Published on 20.05.2022 | By Caitlin Chiam
You would not be blamed for thinking that women did not have the right to vote in Australia before 1902. However, that is not exactly true. Women did not have the right to vote between 1865 and 1902. Before 1865, as Ms Fanny Finch would tell you, it was anyone’s game.
Fanny Finch was born in London to parents of African heritage. Little is known about her life in London except that she was orphaned at an early age. In the orphanage, she received a basic education and was trained in being a domestic servant. At 22 years of age, she decided to move to Australia to start a new life for herself.
In Australia, she briefly lived in South Australia where she set up ‘Mrs Finch’s Board and Lodging House’ that housed hopeful gold miners. The business was doing very well, but she was hungry for a new adventure. She then moved and settled in Castlemaine where she ran an even more successful pub.
Ms Fanny Finch was one of the most well-known characters in Castlemaine. She was a wealthy business woman, a single mother of four, boisterous and outspoken and always wore bright blue silks with flowers in her hair. She certainly was one-of-a-kind.
It was not a surprise to the locals of Castlemaine that in 1856, Ms Fanny Finch took herself to the voting booth and cast a vote. She is the first known woman to have cast a vote in Australia.
In 1856, there was no explicit rule against women voting. Voting was restricted only by income. In order to be eligible to vote, one had to be a ratepaying person, meaning one had to have an income over a certain threshold requiring you to pay tax.
Certainly, in most cases this rule did effectively exclude women in the same way that it excluded men who earned below the threshold. However in the case of Fanny Finch, thanks to the booming success of her pub, she was a ratepaying person and thus deemed herself able to vote.
The administrators of the vote cast out her vote citing that women were not allowed to vote. Being unable to justified that “they (the women) had no right to vote”. The “right” they refer to here is evidently a normative right, rather than a legislated one.
This was the final election before the ‘secret ballot’ was introduced. This meant that voters still had to sign their name on the ballot. If Fanny Finch had attempted her vote one year later, it would have been impossible to determine which one was hers and her vote would likely have been counted. However, the administrators sifted out Fanny’s vote and cast it away.
This loophole of ‘ratepaying persons’ was closed within the decade clarifying ‘persons’ to mean ‘men’.
In a letter to the local paper, Ms Finch writes about herself in third person. “The more she herself strives the more she is oppressed.”
Fanny died at 48 years of age and was initially buried in an unmarked grave. In 2020, as the remarkable story of Fanny Finch was uncovered, a proper gravestone was installed. It carried with it an inscription which has immortalised Fanny Finch as “brave and outspoken” and “a pioneer”.