Catherine Spence

Annie Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910) was proclaimed on her eightieth birthday 'the most distinguished woman they had had in Australia'. She responded, 'I am a new woman, and I know it. I mean an awakened woman . . . awakened to a sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to the family and the household, but to the State; to be wise, not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born'. This new woman was a novelist, journalist, preacher, public campaigner for social and political reform, suffragist and feminist.

Born 31 October 1825 near Melrose, Scotland, the fifth of eight children of Helen (born Brodie) and David Spence, lawyer and banker, she completed her formal schooling in Melrose. Plans for her to attend an advanced school for girls in Edinburgh failed when financial collapse compelled the family to emigrate, to South Australia, in 1839.

Religious despair about the doctrine of predestination, together with satisfaction at her first earnings from governessing, decided Spence against marriage and motherhood, though she was to bring up three families of other people's children in the course of her life. After a brief attempt to set up a school, she embarked on her first career as a novelist. Clara Morison (1854) was the first novel set in Australia to be written by a woman. She followed it with Tender and True (1856), Mr. Hogarth's Will (1865), and The Author's Daughter (1868). Gathered In, serialised in the Adelaide Observer 1881-82, was not published as a book until 1897. Handfasted, submitted for a prize offered by the Sydney Mail in about 1880, but rejected as 'calculated to loosen the marriage tie . . . too socialistic and therefore dangerous', was finally published in 1984. Her last major fiction was the religious allegory An Agnostic's Progress from the Known to the Unknown (1884) and the future-vision novella A Week in the Future (1889). A century later, her fiction is gaining new attention: Clara Morison has appeared in three new editions since 1971. Her religious doubts banished by conversion to Unitarianism, her literary reputation well-established, at least in South Australia, in the 1860s, Spence embarked upon a multi-faceted second career. One facet was the Boarding-Out Society, formed by Caroline Emily Clark in 1872, to select children from the government industrial school, board them with families, and visit them regularly to check on their welfare. Spence's work with Clark in this undertaking led to her appointment to the new State Children's Council in 1887, and to the government Destitute Board in 1897. Another facet developed from her continuing engagement with educational questions. She had a brief stint as member of a school board for East Torrens. She argued strongly for the establishment of the state Advanced School for Girls, opened in 1879. She composed, at the invitation of the government's new Education Department, The Laws We Live Under (1880), the first social studies textbook used in Australian schools, which anticipated similar courses in other colonies by 20 years. A third facet was her journalism. In 1878, after 30 years of having her articles appear in journals or the press anonymously or under a pen-name, Spence was appointed to the daily South Australian Register as 'a regular outside contributor'. This appointment, over which she was jubilant, gave her the confidence to put her name to the articles she wrote. They ranged widely, across literary, social and economic issues; they offer the historian a chart of her political development from conservative concern at the effects of manhood suffrage to a liberal commitment to the rights of minorities; they provided her with space in which to promote her favourite causes.

The cause which she considered primary was electoral reform through the introduction of proportional representation or, as she called it, 'effective voting'. This cause took her into a third career as a public speaker. Spence began this career in 1871 when the South Australian Institute asked her for a lecture. She refused the convention by which she would write the lecture which would then be presented by a man, and instead read it herself, saying she wanted 'to make (it) easier henceforward for any woman who felt she had something to say to stand up and say it'. Subsequently invited to preach in the Unitarian pulpit, Spence had become an accomplished speaker by the 1890s. In 1892 she launched a campaign for 'effective voting' on public platforms throughout South Australia, in Melbourne, Sydney, and (in 1893) across the United States. This cause preoccupied her for the remainder of her life. In promoting it she stood for election to the Federal Convention of 1897, thus becoming Australia's first female political candidate.

At the same time she worked strenuously to improve the position of women. Vice-president of the Women's Suffrage League from 1891 until the vote was won in 1894 in South Australia, the first colony to grant female suffrage, she publicised the struggle in the United States and Britain, speaking to women's clubs and establishing contacts with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams and Millicent Garrett Fawcett. She provided active support to the Sydney suffragist Rose Scott (q.v.), the Melbourne suffragist Vida Goldstein (q.v.), and the feminist journalist Alice Henry. She attempted to form a South Australian branch of the International Council of Women. From 1901 until her death she chaired the management board of the Co-operative Clothing Company, a shirt-making factory owned and run exclusively by women, in which the workers as well as the owners held shares. In 1909, the year before she died, she chaired the meeting which formed the Women's Non-Party Political Association. She was mourned on her death as 'The Grand Old Woman of Australia'. In 1986 a statue was placed in her memory in Light Square, Adelaide.

Susan Magarey

Susan Magarey Unbridling the Tongues of Women: a Biography of Catherine Helen Spence 1985.