By Denise George

Often, only disparate and fragmented traces that remain of women’s lives in Australian history, and this makes telling their stories difficult. Some stories are minimal accounts, others neglected, many erased completely because of a lack of sufficient sources. In some instances a lack of women’s records and their subsequent stories have been misinterpreted as an absence of women’s contribution to the development of Australian society and culture.

My book, Mary Lee: The life and times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights, was undertaken to redress the faded presence of one remarkable Australian woman: nineteenth-century South Australian suffragist, Mary Lee.

For years, I lived within walking distance to Barnard Street, North Adelaide and stood many times in front of the house where Mary Lee once lived. The garden is in need of repair. The olive-green hedge that once separated the adjoining property is gone, the upstairs balcony no longer shaded by the trees in the garden. The steps leading up to the house have worn away with over 150 years of people coming and going.

Historians Helen Jones and Elizabeth Mansutti provided brief written accounts of Mary Lee in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the task of writing about Lee in depth was especially difficult because her papers and those of the Women’s Suffrage League were thrown into a rubbish tip after her death. The loss of her personal journals proved a challenge.

I knew if I was going to be able to tell her story, I needed to extrapolate on whatever limited information I discovered during the research. A picture of her life and work and the lives of women of the period began to emerge through this process.

In some instances a lack of women’s records and their subsequent stories have been misinterpreted as an absence of women’s contribution to the development of Australian society and culture.

I dimmed the more traditional biographical spotlight on Mary, primarily due to a lack of information, refocusing my attention on mere traces of her life and using them as entry points into the narrative.

I looked closely at nineteenth century newspapers to create context, and photographs to gather impressions for character profiles. I wrote about the significant people in her life, geographical locations she occupied, organisations she joined, and in particular the large number of published letters she wrote to the local press.

The letters by Mary Lee and her contemporaries wonderfully exemplify Victorian society and the culture surrounding white women’s resistance. Lee’s story emerges through the exploration of her relationships to, and with, the various fragments of her life that have stood the test of time. A close exploration of these factors allowed me to recreate the contexts from which Lee once again becomes visible, and her legacy secured.

Mary Lee was almost 70 when she became the face and chief orator 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.

Lee’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, sex workers 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.

The severe and violent disruption to Indigenous societies caused by successive waves of Europeans meant an even more appalling plight for Indigenous women.

Lee 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 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 movement, trade unions, and churches, with the express purpose of gaining women’s suffrage.

She spearheaded a campaign which won all South Australian women the dual unprecedented rights: to vote and subsequently become elected members in South Australian parliament.

The domination of European patriarchal culture imposed on Australian soil rendered women in colonial and Victorian society secondary to men. Women had few rights around education, marriage, guardianship, citizenship and suffrage, and laws discriminated against them. The severe and violent disruption to Indigenous societies caused by successive waves of Europeans meant an even more appalling plight for Indigenous women.

Mary Lee and her fellow suffragists fought for legislative reforms which won all adult women the right to vote and stand as members of the South Australian parliament in 1894. Unfortunately, the battle for gender equality was only part of the equation. A terrible racial injustice was later enshrined in the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which excluded ‘any aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific, except New Zealand’, unless entitled under section 41 of the Australian Constitution.

Mary Lee’s battle to improve the lives of nineteenth century women was the start of an ongoing struggle that’s as important today as it ever was.


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.