Mary Lee

Mary Lee (1821-1909), suffragist, was born on 14 February 1821 in Monaghan, Ireland, daughter of John Walsh and his wife. In 1844 she married George Lee, organist and vicar-choral of Armagh Cathedral; they had seven children. In 1879 Mary, widowed, sailed with her daughter to Adelaide to nurse her sick son who died a year later. The two women remained, Mary becoming devoted to 'dear Adelaide', which she could not in any case afford to leave.

For the rest of her life Mary Lee, 'once the slip of an old red-hot Tory stem', worked single-mindedly for political and social reform. Her qualities of leadership, conviction and perseverance matched the social and political climate of late nineteenth century South Australia. She was first interested in Jewish colonisation. In 1883 she became foundation secretary of the ladies' division of the Social Purity Society, working to improve women's social and sexual status. The society lobbied strenuously and stimulated public and parliamentary debate, which resulted in 1885 legislation raising the age of consent to sixteen. Subsequently secretary of the Adelaide Ladies Social Purity Society, she continued her work for women and girls, including street newspaper sellers. The Purity Society soon recognised that women's suffrage was essential to their improved status and in July 1888 inaugurated the Women's Suffrage League.

As secretary to the League, Mary Lee played a major part in South Australia's political history. She skilfully directed the campaign for public acceptance of women's suffrage. Unafraid of controversy, determined, and sometimes abrasive, she publicised her 'crowning task': 'If I die before it is achieved, like Mary Tudor and Calais, 'Women's enfranchisement' shall be found engraved upon my heart'. Steeped in liberal ideology, especially the egalitarian ideas of J. S. Mill, she used such arguments, embellished by historical, literary and Biblical allusions, in her speeches, newspaper articles and letters.

The League's objects were women's enfranchisement on equal terms with men, without claiming access to parliamentary seats. From 1888-92 Mrs Lee worked with League president Edward Stirling, who in 1885 had first introduced in the South Australian Parliament the resolution for female suffrage. In 1892 Mary Colton (q.v.), whom Mary Lee 'dearly loved and deeply honoured', became president; together they directed their deep belief in social justice towards women's suffrage - 'the cause of humanity'. Mary Lee emphasised that she was 'not a woman's rights woman'; her ideology was shaped by her life experiences, especially among the poor, by her wide reading, and by her Christian commitment, first to the Anglican church and latterly in South Australia to the social reformist Primitive Methodists.

In December 1889, at a public meeting on 'sweated' labour, Mary Lee proposed the formation of trade unions for women; when the Working Women's Trades Union was founded in the following year she became its secretary. She visited clothing factories and workshops, persuading employers to adopt the union's rates. In 1893 she was union vice- president, and as delegate to the Trades and Labor Council she worked on a sub-committee examining sweating in the clothing trades, and on the Distressed Women's and Children's Committee. She was also a member of the Female Refuge ladies' committee.

Meanwhile, she spoke eloquently at Suffrage League meetings and socials, at Democratic clubs, and despite a dislike of total abstinence, at Woman's Christian Temperance Union meetings. When her bare expenses were paid she travelled to speak in the country. Backed by the League's council, she planned wider strategies, organised petitions and deputations and collected shilling membership subscriptions. She corresponded with women in other colonies advising on the formation of suffrage leagues. With the backing of the Wesleyan, Baptist and Congregational churches from 1889, and of the United Labor Party from 1891, public interest intensified and Mary's confidence increased, although privately she admitted suffering when criticised. In 1893 she castigated the Labor Party as 'a lot of nincompoops' for supporting a suffrage bill encumbered by a referendum condition. After six separate bills the seventh 1894 bill was unencumbered.

Mary organised a colony-wide suffrage petition which yielded 11,600 signatures. The 120 metre-long roll was presented to Parliament in August 1894. Women 'deluged' members with telegrams and thronged the galleries during the debates. On 18 December 1894 the Constitution Amendment Act was passed; South Australian women were the first in Australia to gain the parliamentary vote. Additionally, they gained the right to a postal vote and the right to stand for Parliament.

In 1895 Mrs Lee was invited by two trade unions to stand for Parliament but declined, preferring to work 'on the side of right . . . unfettered by pledge or obligation to any party whatever'. Taking a non-party stand she advised women on their voting rights and duties. In 1896, on her 75th birthday, the Premier handed her a purse of sovereigns, publicly donated, and an illuminated address which acknowledged that women's suffrage 'is mainly due to your persistent advocacy and unwearied exertions'.

In 1896 the government appointed her first female official visitor to the lunatic asylums; for twelve years she regularly performed the task with courage and compassion. Her last years were blighted by poverty, forcing her to sell her library. There was little response to a public appeal for her relief, launched by an Adelaide newspaper and in the Australian Woman's Sphere. She complained to Rose Scott (q.v.) that her public work had all been at her own expense and that she was threatened with homelessness. Her 'advanced' views had not endeared her to many, and her achievements were gradually forgotten. She died in her rented North Adelaide home on 18 September 1909.

Helen Jones

Helen Jones Nothing Seemed Impossible 1985.