Most Australians interested in their history will know that South Australia was the first Australian colony in which women gained the right to vote and the first in the world where women could be elected members of parliament in 1894. What many don’t know is that it was all the work of a small group of women, with a little help of a few men, who achieved this feat in a relatively short time.
Among them was 59 year old Mary Lee, an Irish widow of limited means, who had migrated with her daughter to South Australia in 1879. Born in 1821 Mary Lee was raised in the home of a working-class Orangeman. Her social status improved a little after marrying George Lee in 1844. By that time she had already seen much suffering from the catastrophic potato famine of the late 1830s.
A year after her marriage another famine decimated the population from starvation and mass-migration to England, Scotland, America and Australia. By the time Mary departed Ireland for England her childhood and young adult experiences of famine, starvation, disease, poverty and death had profoundly affected the way she thought about life and the world.
Thousands of people had similar experiences but Mary had made up her mind to actually do something about it and leave the world a better place than she found it. In England Mary and her husband taught reading, writing, arithmetic and religious instruction. Teaching as many as a hundred children at the time, Mary also improved her own teaching qualifications. Not an easy job at the best of times.
Mary found herself in an unusual predicament during this time. Not only did she give birth to seven children, she also supported her husband who died in the early 1860s, raised her children on her own, operated an educational business and focussed on her professional career. An extraordinary accomplishment. Even more so when viewed from mid-nineteenth century English conditions.
In 1877 Mary’s youngest son Ben migrated to South Australia but soon became seriously ill. On hearing this Mary and her eldest daughter booked the first available ship to South Australia. They left England on the Orient on 1 November 1879 and arrived at Port Adelaide on 15 December. They rented a property at Barnard Street, North Adelaide where they would live for the next twenty years. Ben died in November 1880 and was buried at the Wesleyan Cemetery, Walkerville.
Mary’s coming to South Australia would eventually alter the course of Australian Political History. It was this lady who through her tireless work became the main figure in the campaign for women’s suffrage and stuck with it until it was finally accomplished. Unfortunately, the disappearance of most of her journals and letters has kept her contribution to this important part of South Australia’s history hidden for nearly 125 years.
Undeterred though, author Denise George travelled to Ireland and England and painstakingly examined whatever local records were available to find out about Mary Lee’s background. She went to Armagh, County Monahan, Cambridge and London where she discovered enough snippets of information to realise that she was dealing with one of the most contrary and determined social and political advocate of her generation.
With further research in Adelaide she has been able to piece together Mary Lee’s life, who spent her entire life harnessing the power of the human spirit. Regardless of the limited research material Denise George was determined to write her story. Her story became the first book ever written about Mary Lee, revealing a compelling account of a woman who took on the establishment and won.
Following her son’s death, Mary initially found consolidation in charity work. Being a practical and sensible woman as well as a Christian she involved herself more and more with women’s issues and their struggle to improve their lives. Denise George’s account of Mary has been enriched by the inclusion of working-class women’s terrible and often unbelievable, experiences at that time.
With the establishment of the Social Purity Society Mary had found her niche. She became an active member of the Ladies branch and from 1883 until 1889 held the position of honorary secretary. Undaunted by the intense ridicule of antagonistic politicians and a conservative public, Mary thrust herself into high profile campaigns in support of female refuge, improving women’s working conditions and eventually gaining women’s suffrage. She was also at the forefront of campaigns which successfully raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 years, improved women’s wages and opposed the death penalty.
With the downturn of the economy in Australia during the 1880s Mary and her contemporaries decided once and for all to bring women’s social, economic and political status in line with that of men. The solution to poverty and oppression did not lie in temporary remedial measures, however beneficial. What was needed was parliamentary reform. Women had no way to alter their circumstances without the right to vote.
The seeds for parliamentary reform were nurtured during this time. Now Mary removed her mantle of respectability and replaced it with an unconventional approach to improve society. It was an act of disobedience and the beginning of a rough road ahead. It is this rough road and its many obstacles that Mary had to overcome which are described in great detail by Denise George.
Although it was a comparatively short one, success was gained in two decades. Women in England and elsewhere would have to fight for many decades after Mary’s success in 1894 to gain the same objectives.
In July 1885 Edward Charles Stirling introduced his Bill for women’s franchise, much to the opposition of Patrick Coglin, Ebenezer Ward, Thomas Burgoyne, Robert Rees and others. It came to nothing so he tried again a year later. This time Charles Cameron Kingston, William Copley and Henry Downer also objected.
After an impromptu speech at the YMCA Hall in 1888 by Mary Lee, who now was almost 70, the Women’s Suffrage League was formed. Among its members were Mary Colton, Rosetta Birks, Augusta Zadow, Catherine Helen Spence and Serena Thorne Lake. Mary relished the rowdy public meetings and hostile parliamentary debates that kept women’s suffrage front and centre. The WSL numbers grew as a direct result of Mary’s enthusiastic membership drives.
Mary also remained active within the Social Purity Society, particularly about the systematic mistreatment and endemic injustices perpetrated on women. While involved with many other issues Mary grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in the passing of the Franchise Bill. She wrote a series of letters titled ‘Letters to Women’ which were published in the Register during March and April 1890.
They were written to educate the women of Adelaide on the progress of the campaign and to persuade both men and women to support the cause. She also made regular speeches around Adelaide and often had to deal with a hostile crowd. During 1890 the Bill was once again discussed and its name changed to The Constitution Act Amendment Bill as a means to stop the Bill proceeding.
Two years later very little progress had been made but Mary had other issues to keep her busy. She strongly opposed capital punishment and the shocking working conditions of women involved in the ‘sweating industry’ where women worked at home or in factories up to 16 hours a day for next to nothing. Matters such as the poor economy with bank crashes, miners’ strike and high unemployment didn’t help her causes.
During Christmas 1892 Mary was in Broken Hill which she found a place of misery and desperation. The land surrounding the mines was scattered with the graves of men who had died of disease and injury during their short and bitter lives. While there Mary assisted Mary Windeyer and Rose Scott establishing a branch office of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW. On her return to Adelaide she spent the last days of 1892 visiting the chronically ill and geriatric residents of the Destitute Asylum on North Terrace.
Early in 1893 May organised a meeting to bring the Women’s Suffrage League, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Working Women’s Trade Union together in a show of public unity. Sir Edwin T Smith, MLC, who held mortgages of £100,000 on drinking establishments, was one of the most vehement opponents of the Suffrage Bill in Parliament.
Progress was made though. When the Bill was once again defeated in October it was only by a margin of one, (24 to 23). Mary now went on an extensive lecture tour. From Gawler and other spots near Adelaide she now went as far afield as Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Quorn or elsewhere ‘if bare expenses of lectures were guaranteed’. Travelling around the country for weeks was expensive and Mary had to watch her pennies.
Finally in December 1894 the Bill was passed giving women the same voting rights as men and being able to stand as members of Parliament making them the only fully enfranchised women in the world. The Bill was signed into law on 2 February 1895. Mary’s work was done. She could relax now for the first time in 73 years. Not Mary though, she had still other plans and aims.
She relinquished the reins of the WSL but returned to public speaking in 1895 encouraging women to vote in the upcoming elections. In April she was nominated, and elected, to the School Boards of Advice committee. On her 75th birthday she was honoured and rewarded by Premier Kingston for all she had done and given a purse of 50 sovereigns.
It was a nice gesture but Mary Lee was now continuously struggling to make ends meet and at the age of 75 had to look for a job to supplement her meagre income from her boarders. She moved twice to cheaper accommodation but kept up her lectures and letters to the editors of the different Adelaide newspapers.
At the turn of the century Mary protested against South Australia’s involvement in the Boer War in South Africa but supported the abolition of bans on public bathing for minors. In 1909 she contracted influenza and died on 18 September. Her thirty year battle for better conditions and social justice had come to an end. She had managed to leave this world, and most certainly South Australia, a better place than she had found it. And what a story it turned out to be!