The 1891 "Monster Petition"
The 1891 "Monster Petition"
An Interview with Diane Gardiner
An Interview with Diane Gardiner at the Public Record Office Victoria, filmed in the Centenary year of Women's suffrage in Victoria.
Video by Sophie Boord.
In this video Diane Gardiner, Manager of Community Access at the Public Records Office, introduces us to the ‘Monster Petition’ and speaks about her personal connection to the petition as a descendant of one of the original 30,000 signatories.
Victoria’s Constitution of 1855 did not give women the right to vote. Women first received the vote in Victoria by default in 1863, when in a piece of faulty legislative drafting, the Electoral Act allowed all ratepayers listed on local municipal rolls to vote.
However, in 1865, the Legislative Assembly changed the clause to restrict the vote for parliamentary elections to male ratepayers only. Between 1865 and 1908, women fought for the right to vote.
In 1891, Premier James Munro said he would introduce a bill into parliament granting women the vote, if it were demonstrated that ordinary women wanted this right. The Victorian Woman’s Temperance Union and the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society took up the challenge, joining forces to organise a petition. Embarking on a door knocking campaign across Victoria they collected about 30,000 signatures in six weeks.
Their petition, made of signed pages glued to calico is 260 metres long and came to be known as the ‘Monster Petition’, mostly due to its size. It is looked after at the Public Records Office of Victoria.
Diane Gardiner (Public Record Office Victoria): This is the 1891 Women’s Suffrage Petition, which is one of the most wonderful documents for women’s history in Australia, and especially in Victoria. They stated that they wanted equal status with men, that half the population shouldn’t be without the vote. The women who were collecting the signatures spent a mere ten weeks…it was the most amazing logistics! If you think about it today; no mobile phones, no telephones, and here they were going throughout Victoria and suburban Melbourne as well.
How they were able to achieve it was that they went along the railway lines, and of course, the railway was the labyrinth throughout Victoria. And then they would collate them all, stick them on with glue, old-fashioned glue – flour and water I presume – onto linen and cotton and sew it together.
There’s a lot of research being done on it. This is the Centenary of the Women’s Suffrage Year. I think with this year we’ll learn even more about these women and what they were doing and why they were doing it.
This is a little catalogue done by the Central Goldfields area, and they had an exhibition in which they featured stories from these women who had signed it in that area.
I have a personal interest in the petition because my great-grandmother signed it: Hannah Toole…and we were so excited, the whole family, to find that she had done this. She’d come out as a young woman (she was about 18, I think it was) with her family from Bristol in Gloucestershire, and they had settled in the goldfields. It must have been incredibly tough. A couple of years later she married William Toole and she proceeded to have ten children. I think she knew what it was to want to have some rights! Obviously, from the time when Hannah signed it, she saw tremendous changes: women in the other states gained the vote and then eventually in Victoria in 1908. I think she could appreciate that women had gained a huge amount. They certainly didn’t have those rights in England or the United States. Australia was ahead of its time.
I think about my ancestors because I think there’s a couple of others who also signed it and that was the beginning. We got the vote, but then women still had to achieve so much more. I’m old enough to have started work when we didn’t have equal pay. I was part of the movement to get equal pay for women and equal rights in so many other areas. But, you couldn’t have done it without their work…their dedication…their organisation in the first place.