Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Death Notices: Vale Audrey Oldfield

From time to time, as I browse through the newspaper, I look at the Death Notices. Not because I am expecting to see names I know, as, being relatively new to this city, I don't know many people. However, as part of my fascination with language and its usage, I began to note how infrequently the occurrences were of 'Death' and 'died'. These days people pass away or pass away peacefully. Or birth and death dates are given, without any actual specifying of the death.

Yesterday as I browsed, one name stood out. The death notice was that of Audrey Oldfield. She was a scholar and researcher, a member of the Australian Society of Authors and of Womens Electoral Lobby. She wrote a book on the history of the female franchise in Australia, Woman Suffrage in Australia: a Gift or a Struggle?  published in 1992 by Cambridge University Press, as part of a series entitled Studies in Australian History.It is an excellent piece of work. I own a copy, which I pulled out to have another good browse through it.  She dedicated the work, I discovered, to her grandchildren, in these terms: "A generation which will learn that their mothers, as well as their fathers, made Australian history".

Of course, the female franchise is a fascinating subject, as are most aspects of the struggle for equal rights for women. When I consider the manifold and numerous injustices and inequities perpetrated against women, I still seethe and rage. Women in the English legal system had no legal existence, and thus the very notion of their being able to vote seemed a contradiction in terms, a great nonsense and an appalling and outrageous attempt to overturn divinely ordained and eternal prescriptions.

Oldfield gives a concise and comprehensive history of the condition of women in Britain, the USA and Australia, the development of theories about women's rights, from Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, the American feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott before moving on to the Australian colonies from the granting of self-government and then to the federation of Australia, which came into effect in 1901. Section 41 of the Australian Constitution provides that no person entitled to the vote in any of the states may be deprived of that right in federal elections. Because South Australia and Western Australia had legislated to give women the vote, women could not be deprived of their vote in elections for the Commonwealth Parliament.  The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 established a uniform franchise for Commonwealth elections. Thus women obtained the vote, although Aboriginal natives of Australia, Asia, Africa, India (but not New Zealand) were excluded, a dreadful injustice not rectified until very many years later. Oldfield disputes the notion that Australian women were granted the vote as a gift rather than through significant and intensive arguments and campaigning - although she notes that in one way the female franchise was a gift as of course women had no power to enact it themselves.

Having done quite a lot of work on Australian electoral history and law during my working life, I feel very strongly about the fundamental importance of a fair and honest electoral system. By and large we have such a system, and we are very fortunate. Such equity has not come about by chance, and it is important that we celebrate, treasure and preserve it.

We owe gratitude and thanks to such scholars as Audrey Oldfield for her work in this area, and accordingly I pay her my small tribute.

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