Alicia Petersen

Alicia Teresa Jane O'Shea Petersen (1862-1923), political candidate, was born on 2 July l862 into a Catholic family to Jane (born Wood) and Hugh McShane, farmers at Broadmarsh, southern Tasmania. In 1884 she married Patrick O'Shea, draper and widower with a son, Francis Patrick. When he died in 1886 she was left to care for her stepson with a small annuity and a house in Wilmot Terrace, Hobart, in which she lived until her death. She remarried, in 1891, to Hjalma Petersen, a mining investor from Gotland, Sweden, and was widowed again in 1912. There were no children to either marriage.

The events that wrought a farmer's daughter of convict background into a socially committed political reformer are obscure, but Alicia grew up in a small rural community with her cousin John Earle, a founder of the Workers' Political League (in 1903) and first Labor premier of Tasmania (1909). Until her marriage she worked as a machinist in the notoriously sweated clothing industry. During 1906 in the campaign to secure a Royal Commission into conditions in workshops, Alicia was a prominent speaker for the Citizens' Social and Moral Reform League, led by the Christian Socialist Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, Edward Mercer. The League's aims included social purity, temperance and improved housing for the poor. The damning evidence about prominent Hobart citizens before the Royal Commission during 1907 led to the suppression of its report.

Mrs O'Shea Petersen served her political apprenticeship in the League and in the Women's Political Association. Though she expressed sympathy with Labor women who, in 1912, formed the Housewives' Association, she remained committed to a non party stance. She expressed her ardent support for personal self-improvement in entirely practical ways: as a founder and life president of the Australian Women's Association, a friendly society for women and an offshoot of the nationalistic Australian Natives Society; by qualifying for the certificate in sanitation from the Royal Sanitary Institute; as a councillor of the Workers' Educational Association and an advocate of free university education.

She was the first woman in Tasmania to stand as a political candidate, contesting the federal seat of Denison in 1913. She sought election to represent the interests of women and children but she held broader political policies which the press ignored. Her policies were trivialised, she was accused of accepting funds from both political parties, and women organisers were brought from Victoria to present the Nationalist and Labor programs for women voters against her. She polled 261 votes.

Through the Women's Health Association, Mrs Petersen was instrumental in establishing the Bush Nurses and Child Health Associations. Never afraid of unpopular issues, she organised the women's anti-conscription campaign in Tasmania, appearing with Vida Goldstein (q.v.) during her 1917 visit. She also led a campaign to have the age of consent raised, initially a very unpopular demand among politicians.

In 1922 when women were first eligible to stand for the Tasmanian House of Assembly, she was again a political candidate in Denison. During the campaign, while involved in litigation over a boundary dispute and charged with contempt, she felt herself a victim of an unjust legal system and risked gaol rather than comply. The press accused her of seeking cheap publicity. An abdominal cancer prevented any public appearances and she polled badly. She died on 22 January 1923 at her home not far from that other House where she had hoped to sit as a legislator for the women and children of Tasmania.

Vicki Pearce

V F Pearce A Few Viragos on a Stump: the Womanhood Suffrage Campaign in Tasmania 1880-1920 1985.