Mary Walsh was born on 14 February 1821 at Kilknock, county Monahan, Ireland. Well educated she married George Lee in 1844, had seven children and left for South Australia as a widow with her daughter Evelyn in 1879 when she was already 58 years old. Her main reason for doing so was to look after her son, John Benjamin Stedham, who had migrated previously and was very sick in Adelaide.
After the death of John, on 2 November 1880, both Mary and Evelyn stayed on in Adelaide as they did not have enough money for the return fare. Evelyn found employment with the South Australian Telegraph Department and Mary became soon involved with the progressive reform movement and devoted the rest of her life to the improvement of social and political conditions for those who suffered the most, in particular those which affected women. She served the South Australian Community in many ways and was an active committee member of many charitable and benevolent societies, including the Ladies's Committee of the Female Refuge. With the late 1880s and early 1890s being hard and difficult economic times, it gave them plenty of work.
An eloquent and outspoken woman, unafraid of controversy, she worked with the destitute, in particular women and children.
In 1883 Mary joined the Social Purity Society and by 1885 was its ladies' secretary. One of its earliest and most important successes was to raise the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen for girls. Three years after joining she, and some of the Society's members had established the Women's Suffrage League of South Australia on 20 July 1888. Rose Birks took the position of treasurer and Mary Lee became secretary. Both retained their positions until the final achievenment of the vote in 1894.
The League believed that only when women were able to vote could they improve and influence their rights and conditions. Knowing the value of publicity Mary wrote letters to the local newspapers and spoke with conviction at many public meetings. Being outspoken she was not afraid to call one member of parliament 'an idiot'. On another occasion she pointed out that the government looked better after the animals in the Zoo than after its citizens suffering from poverty.
In 1889 Mary Lee was also instrumental in the formation of a much needed Working Women's Trades Union which was achieved in 1890. As its secretary she visited many factories to gain first hand knowledge about the extend of sweating and other forms of exploitation. In 1893 Mary became vice-president and attended the meetings of the Trades and Labor Council. Later the Working Women's Trades Union was replaced by the Women's Employment Mutual Association.
South Australia in general, but its women especially, gained a great deal from women like Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence. Both believed that legislative reforms had to be combined with more and better Educational opportunities. It was largely through the hard work of these women that South Australian women became the first in Australia to gain the right to vote on 18 December 1894 and the first in the world to be able to stand for parliament. The struggle had lasted almost ten years from 1885 when a motion for the enfranchisement of women was passed in the South Australian Parliament. It was followed in 1888 with the formation of the Women's Suffrage League, with Mary as its secretary for almost seven years. By this time she was well into her seventies!!
Both Mary and Catherine were interested in education and even further education for girls. Although they had to work long and hard to make much needed improvements, some gains had already been made in progressive South Australia. As early as 1875 Compulsory Education had been introduced. However even before that year it had been advocated. The Northern Argus newspaper of 26 July 1872, had printed an article in support of women's education in which it said, If you educate women to attend to dignified and important subjects, you are multiplying beyond measure the chances of human improvement. By preparing them, and having them impart those early impressions, which always comes from a mother, and which in a great majority are decisive of character and genius, you will influence the destiny of men.
It went on to say that the instruction of women would improve the stock of national talent and increase the pleasures of society. It would multiply the topics in which the two sexes take an interest and would make marriage an intercourse of understanding as well as affection by giving dignity and importance to the female character.
In 1889, Mary Lee as secretary of the Queen's Home for Domestic Instruction, reminded the government of its obligations to the women of South Australia and provide money and buildings to instruct the girls in the same manner as they did for the boys technical schools.
In 1895, at the age of seventy-four, Mary was nominated to stand for parliament for the United Labor Party but declined. Unfortunately it would take another sixty-five years before the first women were sworn in. On her 75th birthday Mary Lee was given a purse of 50 gold sovereigns by Premier Charles Kingston. The money had been collected by Labor men, including Tom Price.
In 1896 she was appointed the first and only female official visitor to the Lunatic Asylums. Then, just as today, women like Mary Lee, Catherine Helen Spence, Augusta Zadow and many others, fighting for improvement of conditions for women hoped and believed that the new century would be a much better one. They hoped to eradicate old problems and make a new start.
Mary Lee was not only fighting for better conditions for women. She also strongly objected to South Australians being involved in the Boer War. Although several contingents left South Australia for South Africa, prominent Mary Lee wrote on 19 December 1899 in the Advertiser, Another contingent! More human manure for those accursed fields! Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters of South Australia, Arise! I say and protest with one voice against our further soiling our souls and hands in this infamous jobbery.
Eventually Mary Lee and her associates did manage to improve conditions for women, but not after many disappoinments and much hard work. The movement suffered an early setback with the death of two of its most prominent women. Mary Lee died at her home in Barnard Street, North Adelaide on 18 September 1909, almost as poor as when she arrived thirty years before. Since her death this great women, who did so much for South Australia in such a short time, has been almost forgotten. She is buried at the Walkerville Wesleyan Cemetery, as is her son. Within a year Catherine Helen Spence also died.
Although women had received the vote largely through Mary Lee's efforts, it still took another fifty years after her death for the first South Australian women, Joyce Steele and Jessie Cooper, to be elected to Parliament. Hundred years after her successful fight to obtain the vote for women, a bust of Mary Lee was unveiled on North Terrace, Adelaide, on 18 December 1994.