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How a single mum and sex worker defied men to vote 50 years before women’s suffrage


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How a single mum and sex worker defied men to vote 50 years before women’s suffrage

Updated January 29, 2020 07:50:13 The life of Frances ‘Fanny’ Finch — one of the first women in Australia to vote in an election — was more than that moment in 1856 when she defied the establishment and wrote her name at the bottom of a ballot paper. Key points:Memorial unveiled for 1800s feminist trailblazer…

How a single mum and sex worker defied men to vote 50 years before women’s suffrage

Updated

January 29, 2020 07:50:13

The life of Frances ‘Fanny’ Finch — one of the first women in Australia to vote in an election — was more than that moment in 1856 when she defied the establishment and wrote her name at the bottom of a ballot paper.

Key points:

  • Memorial unveiled for 1800s feminist trailblazer Frances ‘Fanny’ Finch in Castlemaine, 164 years after she cast her historic vote
  • Her vote was later struck out after she exploited a loophole in the law to cast her vote as a woman. The loophole was closed in 1865
  • Minister for Women, descendants and feminist historians pay tribute to a woman who went against the establishment

But it is only now, in 2020, that her three-times-great granddaughter, actress and writer Alice Garner of SeaChange fame, is beginning to understand the woman her ancestor was and how her brave and outspoken actions shaped the role of women in Australia.

“How could it be that we were never told about Fanny?” Ms Garner said.

“We’d heard about the men in our family tree, eminently respectable men, but not this amazing woman.

“Why was her story not celebrated in our family, not passed on down the generations?”

Shame and a life erased

Finch was born Louisa King in London in April 1815 and was of African heritage.

She migrated to Australia where she pushed a wheelbarrow from Melbourne to Forest Creek to become the most famous woman on the diggings.

Evidence points to Finch also being a sex worker through the Victorian Gold Rush, while raising her four children as a single parent and running a restaurant and boarding house.

“We began to grasp some of the reasons for the silence that surrounded Fanny,” Ms Garner said.

“This was a huge surprise to us and exciting as well, because our origins, it turned out, were much richer and more diverse than we had ever imagined.”

Fanny Finch, a woman of colour, sex worker, single parent and outspoken advocate, would prove to be embarrassing to her descendants.

A photograph of her is yet to be found.

“By not telling my family, my ancestors, who were no doubt trying to cling on to respectability, lost the memories, the stories that we are desperate to hear,” Ms Garner said.

The moment when Finch walked into the Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, in central Victoria, on January 22 and defied the men standing before her to cast her vote, was a culmination of decisions in her life that, according to those to who came after her, paved the way for women.

A memorial recognising Finch’s contribution to Australia’s history has been unveiled at the Castlemaine General Cemetery, where some of those women paid tribute to her legacy.

Castlemaine Cemetery Trust member Debra Tranter said she read in an article that Finch received a public burial in an unmarked grave, and that stuck with her.

“I thought to lie in an unmarked grave was simply an injustice that needed to be made right,” Ms Tranter said.

A voice for women

La Trobe University post-doctoral candidate and feminist historian Kacey Sinclair has spent the past several years researching Finch.

“She was doing things that we don’t conventionally understand 19th-century women to be doing,” Ms Sinclair said.

“So, I just put all that information together and I’m trying to bring it to the public because she’s such an inspiration.

“She’s unlike any other woman really in, I would say, Australian history, as an African-Australian woman who did such courageous things for that time.”

In Ms Sinclair’s opinion, Finch’s vote is the least distinguished thing she did in her lifetime.

“She wrote letters to the periodical press, which is quite incredible,” Ms Sinclair said.

“In those letters is something that I imagined that a lot of women were feeling but didn’t get to say in the public space, and that’s that legislation was tipped against them, that they were prevented from making a living for themselves as single women.

“She was doing this against such great odds.

“They raided her house one time, they entrapped her into a violation of the law in another, and then committed perjury in the courts just to essentially see her exiled from Castlemaine.

“They are really big things to be saying, but that is the truth.”

Still more to do

Victoria’s Minister for Women, Gabrielle Williams, said that particularly in the pursuit of gender equality, Australia stands on the shoulders of those who came before.

“We needed the trailblazers. We needed people to cut through at such challenging times the discrimination which we know women have encountered since time,” Ms Williams said.

“So many aspects of her story still speaks to levels of discrimination that perhaps are less obvious, but still definitely insidious and still exist.

“To be able to share her story allows us to take that extra step forward and to keep challenging the system that Fanny herself challenged.”

Women were first allowed to vote and stand for parliament in the 1903 federal election, while unconditional suffrage was granted to women in Victoria in 1908 — more than 50 years after Finch first cast her vote.

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First posted

January 29, 2020 07:38:33

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