Written by Cassidy Krygger
On the 18th of August 2020, it was the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in the United States, meaning it was a century ago that some women in the US finally had the right to vote.
The anniversary was widely and justifiably celebrated throughout America and in turn, was all over my social media feeds. And it got me thinking, what about women’s suffrage in Australia? Who were the women who fought long and hard so that women could vote? I was happy to discover that we were almost two decades ahead of our American friends with Australian women over the age of 21 given the right to vote in 1908. Of course, this does not include Victorian Indigenous women who could not vote until 1965. But there was one woman who cast her vote in Victoria 52 years before women’s suffrage was achieved. On January 22nd, 1856 – businesswoman Mrs Fanny Finch cast her vote in Castlemaine, Victoria and wrote her name in the history books.
Fanny was born Frances Combe in London, 1815. An orphan from birth, she believed her parents to be of African descent.
She grew up in the St Pancreas Fledgling Home which protected her from slavery and provided her with an education. In 1836 at the age of 21, she was granted free passage to the new colony of South Australia as a servant of the well regarded surgeon William Wyatt. Within the decade of arriving in Australia, Fanny had left the employ of Mr Wyatt and his artist wife Julia, and had married a sailor by the name of Joseph Finch.
It mustn’t have been a joyful union because by 1850 and for reasons unknown, the now Mrs Fanny Finch had left her husband and with her four kids in tow, walked her way from South Australia to Victoria.
Mrs Finch was about to strike gold, arriving in Victoria 12 months before the Gold Rush began.
She and her children settled in Castlemaine, which at one point in the 1850s was one of the richest goldfields in the world. 30,000 people descended on Castlemaine from all around the world and Mrs Finch quickly became a successful businesswoman with her very own restaurant and boarding house. Rumours abounded that her business was a place for the more impolite side of society. A place where a person could get some sly grog and a woman to sleep with for the night. And in 1855 she was persecuted for selling illegal spirits. In an astounding move for a woman at the time, Mrs Finch defended herself and demanded an apology letter from the Mount Alexander Times, which was the newspaper that had reported on her trial.
But it was in 1856 that Fanny Finch etched her name in history when in the Castlemaine elections, she and another anonymous woman cast their votes.
And they did it legally. The Municipal Institutions Act of 1854 stated that “any rate-paying persons’ which Mrs Finch as a businesswoman was, could vote. Scandal followed soon after. Melbourne newspaper The Argus reported on the event, called her the ‘Famous Mrs. Fanny Finch’ and her actions the ‘incident of the day’.
Election officials disallowed the women their votes on the basis that ‘women had no right to vote.’ And in 1865 the Municipal Institutions Act of 1854 was amended to exclude women from voting by changing the law from “any rate-paying persons’ to “any rate-paying men”
Fanny Finch died in 1863 at the age of 48 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
It wasn’t until January 2020, that the Victorian Government and Fanny’s descendants erected a headstone in her honour at Castlemaine cemetery.
A woman fighting for survival in a male dominated world. A single mother. A woman of colour. And the first woman to vote in Victoria. Why has the famous Mrs Fanny Finch been allowed to fade away to history? And it has got me thinking, what other influential and now unknown people lurk under the dusty pages of our history books?
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