Rose Scott

Rose Scott (1847-1925), feminist, was born on 15 October 1847 at 'Glendon' near Singleton, New South Wales, fifth of eight children born to Sarah Anne (born Rusden), an accomplished linguist and scholar, and Helenus Scott, pastoralist and later police magistrate in Maitland. Rose was educated at home by her mother. Her brothers were sent to grammar school; the family took a keen interest in the private school education of their sons. They were 'well-connected' and made regular trips to Sydney participating in social, cultural and intellectual events. Rose did not marry. When later called upon to explain this, she always with some irritation presented it as a rational decision: life was too short and there was too much important work to be done to waste it serving one man.

Following her father's death in 1879, Rose Scott inherited 500 pounds a year and the sole care of her mother, to whom she was devoted. The death of her beloved sister Gussie (Augusta) in 1880 was the occasion of two momentous steps: she adopted Gussie's son Harry (Helenus Hope Scott) Wallace and she established her home in Woollahra, Sydney. Within the constraints of her mother's poor health she became a Sydney celebrity. Her regular Friday evenings attracted important guests; she joined the Women's Literary Society and became secretary of the Womanhood Suffrage League (1891). She claimed the source of her feminism was hearing her mother read the story of Catherine's subjugation in The Taming of the Shrew, but she was also well read in contemporary feminist literature. Her mother was opposed to women's suffrage, and Rose's first campaign as a suffragist might well have been a source of domestic tension. In 1892 she publicly supported a bill to raise the age of consent from fourteen to sixteen, which would also have criminalised seduction of women under promise of marriage. To Rose the derisory repose to the bill showed women's wishes were of no consequence, nor would be until they were an element in the electorate. In the next few years she concentrated her considerable energies on the suffrage struggle, using her social contacts and lobbying skills astutely. She believed women would vote as a sex and her non-party stance was logical: the threat of halving the support for a party would keep the parties 'on their toes'. Her dispute with labour-supporting feminists was a consequence.

Her mother's death in 1896 was followed by more diverse activity. She became president of a ladies' committee of the Prisoners' Aid Association (1898) and following an inspection of conditions in Darlinghurst Gaol wrote a stinging report calling for a separate women's prison (opened at Long Bay in 1908) and reform of discriminatory practices. In 1896 Scott was a foundation member of the New South Wales National Council of Women, which affiliated with the International Council of Women; she was corresponding secretary to the International Council and its Australian correspondent on the legal position of women and children. She supported moves for the early closing of shops and factories. She strenuously opposed federation; and in 1900 condemned the British for the Boer War. She became president of the New South Wales branch of the Peace Society.

In 1902 when women's suffrage legislation had passed both Commonwealth and New South Wales parliaments, Rose Scott became foundation president of the Women's Political and Educational League. As its president she campaigned on the age of consent (raised to sixteen in 1910), the law on child maintenance and inheritance (to secure a widow's entitlement to a share in her husband's estate), and the removal of the barrier to women being elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly or to entering the legal profession. She was publicly critical of the Queensland Contagious Diseases legislation and fought vigorously against a proposal to introduce analogous regulation of the prostitute workforce in New South Wales - to supply 'clean women for profligate men'. Like many feminists of her period, Scott saw prostitution as the ultimate symbol of sexual economics and degradation of all women. She helped organise the 1903 petition for the release of Ethel Herringe, gaoled for shooting of her ex-employer who had abandoned her after she became pregnant to him. She was particularly incensed that Herringe had been forced to give birth (to twins) in gaol and that the babies had been taken from her. Scott was a foundation member of the Women's Club and president from 1908 of the Sydney Ladies' Amateur Swimming Association, which brought her into conflict with Fanny Durack (q.v.) over the participation of women in professional international competition: Rose objected to the Olympics on pacifist grounds and identified the demands for male spectatorship as libertarian. She organised 'ladies only' meetings in support of the persecuted 'anti-phallic' sex reformer William Chidley (1912).

'What a catastrophe this war is. Please God England will keep out of it', she wrote on 5 August 1914. 'If only women would wake up surely there would not be any more war.' She dropped out of public life during the war, except for contact with the international women's movement, and retired formally from public life in 1922. She was openly disillusioned about the progress of Australian women since enfranchisement; instead of using their vote to constitute themselves as a new element in political life, they merely doubled the vote for any and all existing parties. Modern women, she believed, had become empty-headed, gaudy, sexual playthings for men.

Rose Scott died on 21 April 1925. She had worked all her public life for measures that might reduce men's power over women, and to expand women's material options so that neither marriage nor prostitution need be women's trade. In seeking women's access to public office and staffing of public institutions (such as warders and police matrons), and institutions facilitating women's use of public space (such as rest rooms and parcel cloakrooms), Scott placed a premium on women's mobility and independence. The terms of her will established the Rose Scott Memorial Prize in International Law at the University of Sydney, for women scholars.

Judith Allen

Ann-Mari Jordens 'Rose Scott: Making a Beginning' in Biographers at Work ed James Walter and Raija Nugent 1984.