Girls, is the historian, Dr Clare Wright.

Written, researched and presented by historian, Dr Clare Wright, Utopia Girls shares the story of the severe legal disadvantages women suffered in nineteenth century Australia and the agitation that led to Australian women becoming the first in the world to gain both the right to vote and to stand for parliament.  The story is told through a series of vignettes of six women who contributed to the groundswell of support that brought about votes for women in Australia.

Women suffered from severe legal disadvantages throughout the world until the momentous reforms of the twentieth century.  Presenter, Clare Wright reflected on the situation she would have faced as a woman in the nineteenth century:

I couldn’t go to university or get a divorce or, if married, own property.  I didn’t even have custody of my own children and women the world over didn’t have the power to change this situation because they couldn’t vote.

Clare Wright, Utopia Girls

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Book Review: Secularism or Democracy? by Veit Bader

Cover of Veit Bader's book, Secularism or Democracy

‘Secularism or Democracy? Associational Governance of Religious Diversity by Veit Bader, (Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

This is a comprehensive book that explores issues of religion and state such as what role should religions have vis-a-vis the state, the role of secularism in government and society and how the state can deal fairly with the various religions.  The author, Veit Bader, is an emeritus professor of sociology and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.  This is an academically rigorous book.  It is most definitely not bedtime reading.  However, if you want a deeply thought and carefully argued book that does not shirk difficult questions or pose glib solutions this book is for you.

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GLAMming it up – Canberra in Two Days!

Old Parliament House, Canberra

The old Parliament House is now the Museum of Australian Democracy.

GLAM is an evocative acronym referring to Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums.  I had booked an extra couple of days in Canberra after attending a digital humanities ‘unconference’ (called THAT Camp Canberra), so I GLAMmed it up and visited some of our national cultural resources.  I had a ball, but there was a more serious motive behind it all.  Aside from generally opening my horizons, I wanted to become more familiar with the work of those cultural institutions of relevance or potential relevance to my work. Continue reading

Musings on Democracy – Part 1

Write about democracy my supervisor said.  I immediately felt overwhelmed.  Democracy is such a big concept, developed over centuries since the Ancient Greeks.  It is a also a loaded term – wars have been fought over it and it has been incorporated into political ideologies.

The way to cut this task to size is to recognise that democracy is but a word.  It only develops meaning if we choose to give it meaning by discussing what it is, what practices contribute to it and practice democracy in action.  It is what what we define it to be and therefore over the ages it changes.  We change, our circumstances change so the practices of democracy will naturally change also.

Two Party System

In answer to the Resident Judge’s question, the Federal election is cited as the first Federal election of the two party political system that Australia has practiced for a century.  The non-Labour groups had united federally in 1909.  This move was called fusion.  If you want to learn more about the thinking behind Alfred Deakin’s decision to join the new anti-Labour party I thoroughly recommend Judith Brett’s account in Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class.

The Labor party won the 1910 election.  The Sydney Morning Herald (29/4/1910, p8) attributed this to the ‘education, agitation and organisation’ undertaken by the Labor party.   After the election Alfred Deakin called on the Liberal party to give greater attention to this (Sydney Morning Herald, 15/4/1910, p 7).

‘How to Vote’ Cards

The names of political parties were not printed alongside candidates’ names until after 1983.  This made it important for the political parties to distribute ”How to Vote’ cards (Hughes:  1992, p 96).    The Brisbane Courier noted with satisfaction that ‘many of the fairer sex’ were seen entering a booth carrying the ‘model ballot papers’ published in the newspaper for the Liberal supporters. (Brisbane Courier, 14/4/1910, p 5).


What really interests me is the participation in political processes outside parliament.  The role of women was particularly noted in The Brisbane Courier and not just for registering to vote, they were involved in the campaigning too.  In the Federal electorate of Oxley,

… it was noticeable that outside every booth the work embraced in the general term “canvassing,” including the turning up of voters’ names on rolls, and the direction of who to vote for and how often, was left almost entirely to the women… (Brisbane Courier, 14/4/1910, p 5).

The women’s organising committee of the Labor party in New South Wales were noted for their ‘herculean efforts’ in canvassing (Sydney Morning Herald, 29/4/1910, p 6).

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