Filling in the history: famous Australian women (part 1)

Another week, another city – another continent. From Washington DC to Sydney involves travelling more than half way around the world, which is an exercise in physical resilience, but an opportunity to think and reflect, and I have enjoyed using the time to start preparing for our new life in Australia (for which this trip is only a precursor – we don’t move out to take up my new post at Ascham School in Sydney until December 2012). An important part of moving to a different part of the world is seeking out and absorbing the history of one’s destination, and I have enjoyed using some of my travelling time to think about some of Australia’s famous women.

I suspect that this blog will be one of many over the next few months; the names will be familiar to Australian readers but not so often to British or US readers, so I shall continue to indulge my investigations. An early famous Australian woman to capture my attention was Mary Lee, who lived from 1821 to 1909, and who was an active welfare worker and suffragist. Her entry in the Australian Women’s Register describes how – born in Ireland, widowed at 35 and an ‘migr’ to South Australia that same year – Mary Lee became very involved in campaigning for women’s rights, essentially to improve their living and working conditions. She and others soon recognised that women’s suffrage was crucial to their goals, and she became secretary of the Women’s Suffrage League of South Australia in 1888. In addition, she served with the Female Refuge ladies’ committee, the Distressed Women’s and Children’s Committee and the Adelaide Sick Poor Fund, and was secretary of the Working Women’s Trades Union – an active and an engaged life. She is credited, along with her friend Mary Colton, who became President of the Women’s Suffrage League in 1892, with the advent of universal suffrage in South Australia in 1894 – several years ahead of the UK.

In 1892 Mary Lee visited Broken Hill, New South Wales, to address a group on women’s suffrage, and her letter to the newspaper, the Barrier Miner, published on 1 September 1892, is quoted in the Australian Women’s Register:

I congratulate my working brothers on their respect for law – their avoidance of all which might provoke to fund, or sew the seeds of an after-crop of bitterness – on their patience under misrepresentation and provocation’ But Sir, this strike has one feature which renders it more profoundly interesting than any of its predecessors here, or elsewhere as far as I know, and which must secure it a prominent and distinguished page when the history of these colonies shall come to be written. It is the fact that the women of Broken Hill are the first great body of working women who have raised their voices in united protest against the glaring injustice that “the present Constitution will not allow them a voice in the framing of the laws under which they are compelled to live.”- May the memory of those woes and distresses which have awakened in the women of Broken Hill the spirit of liberty kindle that spirit to such a glow that the hearts of the “fathers, brothers, husbands and sweethearts” shall burn with the determination that the liberty which they prize so dearly shall be shared by those most dear to them; that the sons of freed men shall have freed mothers; that they shall bequeath to their daughters that grandest of human heritages -freedom!’

Inspiring words from an inspiring woman. And what a positive note on which to start my few days in Australia, where I will be spending time with a new generation of young women, whose futures stretch brighter before them because of the work of women like Mary Lee.

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