Martha Webster

Eliza Martha Webster (1839-1915), preacher and suffrage campaigner, was born in London, daughter of Caroline (born Gyles) and William Turner, a tailor. She was educated for three years at a high school at Dijon, France, where she 'early developed high intellectual qualities'. She arrived in Melbourne in October 1870 to visit her brother Henry Gyles Turner, general manager in Melbourne for the Commercial Bank of Australia and historian and littérateur. He was a leading member of the Melbourne Unitarian church, though a reluctant preacher, and Martha 'came to (his) assistance'. On 26 October 1873 at a special meeting of the congregation Martha was elected a regular minister.

At her inauguration she read the lesson from I Corinthians XIV and addressed the text 'Let your women keep silent in Church', emphasising individual responsibility to inward consciousness: 'It seemed to me at first not quite in accordance with the fitness of things that Unitarianism, which represents an essentially masculine order of thought, should be represented by a woman. At the same time, a woman represents the laity more completely than a man could do. Unitarianism has always upheld the rights of the laity in the Church'. In a good-humoured response to criticism she observed it was 'somewhat inconsistent' for a man who came to hear a woman preach then to complain she was not a man. She was reported to be 'fluent, if not eloquent', 'very elevated' and 'poetic'. Three of her sermons were published. Martha married John Webster, a bank officer, on 22 August 1878 at the office of the Registrar-General, Melbourne. She resigned her pastorate but was persuaded to continue until her successor arrived from London; when he resigned after three months she returned as minister, retiring in 1883.

In May 1884 Mrs Webster was present at the meeting which resolved to form the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society. She initially supported a property qualification but for expediency only; it was a minority point of view which she abandoned. From 1885-87 she was in Britain with her husband and there preached in London, Birmingham and Scottish cities. On their return they lived at Boolarra, Gippsland, but Martha came often to Melbourne to stay with her brother who entertained lavishly at St Kilda. She was active in the Australian Women's Suffrage Society, using the arguments of no taxation without representation (1888) and 'national housekeeping' (1895) - 'men who have muddled the finances have the vote, and the women who have helped to meet the liabilities have not'.

From October 1914, requiring medical treatment, she lived in Melbourne. She died at St Kilda on 11 August 1915. The Woman Voter described her as 'intellectual, simple in tastes, a good conversationalist, decidedly humorous and sarcastic but withal kindly'.

Farley Kelly and Heather Radi