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Why SA needs a resurgence of the suffragist spirit

Books & Poetry

In 2019, we celebrate 125 years of women’s suffrage in South Australia. It’s time to remember the past, consider the present, and once again agitate for change, writes Denise George, author of a new biography on SA suffragist Mary Lee.

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In July 1885, Edward Charles Stirling woke the chamber of dozing parliamentarians from their afternoon lethargy when he stood up in the South Australian House of Assembly to introduce the first women’s suffrage Bill. It created an uproar in the House and on the streets of Adelaide.

In 1894, South Australian women became the first in the world to be granted the unprecedented right to both vote and be elected members of South Australian parliament.

Today, the ruling Liberal Party in the South Australian House of Assembly has just four women out of a total of 25 members, making it the second-worst in the country for under-representing women in state parliament.

At a recent discussion panel presented by The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre and BPW Adelaide, female MPs and social justice advocates explored the problematic issue of how South Australian women are tracking since they won political equality in 1894. The panel highlighted the under-representation of women in their respective political parties and shared anecdotal stories about some of the outrageous experiences encountered by women in the current political arena. Carolyn Power MP, Liberal member for Elder, said that women were nowhere near equally represented.

Earlier this year, political reporter Jane Norman identified that women make up 22 percent of Liberals in federal parliament and 45 percent of the Labor Party.

The under-representation of women in parliament in Australia ranks a dismal fiftieth in the world, in between the Philippines and South Sudan. Senate leader Penny Wong recently told parliament the under-representation of women in the Liberal party room was “not only bad for women, and bad for the Liberal Party, it is bad for democracy”.

So why, after South Australia made political history and established a precedent that the rest of the world followed, are women here (and in the rest of Australia) under-represented in parliament?

What is keeping women out of politics and maintaining an obvious gendered imbalance of power?

For a long time, the lack of women’s recorded history has been misinterpreted as an absence of women’s contribution. But this gap in the historical record is slowly but surely being corrected.

Stella Prize-winning historian Clare Wright tells the story of Australian women’s role in winning the vote here, and fighting for it internationally, in her new book You Daughters of Freedom. And in my new book, Mary Lee, I tell the story that preceded it, of the campaigning that led to South Australia’s world-first 1894 legislation.

Building on work done by writers and historians like Elizabeth Mansutti, Helen Jones and Elizabeth Ho (and travelling to Ireland to do my own research), I researched and wrote the first book-length biography of the woman who was the face and chief orator of women’s suffrage in South Australia. The South Australian Women’s Suffrage League was established soon after the women’s suffrage Bill was introduced, with Mary Colton as president and Mary Lee as secretary.

The bullying tactics were a sign of things to come

The fragmented traces of women’s historical experiences are often all that remains of their lives. Much of the Women’s Suffrage League records and documents didn’t survive the passage of time. Mary Lee most certainly would have kept a diary. Unfortunately, it has never come to light.

I believe it’s prudent to continue to examine the remaining fragments of women such as Mary Lee, to expose their hidden presence and valuable contribution to Australian political history.

As I write in my biography of Mary Lee, she was almost 70 when she became the face of women’s suffrage in South Australia. The antagonism from conservative politicians and a hostile public was immediate and unrelenting. The bullying tactics were a sign of things to come and a means of intimidation that still persists in parliament today.

The SA House of Assembly chamber in 1889. Photo: SLSA

Mary’s social justice advocacy started gradually, but gained ground after she settled in Adelaide in 1879. She initially worked with Jewish immigrants, the Primitive Methodists, and prostitutes and unmarried mothers at the Adelaide and Norwood Refuges. She played a significant role in the Social Purity Society, Women’s Temperance Union, Queen’s Home for Domestic Instruction, Working Women’s Trade Union, United Trades and Labor Council, Distressed Women’s and Children’s Committee, Lunatic Asylums, and the Destitute Asylum.

Denise George’s biography of Mary Lee.

Mary kept women’s suffrage on the public agenda. She gave regular speeches in Adelaide and rural areas, and wrote copious letters to the press in support of women’s rights. She was publicly ridiculed, harassed and denigrated as a consequence.

She worked in association with a number of significant social justice advocates, including Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Colton, Elizabeth Webb Nicholls, Rosetta Birks, Serena Lake and Augusta Zadow. She maintained constant dialogue with eminent politicians, and religious and community leaders. Most importantly, she established and maintained close allegiances with groups and individuals within the temperance, trade unions, and churches.

Mary Lee was born in Ireland on February 14, 1821. She was a woman, wife, mother, teacher, business owner, widow, immigrant, orator, writer, social justice campaigner, women’s suffrage advocate, and political agitator. Following a bout of influenza, she died on September 18, 1909, impoverished, and all but forgotten.

It was the end of her life, but not the end of the story.

Celebrating 125 years of women’s suffrage in South Australia is a time to remember and pay respect to women such as Mary Lee, who began the fight for political equality. It is an opportunity to seize and reinvigorate discussions around ways and means to pick up the lag, and complete the job that the women of suffrage began. For, as Mary Lee predicted in 1893: “There is no finality in human progress.”

Denise George is the author of Mary Lee: The Life and times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights, published by Wakefield Press.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the House of Assembly had four women out of 25 members. This was meant to be a reference to members of the ruling Liberal Party only – not the entire chamber. The text has been corrected.

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