Deborah Lee-Talbot reviews James Keating’s recent book, Distant sisters: Australasian women and the international struggle for the vote, 1880–1914.
In an article about New Zealand/Aotearoa’s new parliament on Monday 19 October 2020, the Guardian offered the provocative subheading that ‘Many older, white, male members have been swept from power’. The new parliament included ‘several people of colour, LGBTQ+ members and a high number of female MPs’. The 2020 election result saw 58 women, or 48% of the unicameral New Zealand parliament, elected. In comparison, their Australian “sisters” were represented by 38 women and 38 men in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the ‘highest proportion’ of women in the House appeared at 30.5%. Such headlines and statistics offer a moment to reflect upon how far women’s suffrage has developed since they were granted the right to vote. Who was involved in campaigns for women’s suffrage? How did they organise and unify across Australia, New Zealand, America and the United Kingdom? Were they “sisters” in a simple sense—as women with similar values—or “sisters” in a complex sense, with similar values but varying means of achieving their goal?
James Keating’s book, Distant Sisters, illuminates possible answers to these questions and offers the framework to pursue more lines of questioning. Published by Manchester University Press as part of the Gender in History Series, Keating’s book is the latest contribution to an established series that investigates the sociological and ‘cultural constructions of gender in historical sources as well as the gendering of historical discourse’. As an historian of suffrage, feminism and internationalism, Keating has published steadily on the topic of women’s suffrage in the antipodes since 2016. This book contributes to the popular discussions that are shedding new light on white women’s role in maintaining democratic yet ethnically homogenous nation-states, from the mid-1880s to the outbreak of World War One.
It seems, at first glance, that this will not be a book that represents the women’s suffrage movement in a positive light. Keating claims his focus is the failure of women’s enfranchisement, ‘by detailing the limits, as well as the possibilities, of Australasian suffrage internationalism’. The critique that follows is embedded in a chronological and thematic approach. This technique produces five substantial discussion chapters, opening with an investigation of religion and gender in the World’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The second chapter focuses on Australasian suffragists and the international suffrage movement, bringing awareness of the geographical, and therefore political placement, of these suffragettes. A third chapter, ‘The business of correspondence: Politics, friendship, and intimacy in suffragists’ letters’, draws heavily upon archival records to demonstrate how connections were formed between the women of the southern and northern hemispheres. The role of newspapers in this movement is comprehensively considered in ‘Shaking hands across the seas: The Australasian women’s advocacy press’, while the final chapter, ‘Suffragists on tour: Exporting and narrating the female franchise’, examines how women moved geographically and politically to make gains for their cause.
Keating has paid particular attention to the research of earlier scholars such as Martha Macintyre, Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake and Clare Wright to provide a firm foundation for his discussions. These intellectual nods to other historians both demonstrate the strength of Keating’s research and provide quick means for readers to orientate themselves in dense and heavily detailed chapters. Keating does well to address the issue of anachronistic use of the term feminism.
Details of suffragette’s individual stories in the book are brief. This technique enables the reader to focus on the broader theme of internationalism. Keating maps out the social and cultural structures of the movement and how individuals negotiated their particular agendas within those spaces. Racial issues, including the role of white women in Aboriginal women’s oppression, are covered more in the last two discussion chapters than others, and it is a contribution worth waiting for.
This book is a potent combination of both qualitative and quantitative research. Keating is aware of quantitative research limitation, demonstrating clear caution with the tiny samples provided in ‘Shaking Hands Across the Seas’. He balances this by providing an astute content analysis concerning how editors covered foreign news for Australasian audiences. Such attention to detail and finely worked discussion will appeal to academic readers with an interest in history, gender studies, cultural history or sociology. Keating’s archival research is well footnoted and offers a clear pathway for future scholars to offer minute, microhistories of these moments.
For me, this book offered two standout discussion points. An interesting feature was the significant presence of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Keating’s research demonstrates the vastness of the organisation’s international networks’ and how these were adapted for alternative, yet compatible, causes. I found details of Kate Marsden’s downfall, and other women’s role in it,
most troubling. Marsden was a former British missionary, nurse, explorer and correspondent for the New Zealand Mail who was accused of fraud, embezzlement and immorality (the latter due to her relationships with other women). Keating’s discussion of Marsden highlights both the international nature of the suffrage movement and clear moments of disquiet in this supposed “sisterly” and unified network. The author’s frequent discussion of letter writing demonstrates how this everyday and democratic form of communication became a highly political and powerful form of social sanction and endorsement. Keating’s detailed research, enhanced with fascinating illustrations, provides a solid framework for scholars to further examine the social implications and cultural work of gossip. For instance, readers are granted insight into how Mary Steadman Aldis became alienated from society in Auckland, in part due to her ‘public ‘opposition to temperance principles’. Keating argues that, in order to successfully continue her work and secure the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in New Zealand, Aldis drew on her established transnational communication channels to place pressure on local women and obtain her desired outcome. The result was a fascinating, politicised contest, performed through letter-writing campaigns and periodical publications, between emerging local networks in New Zealand and established networks in Britain.
As I closed the front cover for the final time, I wondered if Miles Franklin would be disappointed in the way women’s enfranchisement has developed in Australia? Would Jessie Mackay believe New Zealand women are now ‘politically alive’? Drawing on the words of Patricia Grimshaw, Keating concludes his book on an optimistic note. He issues a call to researchers to continue developing similar projects, and for ‘suffrage historians to reorient the field away from its Atlantic centres to decipher patterns at its Pacific frontiers’. This suggests that, while there have been significant improvements since the women’s suffrage movement began in Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa, improvements can always be made.
Distant Sisters is available via the Manchester University Press website in e-book format.
 Reuters, 2020, ‘New Zealand Elects Most Diverse Parliament, boosting female, LGBTIQ+ and Maori MPs, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/19/new-zealand-elects-most-diverse-parliament-boosting-female-lgbtiq-and-maori-mps, accessed 12 January 2021
 Te Ara, Gender inequalities, https://teara.govt.nz/en/graph/28634/women-in-parliament, accessed 12 January 2021.
 Parliament of Australia, Equal Gender Representation in the Senate, https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/FlagPost/2019/September/Equal_gender_representation_in_the_Senate, accessed 12 January 2021
 Manchester University Press, Gender in History, https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/series/gender-in-history, accessed 12 January 2021.
 Keating, James, 2020, Distant Sisters: Australasian women and the international struggle for the vote, 1880-1914, p. 204
 Keating, Distant Sisters, p. 158
 Chapman, H., 2000, ‘The New Zealand Campaign against Kate Marsden, Traveller to Siberia’, New Zealand Slavonic Journal, pp. 123-140. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40912278
 Keating, Distant Sisters, p. 116
 Keating, Distant Sisters, p. 118
 Keating, Distant Sisters, p. 120.
 Keating, Distant Sisters, p. 203
 Keating, Distant Sisters, p. 210