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Office for Women

Key People

Mary Lee

Suffragist Mary Lee was born in Ireland in 1821, marrying in 1844. After becoming widowed, Mary and daughter Evelyn sailed in 1879 to Australia, settling in Adelaide to nurse sick son John. Following his death in 1880, Mary and Evelyn remained in Adelaide, Mary having become quite attached to the city.

Mary was devoted to political and social reform displaying leadership, conviction and perseverance. She became the ladies' secretary of the Social Purity Society, working for legislative change in women's sexual and social rights. This campaigning provoked public discussion of related issues, gaining among other achievements, the raising of the age of consent to 16. Recognising the value of the vote, Mary and other members of the Society founded the Women's Suffrage League in 1888 to focus on gaining this privilege for women.

Mary Lee gave speeches at community meetings and events organised by the League, and wrote letters and articles for the newspapers. She was an active member of the League, collecting signatures on petitions, arranging deputations to politicians and collecting subscriptions. She was also a key part of the institution of the Working Women's Trade Union in 1890, which sought to improve conditions for women in sweated trades.

The largest of the South Australian petitions for women's suffrage contained over 11,600 signatures and was presented to the House of Assembly on 30 August 1894. Mary Lee oversaw the process, with the final result being a document 400 feet long.

After the passing of the Constitution Amendment Act on 18 December 1894, Mary Lee was nominated to stand for Parliament but declined, on the grounds that she preferred to lobby without political ties.

Catherine Helen Spence

Born in 1825 in Scotland, Catherine Helen Spence emigrated to Australia at the age of 14 along with her family. Her father was a clerk to the first Adelaide Municipal Council, 1840-43.

Working as a governess and harbouring dreams of becoming an author, Spence published wrote the first female-authored novel about life in Australia - Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever (1854). Further novels followed, including Mr. Hogarth's Will and The Author's Daughter. She also wrote the first social studies textbook used in Australian schools - The Laws We Live Under (1880).

A keen social reformer, Spence helped found the Boarding-Out Society in 1872, placing orphaned, destitute and reformed delinquent children in family homes. Later she would become a member of the State Children's Council when it was formed, and the Destitute Board.

Spence was a proponent of proportional representation, seeing it as a way of ensuring representation of minorities. By 1892 she had become a keen and accomplished public speaker and preacher, delivering sermons in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

In 1891, Spence joined the women's suffrage campaign becoming vice-president of the Women's Suffrage League in South Australia. Following the success of this campaign in 1894, Spence travelled to New South Wales and Victoria to support their suffrage efforts, and spoke at meetings of the Women's League formed in Adelaide which sought to educate women politically.

Catherine Helen Spence was the first female political candidate in Australia, running for the Federal Convention in 1897. She passed away on 3 April 1910 after having raised three families of orphaned children. She was mourned as 'The Grand Old Woman of Australia', and was a great example and inspiration of what women could achieve.

Augusta Zadow

Born Christiane Susanne Augustine Zadow in Germany in 1846, Augusta Zadow was best known for her role as the 'first lady inspector of factories'.

Augusta emigrated to Australia in 1877 with her husband and 3-year-old son, settling in Goodwood. Dedicated to assisting women in industrialised clothing manufacturing trades, she was key in the establishment of the Working Women's Trade Union in 1890 and was its foundation treasurer. From late 1891 she was a delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council. In her role she investigated complaints about women's wages, work safety and conditions.

In addition, Augusta also managed the Distressed Women and Children's Fund which saw kind and generous responses across the colony to her earnest appeals.

Augusta's appointment to the role of Lady Inspector of Factories occurred in February 1895, at which time she resigned from her work with the Union. She was persistent, precise and practical in her investigations of factories, often writing into the night to finish reports.

She died in 1896 and was honoured by a tombstone paid for by 1000 threepenny subscriptions gathered through the Trades and Labor Council.

Elizabeth Webb Nicholls

Born 21 February 1850 in Rundle Street, Elizabeth married Alfred Nicholls in 1870 and gave birth to five children, also raising two orphaned relatives. It is said that Elizabeth 'chafed quietly' at 'unreasonable restraint' and as a young woman is reported to have said 'I long to have the will and the power to be very useful'.

She was an active Sunday school teacher and made her public speaking debut at a Methodist women's conference in 1885. The following year she was a founding member of Adelaide Women's Christian Temperance Union and in 1891 was among the first women to be admitted to the South Australian Temperance Alliance.

Inspired by the American temperance worker Frances E. Willard, Elizabeth in 1889 became the WCTU's South Australian president, only resigning the post in 1897 when the demands of her position as Australasian president became too great however returning as State president 1907-27. Founder and editor of the WCTU's journal Our Federation, Elizabeth wrote of her travels interstate and also attended conferences in Paris, London and Edinburgh throughout 1906, attending the tenth world convention of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Geneva in 1920.

In her role as councillor of the Women's Suffrage League and through the WCTU, Elizabeth helped gather 8268 of the 11,600 signatures on the petition of 1894 submitted to parliament to demand women's suffrage. Prior to the first election in which women participated (1896), she prepared a 'Platform of Principles'.

Elizabeth was a member of the Women's Non-Party Political Association in 1909 and was its president in 1911 when a deputation went to Premier John Verran demanding female jurors, justices of the peace and 'police matrons', and for sex instruction for young people. Later she became a lifetime vice-president of the League of Women Voters.

Held in high regard, Elizabeth also relished conflict and managed it with humour and tact, and was also a 'lucid and forcible speaker'. From 1895-1922 she was a member of the Adelaide Hospital Board and in 1906 was a member of the royal commission on the treatment of inebriates, also serving as one of the first four female justices of the peace, in which capacity she often served at the Children's Court. She was a strong advocate for female appointments in other States and sought improvement of conditions and wages for working women. Elizabeth was also a shareholder in the women's South Australian Co-operative Clothing Co.

The WCTU remained her focus and in 1915 the organisation triumphed in the achievement, through a referendum, of six o'clock closing hours in public houses.

For years prior to her passing Elizabeth lived at Willard House on Wakefield Street, WCTU headquarters and residence. She died in North Adelaide on 3 August 1943 and was buried in Payneham cemetery.

Serena Thorne Lake

Serena Lake was born in Devon on 28 October 1842 and became a lively, vivacious and well read young woman. An evangelical preacher, Serena accompanied her brother to Queensland in 1865 establishing a mission at the request of the English Bible Christian Conference.She also visited Victoria, and travelled through the state preaching in 1867.

In 1870, she was invited to Adelaide by South Australian Bible Christians and preached to crowded rooms, going out in the evenings to meet with prostitutes and influence them to enter the Female Refuge.

Marrying minister Octavius Lake in 1871 (only accepting once he had sworn approval of female ministers), Serena had seven children however sadly only one survived early childhood. She accompanied her husband on his ministry circuits, providing assistance to the needy and preaching. Believing gender equality to be 'the original design of the Creator', Serena was elected to the council of the South Australian Women's Suffrage League as a founding member in 1888. Her ability to speak with passion, combined with her wit and logic provided Serena with the necessary skills to share the stage with other suffrage leaders such as Mary Lee.

In 1889, Serena was appointed 'colonial organiser and suffrage superintendent' of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), also founding approximately 38 new unions across South Australia and Adelaide. As well as gaining hundreds of supporters, Serena also engaged male associates and collected petition signatures.

In 1891 she was appointed a WCTU lifetime vice-president.

Serena moved the adoption of the suffrage league's annual report in May 1892 however it seems she subsequently devoted her life to evangelical and humanitarian causes, passing away on 9 July 1902 in Adelaide Hospital, and being buried in Payneham cemetery.

Rosetta Birks

A suffragist and philanthropist, Rosetta Birks was born on 12 March 1856 in Adelaide and married Charles Birks in 1879, becoming step-mother to his six children. They lived in England following their marriage and returned to Adelaide in 1886.

Rosetta presided over several Baptist women's associations including a mothers' union, and she was also involved in the formation of a women's guild in 1909 in order for the women workers who attended her church to be able to meet. She was a member and president of many philanthropic organisations including the Ladies' Social Purity League which was involved in forming the Women's Suffrage League. Rosetta managed the finances of the League until the vote was achieved in 1894.

Rosetta and her husband regularly hosted meetings at their home in Glenelg and as a result garnered much support for women's suffrage. She was proudly the first woman to vote in Glenelg in April 1896.

She became a board member of the Adelaide Hospital in 1896 and in 1902 helped found (and became vice-president of) the SA branch of the National Council of Women and was also appointed to the board of the Queen's Home (a maternity home).

Rosetta is credited with the modernisation of the Australasian wing of the YWCA and was elected president in 1902. In 1903, Adelaide became the first branch to introduce junior membership for girls as young as 10. Other programs included child-rearing lectures and classes promoting the development of womanhood 'science'. Among her more remarkable achievements is the oversight of significant building extensions in Hindmarsh Square during which time membership of the YWCA reached record levels (1907).

The YWCA held international conferences in London and Paris in 1906, and in Berlin in 1910 which were attended by Rosetta. She was central in the formation of the National YWCA of Australasia and in 1911 launched a YWCA Travellers' Aid Society linked to government-assisted immigration.

Rosetta Birks passed away while addressing a meeting of the College Park Congregational Church on 3 October 1911.

Mary Colton

Born in London in 1822, Mary accompanied her brother, sister and widowed father to Adelaide in 1839 and married John Colton in 1844 (Premier in 1876-77 and 1884-5). Mary was one of Adelaide's earliest Sunday School teachers and was devoted to her 'dear girls', often walking to visit them and help if they fell ill. Witnessing poverty and despair, Mary became a lifelong philanthropist working with the Dorcas Society, South Adelaide Wesleyan Ladies' Working Society and later the Nursing Sisters' Association. She was also dedicated to improving the welfare of children, joining deputations in 1870 and 1872 along with Catherine Helen Spence to press the government to end institutional care and introduce boarding-out for state children. From 1885 Mary worked on the pioneering State Children's Council, which took responsibility for foster children and children in reformatories or industrial schools.

Mary acknowledged no social barriers and entertained generously with her husband in their Hackney abode. She was described as 'sunshiny', energetic and serene, and had nine children of whom several sadly perished in infancy.

Mary's particular area of interest was women – she served on the ladies' committee that managed the practical affairs of the Servant's Home for newly-arrived female immigrants and servants awaiting employment and by 1867 had joined the ladies' committee for the Female Refuge providing shelter for single pregnant girls, reformed prostitutes, deserted wives and victims of violence where she provided counselling and friendship. In 1883 she became treasurer and then president of the ladies' division of the Social Purity Society, campaigning for the age of consent to be raised from 12 which was facilitated by supporting legislation led by husband John in 1885. This convinced Mary that parliamentary suffrage was the key to securing women's rights.

A founder of the Adelaide Children's Hospital in 1876, Mary accepted a request to form a women's advisory planning committee, joining and remaining on the board of management for the extent of her life. Mary actively served approximately 22 services including Home for Incurables, Maternity Relief Association and the Stranger's Friend Society. She also provided assistance to female prisoners in the 1880s and 1890s as president of the Adelaide Female Reformatory, visiting and providing information on their discharge. A club founded by Mary in 1884 eventually became a branch of the YWCA of which she remained lifelong president.

In May 1892 Mary succeeded Edward Stirling as president of the Women's Suffrage League, providing strength, resilience and wisdom speaking simply and with clarity at public meetings. She was received with warm applause when the League met to celebrate its triumph at the gazetting of the suffrage legislation in March 1895.

The Colton Ward at the Children's Hospital and the Lady Colton Hall in the YWCA building of 1900 were named after her. She died at home on 30 July 1898 and was buried in West Terrace Cemetery.

Page last updated : 31 Oct 2019
Provided by:
Department of Human Services
Last Updated:
02 Mar 2021
Printed on:
02 Oct 2023
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