At a family funeral, possibly Perc Begley’s, I was told that I looked like Florence's mother and my great grandmother, Alice Ebina Best (Nee Fisher). At the time, it didn’t do anything for my shaky, teenage self esteem. I was eighteen years old and took a quiet offence to being compared to a dead, old lady.
Decades later, I now find myself drawn to her. My research into her life so far, has created the impression of a woman who was more resourceful and determined than she let on and who had deep reserves of resilience in the face of relentless tragedy.
Alice seems to have kept her past close and private. She gives the impression that she didn’t like to make a fuss or draw attention. But, I think she has sat quietly in the shadows for too long. I am keen to get to know her. I hope that by understanding her story, she may give us an insight into both our family story and a bigger Australian story.
The Monster Petition
The first indication that there may be more to Alice than a gentle silence was found in her signature. In 1891, Victorian women from the Temperance Union, petitioned the Victorian Government of the day to allow them the vote in state elections. The petitions aims were clear:
" The Woman's Petition. — To the Hon. the Speaker and Members of the Legislative Assembly of the Colony of Victoria in Parliament assembled.— The humble petition of the undersigned women of Victoria respectfully sheweth : — That your petitioners be-lieve— That Government of the people, by thy people, and for the people, should mean all the people, and not one half. 'That taxation and representation should go together without regard to the sex of the taxed. That all adult persons should have a voice in making the laws which they are required to obey, That, in short, women should vote on equal terms with men. Your petitioners, therefore, humbly pray your honorable House to pass a measure for conferring the Parliamentary franchise upon women, regarding this as a right, which they most earnestly desire. And your petitioners will ever pray." The petition is to be signed by women only, and by none under twenty years of age.” 1891 'WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE.', The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 - 1954), 26 August, p. 3. , viewed 20 May 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article241552200
Over 30,000 signatures were collected. The petition became known as the Monster Petition. It was a hugely successful undertaking. Outside of Melbourne, the most signatures were gathered in Warrnambool where strongly organized Temperance Union members door-knocked the town.
Being interested in women’s history, I had heard of the Monster Petition. I decided to look up our various family names to see if any of our ancestors had signed. There are no Begley, Best or Goldstraw signatures recorded. However, four names I knew were recorded; Annie, Kate, Mary and Alice Fisher of South Warrnambool. They were Alice Ebina and her older sisters. Woohoo!
It is fascinating to speculate on why they felt compelled to sign the petition. From various records, I discovered that the four sisters were all seamstresses who were still living at their home in McDonald Street, South Warrnambool. They were unmarried, working women who wanted the right to vote and they were prepared to sign the petition asking for this right. Many women didn’t sign. Perc and Florence's other female ancestors didn’t sign. This may be significant or it may simply be that they weren’t home when the Petitioners visited. Whatever the reason, our quiet ancestor, Alice, left a trace of herself and her hopes for the future when she signed her name.
The amendment to voting legislation was tabled as a result of the petition but was defeated. Women would not be eligible to vote in Victoria until the new 20th century, at least 10 years later.
You can find out more about the monster petition and see Alice’s signature here: https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/about/the-history-of-parliament/womens-suffrage-petition
It must be noted that although noble, the petition had an underlying racist element. It only represented white women. Indigenous women were excluded from the suffrage debate of the time and, it could be argued, are still marginalized in the current feminist debates of the 21st century.
Stay tuned for more stories of Alice Ebina Best’s life in the next blog.