Voting! Such an easy task: you fill in a ballot paper and put it in a box (or in the post)! We take this as a given right, as something that was always so, but nothing could be further from the truth, as two brave, visionary women from Castlemaine found out when on 22nd of January 1856 they cast their votes in a democratic election.

Two days later, Melbourne newspaper, the Argus announced that ‘two women voted – one, the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch …’ (Argus, 24 January 1856, p 6). The identity of the other woman was not disclosed.

The Argus, 24 January 1856, p. 6

Miss Fanny Combe (also spelt Coombe) was a London-born businesswoman of African heritage who moved to South Australia in 1837. In Adelaide, she worked as a domestic servant for author and artist Julia Wyatt, who was the wife of surgeon and the first Protector of Aborigines, Dr William Wyatt. 1

After several years, Fanny got married to Joseph Finch and resigned from her employment, wishing to start a family. By 1850, Fanny had left her husband, taken her four kids, and moved to Victoria. She arrived in the colony 12 months before the start of the gold rush. By 1852 she was operating a restaurant and a lodging house on the Forest Creek goldfields, where she: ‘acquired great credit for the manner in which she conducted her restaurant … her refreshment at the time was the only one in which any person could get respectable accommodation’. (Mount Alexander Mail, 7 December 1855, p 3)

Castlemaine, 1862. Wood engraving by Cuthbert (Ismir) Clarke; IMP18/10/62/9

Forest Creek, Mt. Alexander, 1852. Engraving by Thomas Ham; 30328102131678/7
Market Square Castlemaine, Forest Creek, 1855, Lithograph S.T. Gill;  H94.83/3

Fanny Finch used a loophole that permitted her to cast the vote. As a businesswoman she was a ‘ratepaying person’ and The Municipal Institutions Act of 1854 granted suffrage to ratepaying ‘persons’. The loophole was eventually closed in 1865 when ‘persons’ became ‘men’.2

However, the two assessors of the day disallowed both Fanny and the other unknown woman’s votes. Their reasons were cited as: ‘they (the women) had no right to vote’. Further details were not divulged. 3

Municipal Council Voting Paper from the 1856 Castlemaine election casted by Fanny Finch, 1856, Castlemaine Art Museum, M94.15

It was many years after, that women finally had the right to vote in Victoria. The law that permitted them to vote was given in 1908, and for Victorian Indigenous women in 1965.

Fanny wasn’t the only one to understand how important it is for women to have their say. That same year, 1856, more women did the same – casting votes in municipal elections across Victoria. Still more took a stand in 1859, when a staggering 20 women cast their vote in the Footscray Council Elections.4

These brave women paved the way towards women’s rights to vote, to work, to have equal opportunities, to make decisions about their lives, to be free. And freedom is a precious gift!

Postscript

Fanny Finch captivates. She was a smart, strong, courageous woman that has inspired and inspires still.  

In 2018, Creative Fellow Santilla Chingaipe undertook a research project at the Library to uncover the stories of African-descended migrants in Australia’s colonial history. Fanny Finch was one of her subjects. You can see the results of Santilla’s research in her unforgettable documentary, ‘Our African Roots’, now screening on SBS on Demand. Santilla’s book, which details the untold stories of African convicts, is forthcoming.

In 2020, Latrobe University PhD Candidate, Kacey Sinclair, gave a booked out talk at the Library about Fanny and women of color in the colonial archives. You can read more about Fanny Finch in Kacey’s article: Hidden women of history: Australia’s first known female voter, the famous Mrs Fanny Finch,  in The Conversation.

References

  1. Sinclair, K, 2019, ‘Hidden women of history: Australia’s first known female voter, the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch,The Conversation, viewed 20 December 2021
  2. Harris, Helen D, 2014, The right to vote; the right to stand. The involvement of women in local government in Victoria, ALGWA, Forest Hill, Victoria, p 5
  3. Sinclair, K, 2019, ‘Hidden women of history: Australia’s first known female voter, the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch’, The Conversation, viewed 20 December 2021
  4. Harris, Helen D, 2014, The right to vote; the right to stand. The involvement of women in local government in Victoria, ALGWA, Forest Hill, Victoria, p 4
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This article has 4 comments

  1. “Women voters were mainly responsible for the abnormal number of informal votes recorded in the election of the Senate representatives for Victoria, the Chief Commonwealth Electoral Officer (Mr C. F. M. Travers) said at the declaration of the poll today…Mr Travers said that he considered that the complicated Senate ballot paper confused women voters, who were unable to understand the grouping of the various candidates.” The Herald, 11 November 1937, and reproduced around the country. Newspapers reported without comment the words of a public official who did not see the need even to pretend to respect women as humans capable of independent thought. This is in living memory.

  2. Barry Harridge

    I remember seeing a startling advertisement displayed at SLV in a special exhibition. In this period when women were ‘mistakenly’ given the vote, there was a document telling husbands how to instruct their wives in this matter.

  3. ‘In 2020, Latrobe University PhD Candidate, Kasey Chamberlain…’

    That should be Kasey Sinclair, as is clear from the References below.

    • Ana-Maria Traian

      Dear Sue,
      Apologies. Thanks for letting us know. We have updated Kacey’s name to the correct spelling.
      Kind regards,
      Ana

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