Australian feminist trailblazer Fanny Finch received a new memorial at the Castlemaine General Cemetery in central Victoria just a few months before the 163rd anniversary of the day she became the first woman to cast a ballot in Australia.
Finch was immortalized in the Melbourne-based newspaper The Argus two days after she cast her vote, as “the famous Mrs. Fanny Finch.” Finch used a loophole that granted suffrage to taxpaying “persons” to vote in 1856, while Victorian women (excluding indigenous women) would not be granted suffrage until 1908. Victorian indigenous women received the same right in 1965. Finch’s vote wasn’t counted, and the act allowing “persons” to vote was repealed two years later.
Beyond voting, Finch is remembered for being a woman ahead of her time. She was born to free Africans in London, England, in April 1915, and became a successful domestic servant before migrating to the colony of South Australia in 1937. She found work in a household, married a sailor and started a family of four children. In 1850, she left her husband and took her four children with her to begin a new life in Victoria.
The gold rush began, and Finch’s business and reputation boomed. Mrs. Finch’s Board and Lodging House became a “respectable” place of accommodations for the 25,000 gold mining men and women in the town of Forest Creek. Finch moved to Castlemaine in 1854 and ran a restaurant, becoming an admired and successful businesswoman in the community. She was a sex worker, as well, and may have run a brothel. Historian and PhD candidate Kacey Sinclair said, “She was a single mother of four and there was no other way to send her kids to school, feed them, and keep a roof over their heads.” Finch’s establishment was often the target of police injustice, including a conviction of illegal alcohol-selling, which motivated her to vote.
Finch died in 1863 and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. Sinclair and Finch’s great-great-great granddaughter Alice Garner, an actress and author, worked together to bring recognition to Finch’s life and important place in history. Finch’s new memorial, funded by a grant from the government, reads that she was “brave and outspoken, unfailingly supportive of those in need.” Victoria’s Minister for Women Gabrielle Williams noted, “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.”
Sources: ABC News 4/15/19; Bendigo Advertiser 11/8/19; ABC News 1/28/20.