Celebrating 125 years of Women's Suffrage in SA

By Trish Brice

Posted in News

Tomorrow (Wednesday 18 December) at Parliament House, six enthusiastic volunteers from Pilgrim Uniting Church will participate in a re-enactment of the 1894 debates to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in SA, using original records from Hansard. Many leading suffragists were active members of Non-Conformist congregations, particularly Methodists and Congregationalists, connecting faith and activism in the early years of the colony.


On a hot December morning in 1894 in Adelaide, South Australia, a week before Christmas, the 'shrieking sisterhood' (a derogatory term used by some detractors in the Press) claimed victory after a long and exhausting campaign for justice at the ballot box. What did they want? Votes for Women! When did they want it? Now!

They had done it, after six and a half years of concerted activism; the charge led by a small band of capable, dedicated women. Who were these Suffragists? Who were their leaders?

The leading lights were Mary Lee, Mary Colton, Serena Lake, Elizabeth Nicholls, Catherine Helen Spence, Augusta Zadow, and Rosetta Birks. The Sassy Seven. No sweet docility would satisfy these intelligent, brave, and compassionate souls. And in the now infamous words of Mary Lee, they were 'up and doing' - and would not desist from their various organisations, societies, associations, church groups and trade unions, working among and for the poor until they had given it their all. They were determined to leave this world a better place, by reconfiguring the social and political settings for this young and struggling outpost of England.

It is, perhaps, not too surprising in view of South Australia's free origins, a settlement without convicts, that it acted early on suffrage reform. What is astounding is that it led the world in simultaneously gaining women's voting rights AND women's representation in Parliament - a historic FIRST.

Our early years in South Australia demonstrated an interesting demographic mix with a higher percentage of religious Non-Conformists, predominantly Methodists, Congregationalist and Baptists, than the other colonies. The term 'Paradise of Dissent' was an apt description for their social idealism: Voluntary settlers, men and women in roughly equal proportion, fuelling an ongoing conversation, providing fertile ground for sprouting bold democratic notions. Not everybody was happy though, particularly the traditional, patriarchal faith denominations. After all, did not women have a primary calling to husband and home? Was that not biblically ordained? So theologically, as well as sociologically, the battle lines were drawn.

Methodists tended to be more liberal in their outlook, less focussed on salvation of the soul and more concerned with social injustice, birthing a myriad of organisations working to improve the context of people's lives. For the purpose of the Women's Suffrage campaign, two of these deserve special attention. In 1882, Rev JC Kirby, minister at Port Adelaide Congregational church, instigated the Social Purity Society. Though couched in terms we shy away from in the 21st Century, it was set up to tackle the heart-breaking problem of young girls - as young as 12 years old - coerced in to marriage, fallen in to prostitution or pushed into factories for child labour. Many were destitute. At the same time, we have the flowering of the many Temperance Unions. The link between poverty and domestic violence was seen as a direct off-shoot of the chronic alcoholism that softened the harsh lives of many men.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union was a tour de force and with a strong advocacy around women's suffrage. It mobilised its members so effectively that, at the culmination of the campaign in 1894, the collecting of a petition of 11,600 signatures, canvassed from both Adelaide city and surrounding suburbs as well as far flung country towns and outposts, was a massive effort. It has been estimated that the Temperance Union was responsible for at least 8,000 of these signatures. The petition turned the debate around after seven Bills had been presented to Parliament and all had failed.

The political backdrop to this momentous shift has some unusual features, with the happy coincidence of a mistake and a fluke. An irate conservative MP, hoping to frustrate yet another tiresome Suffrage Bill in late December 1894, snuck in a ridiculous amendment adding female representation to the voting rights Bill, hoping that it would contribute to its downfall. It backfired. The fluke was a narrow window of opportunity where the Upper House was controlled for a very short time by non-conservatives. Some well-to-do colonists were slowly moving towards supporting the bill and the wives of parliamentarians had the ears of their husbands around the hearth each evening. If you listen hard you might be able to hear the conversations in the corridors of power... "For goodness sake, it's nearly Christmas... let's get this over and done with, so we can have a jolly time this festive season". The mighty arm of the Establishment had bent, acquiesced. The women were jubilant. For those of faith, the final victory would have felt heaven sent. The jackpot! Unbelievably, South Australia was hailed as the most progressive place in all the world.

The unions and societies were predominantly crusading in style and ideology. It is a tribute to these 'missionaries' that, upon closer examination of their core beliefs, we are pleasantly surprised at the balanced theology of these fore-runners. They were not interested in an idealised yesteryear but were forward-thinking and optimistic. Instead of fearing change, they initiated it - evangelical and humanitarian causes were kissing cousins.

Now to showcase just four of these remarkable women - these 'Saints Down Under'.

Serena Lake - was well read, lively, vivacious, and known as the 'Sweet Girl Gospeller', who drew crowds and converts - attracted by her unclouded faith and compassion for souls. She was born in 1842 in Devon, England, of progressive Bible Christian stock (a branch of Methodism) and to a mother who was also an evangelist, a novelty back then. The charismatic Serena, in her late twenties, was invited by Samuel Way, an esteemed lawyer, and the medical practitioner Alan Campbell (both Bible Christians with enormous influence) to come to Adelaide to strut her stuff. On the 22nd of May 1870 at the first of 13 crowded Town Hall services (in the centre of Adelaide) over 2,000 people listened to her sermon 'with breathless attention'. Hundreds were turned away. The need was great. The hearts were hungry. The bodies aching. What difference could she make? Well she boldly asserted that equality of the sexes was the original design of the Creator. That statement set her apart, a cat among the pigeons. Gender was again centre stage, but this time within a theological discourse. She was a refreshing voice in an otherwise predominantly male religious culture. She was instrumental in founding the Australian Women's Suffrage League. She only agreed to marry here in SA when her prospective husband promised not to curtail her right to preach. She drove her buggy long distances canvassing support for suffrage and temperance throughout the Colony. What an endearing adventurous emissary!

Perhaps a little less colourful but equally notable was Elizabeth Nicholls. Born in Rundle St in 1850, she recalled that in her formative years she developed a distaste for silly rules and 'unreasonable restraint'. She articulated a longing for the 'will and passion to be useful'. She launched her public speaking debut at the Methodist Women's Conference in 1885 and the next year was a founding member of the Adelaide Women's Christian Temperance Union. For the next three years she gave measured support, but after an intense 'spiritual experience' she engaged wholeheartedly and intentionally in the grassroots movement for women's political equality. She was a councillor for the Woman's Suffrage League, and helped organise the massive petition of 1894. Before the first election in which women voted (1896) she prepared an informative guide called 'Platform of Principles'. She went on to become a global activist for suffrage and in 1920 attended the 10th World Convention of the Women's Suffrage Alliance in Geneva Switzerland, where many countries were interested in the lessons of the South Australian success story.

Elizabeth Nicholls was a visionary and could see the need for women jurors, justices of the peace, police matrons, and sex educators for young people. She hoped for women to be engaged at every level of society's decision making. She would not rest on her laurels. Whatever happened in her 'spiritual wakening' she allowed it to inform her activities for the rest of her life.

Elizabeth was a natural leader. When she entered conventions, everyone stood, such was the esteem in which she was held. She seemed to relish conflict, managing it with humour and tact - a lucid and forcible speaker. And as a parting gesture we remember her words "never forget the hardships your sisters faced!"

Now we move on to Mary Colton, who frequented Pirie Street Methodist with her husband John, from its earliest days in 1851. Mary was renowned for her gentle and wise disposition. The Coltons entertained frequently in their spacious home at Hackney, Alma House, but Mary disavowed any highfalutin airs . . . She was as comfortable with the drawing room etiquette of the genteel folk as the grubby dirt floors of the poor cottage dwellers.

Her missionary zeal was focused on the 'dear girls' and after she gave birth to her ninth child, she set about improving the circumstances that were so depressing for young women, welcoming and temporarily housing the newly arrived immigrants, but also visiting many needy mothers after childbirth. She continued her work with the Female Refuge which sheltered single pregnant women, reformed prostitutes, deserted wives and victims of violence. She was the founder of the Dorcos Society, a mission that distributed clothing to the disadvantaged.

Because her generosity to all and sundry was common knowledge, the well- beaten track to her door brought 'shoals' of people begging for help. She did what she could and more. Over 20 organisations and benevolent causes were the recipient of her time, energy and money. To mention a few: The Home for Incurables; Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institutes and the Children's Hospital of which she was the founder. We can add to the list, the Female Reformatory and the Young Women's Christian Association.

In the Suffrage struggle, Mary Colton's strategic position was vital, as was her accumulated experience. Mary Lee, arguably the most significant figure in the campaign, leaned heavily on her for support. And so the focus shifts from the unassuming philanthropist Mary Colton to the calculating brilliance and weighty vulnerability of Mary Lee.

No celebration of Women's Suffrage would be complete without acknowledging the legacy of the feisty, and inimitable Mary Lee. She was Irish and lived through the Potato Famine prior to arriving in the Colony in 1879 with her daughter. After grieving the loss of her son in the first year, she wasted no time in building networks and supporting many good causes. Over 60, short, strong, healthy and forever busy, she was a practical Christian having adopted the social reformist ideas of the Primitive Methodist Minister Hugh Gilmore.

It is hard to sum up the ubiquitous contribution of Mary Lee. But suffice to say she is in the frontline of the battle. Fully aware of the exploitation of women workers and the wages and conditions they were forced to accept, she partnered with the multilingual Trade Unionist, Augusta Zadow. The background was that for many women the only work possible was at home, sewing. The pay was so low that the workers could earn the merest sustenance only by working intolerable hours. In 1890, Mary and Augusta formed the Working Women's Trade Union and visited the increasing number of factories and sweatshops, where conditions were cramped, often filthy with no washrooms - dark, dingy and poorly ventilated. This heralded an intense period of lobbying for women's rights.

When the South Australian Women's Suffrage League was in full flight, Mary was at the centre of the League's activities. Her many speeches and rallies displayed her quick wit and intellectual strength. Time and again she submitted the arguments for Women's equality to the papers, only to be humiliated and mocked by the conservatives in the colony. How often was she fodder for the cartoonist's satire! She suffered private mortifications but undaunted she reignited the debate, knowing full well it must be won in the homes and hearts of the colonists. It was her life's work. Finally, sweet victory. She was exhausted but euphoric. However, even after winning the Vote, she declined overtures from the political parties to join them - choosing instead a higher calling - the pastoral care of the mentally ill in the asylums of Adelaide. Her compassion was her modus operandi. A truly remarkable legacy and an ode to courage.

A final question arises... were these wonderful women "feminists"? We often refer to them as part of the first wave, and if concern for women's value, capacity and welfare are the benchmarks, followed by decisive action to liberate them from subjugation, then the answer is a resounding YES. Another of Marys Lee's quotes: 'I am as worthy as any man to contribute and shape my country'.

These activists were primarily women of faith. That is, given the deeply religious nature of six of the seven principal suffragists it is important to understand that their faith, their compassion represented the intrinsic purpose of their lives. They lived, debated, networked, gave, mobilised and prayed the Campaign. In the words of Mary Lee, their spokesperson, 'Prayer moves the hand that moves the world'. What a legacy! Their faith moved a mountain of prejudice. They were still products of the cultural baggage of their day but they did what they could, where they were. And more than that, what could anyone ask? And to finish with Mary Lee's personal vision statement. "I believe this work is most truly of GOD". In this 125th anniversary year we remember and are forever indebted.


This article was originally published by Pilgrim Uniting Church on their website, along with a link to a song written by Leigh Newton and Tanya Wittwer on Mary Lee, called Votes for Women. View the original article (and link to the song) here.



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