In the 1985 elections for the Preston City Council the Australian Labor Party (ALP) held the majority of 10 to 2 seats. They put forward Cr Helen Davis as their mayoral candidate and in August she was sworn in as Mayor of Preston. Cr Davis represented the East Ward and at her election to the mayoral office became the first female mayor in 100 years of Preston councils that transitioned from Shire to Borough in 1921 and City in 1926.
Women’s political rights in Australia started with the early suffrage movement in the 19th Century campaigning for the right to vote for women. In Melbourne in 1884 Henrietta Dugdale formed the first Australian women’s suffrage society and the campaign began to gain momentum. By 1894 South Australia became the first state to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections although women from the Bounty mutiny had been able to vote on Pitcairn Island since 1838. This ‘Bounty’ right was transferred, along with the colony, to Norfolk Island in 1856. Victoria was the last Australian State to grant women the right to vote.
Ironically however, due to faulty legislative drafting in the Electoral Act of 1863, all ratepayers were given voting powers. As there were women in Victoria who owned property, they quickly exploited this loophole and voted in the general election of 1864. It had been assumed by the social order of the day that politics and government was best left to the men and this taking up of the voting right by women became an embarrassment that was quickly rectified in the Act.
The determined and passionate struggle for women’s suffrage in Victoria did not however go away. In 1891 a handful of women took to the streets going door to door to gain 30,000 signatures on a rolled paper petition measuring 260m long. They presented this to parliament in September that year seeking the ruling that “women should vote on equal terms with men”. Those standing against women’s suffrage declared that it would erode the ideal of motherhood and morality and lead to the destruction of family life. They argued that the very character and virtue of Victorian women would be in danger not to mention that female attitudes and biological weakness would be introduced into public life. This draconian view could not hold back the tide and after 19 member’s bills over ten years, women earned the right to vote in 1908. Their first opportunity to go to the polls came in 1911 and although there was much nervousness about how a huge increase in voters would affect the outcome, only 56 percent of women voted on this occasion and the status quo was returned to power.
It wasn’t until 1923 that women won the right to stand for parliament in Victorian state elections. It took a further ten years before Millie Peacock became the first female elected to the Victorian Lower House. In 1933 Millie was encouraged by Robert Menzies to stand in the by-election for the seat of Allandale which was vacated by the death of her husband Sir Alexander Peacock. Millie had been such a fervent supporter of her husband’s political career often delivering speeches on his behalf. She was such a figure in his public life that Millie became known as the “deputy member for Allandale”. As she was in mourning for her husband Millie was reluctant to stand and subsequently made no speeches or appeared publicly during the campaign. Due to the support of her male colleagues however, she was successfully elected with over 1,500 votes. Millie retired from office at the end of her term stating that politics did not suit her. Over the next fifty-five years there were only nine female representatives in the Victorian Legislative Assembly.
After Premier John Cain resigned in August 1990, the Deputy Premier of the Labor Party Joan Kirner became the first female Premier of Victoria. She held the office for two years being defeated by Jeff Kennett.
In 1998 former ABC journalist Mary Delahunty won the by-election for the seat of Northcote and entered the Victorian Parliament as Darebin’s first representative. During her eight years in the office she held the portfolios of Minister for Education, Minister for the Arts, Minister for Women’s Affairs and Minister for Planning. In Preston Helen Davis was the first female councillor of the municipality as well as being the first female mayor.
http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/about/the-history-of-parliament/women-in-parliament City of Preston Post-Times (Preston Leader), Tuesday 6 August 1985, p.1 http://trove.nla.gov.au/people/488093?c=people