Brettena Smyth

Bridgetena Smyth (1842-1898), campaigner for women's health reform and for women's political rights, was born at Kyneton, Victoria, second daughter of Bridgetena (born Cavanagh) and John Riordan, a small merchant. She was named after her mother but always known as Brettena. In 1861 she married William Taylor Smyth, a storekeeper, who died in 1873 of phthisis. Brettena supported her children by changing the little greengrocery and confectionery shop which William had started in North Melbourne into a drapery and druggist's business. She had borne five children of whom four were living when she was widowed; only two sons would survive her.

Brettena was 43 when she first became involved in political activity; from then until her death she was prominent in progressive causes. She was an active member of the first Australian suffrage organisation, the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society (founded in 1884), and formed a breakaway group, the Australian Women's Suffrage Society (1888). This group lingered on until the mid 1890s but was eclipsed by the Victorian Women's Franchise League, an organisation with strong temperance connections, and the United Council for Women's Suffrage.

Like many of the earliest group of women suffragists, Brettena Smyth was also a freethinker, opposed to orthodox religion and therefore somewhat disposed to question other institutions and forms of authority. Her work was supported by the controversial Australasian Secular Association. Birth control, however, was an issue which divided even the radicals. Some saw it as interference with nature; some as encouraging, instead of curbing, irresponsible male sexuality, and dragging women's sexuality down to a similar level; some as another stratagem to weaken further the working classes.

Women suffrage organisations worldwide shied away from public identification with such a contentious cause. Smyth recognised the liberating potential of birth control for women, commenting in The Limitation of Offspring (1893) on a dozen contraceptive techniques, and promoting her rubber 'French Pessaire Preventatif' sold at her shop as 'the only article of the kind that can be used without the knowledge of the husband'.

But although she was publicly sympathetic to the plight of those forced into prostitution, and lobbied for reduced gaol sentences for women desperate enough to kill their illegitimate children, she was no champion of sex outside marriage. As did many women activists of that era, she saw a new kind of family and an enhanced role for motherhood at the heart of social reform.

In her lectures and pamphlets, she argued that well-matched couples could form a more equal partnership. Biology could lead to a new destiny. Planned families would mean fewer children, of stronger stock, without women being weakened by constant child-bearing and the psychological and financial strains of unwilling motherhood. Such eugenic arguments about 'the improvement of the race', drawing on new understandings of the role of genetics in stockbreeding, were not unfamiliar around the turn of the century. This was especially true in America, from which Smyth drew many of her health reform ideas and much of the material she used in well-advertised publications such as Love, Courtship and Marriage, The Social Evil, Stirpiculture and The Limitation of Offspring.

Self-taught but widely read, and interested in fringe paramedical practices such as electrotherapy and phrenology, she dreamed of studying medicine at the University of Melbourne (a course opened to women in 1887), but savings intended for fees vanished in the financial crashes of the 1890s. Her book The Diseases of Women (1894), though somewhat unpolished and derivative, was aimed at helping the average women towards a better understanding and control of her body. Such information was not readily accessible.

Brettena Smyth enjoyed public speaking, and her tall, commanding presence impressed audiences. She became a well-known and respected Melbourne identity of the 1890s, and was much mourned at her death, especially in labour circles. She died on 15 February 1898 and was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery, according to Roman Catholic rites - an ironic end, given her history of support for secularism and birth control.

Farley Kelly

Rebels and Radicals edited by Eric Fry 1983 ch 9.