Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2018

Mary Lee (2018), by Denise George

Mary Lee, Denise George’s biography of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights is a perfect companion to Clare Wright’s recently published You Daughters of Freedom (which I reviewed here).  That’s because Wright’s book about the struggle for women’s suffrage in Australia and beyond – comprehensive though it is – pays scant attention to the event that started it all in Australia: the achievement of the women’s vote in South Australia in 1894.  Had it not been for women’s suffrage in South Australia, those ‘founding fathers’ would not have had to negotiate women’s suffrage in the new rules for voting in the very first federal election.  As Wright makes very clear, the South Australians were ready to derail federation altogether if their women were not allowed to vote, and it was inconceivable that women in some states could vote and others could not.  The parliament was snookered, and so women got the vote!

Jubilee 150 Walkway North Terrace Adelaide: Statue of Mary Lee. Sculptor: Pat Moseley (Wikipedia Commons*

Yet the South Australian story of women’s suffrage is barely known.  Denise George deserves all credit for unearthing the story from obscurity, because as the blurb tells us, Lee’s journals and most of her letters, along with a dearth of recorded women’s history, kept her contribution hidden for more than 125 years.  Mary Lee is a woman whose statue should not only be among the gentlemen of the South Australian parliament, she should be prominently acknowledged in our national parliament as well.  (I will be delighted if someone who lives in Canberra inspects the building to see if she is).

Mary Lee, suffragist and social advocate, really was an amazing woman.  She was nearly sixty when she and her daughter Evelyn landed in Australia to look after her gravely ill son Benjamin, and after he died she threw herself into battle to improve the lives of women.

The list of causes she took on is impressive – everything from raising the age of consent to sixteen (from— can you believe it? ten years old in 1875) to ending capital punishment, but it was her extraordinary determination to achieve votes for women that is her most important achievement.  She endured years of abuse and ridicule in the press and the parliament, records of which seem improbable now, but which were a routine occurrence in her life.  I won’t dignify these insults by quoting them here, but instead share with you the words of the anonymous journalist who spoke up for giving Mary a solatium in her old age.  (A solatium is a form of compensation for emotional rather than physical or financial harm, but Mary—never wealthy anyway— had beggared herself in support of her causes and there were no old age pensions in those days).

I recollect reporting a speech made by Mary Lee some eight years ago. It was made in a small room in the YMCA building, and its object was to start the agitation for women’s franchise in earnest.  There were, if my memory serves me, some three or four ladies of the gimlet-eye and determined-chin type, and perhaps three or four men, one of whom was Mr Caldwell MP, all looking rather sheepish.  Mrs Mary Lee, however, is of the plump order of agitator, and if she experiences worry, she does not show it.  She spoke excellently; I remember that.  Since that time she has had to endure much obloquy, and fifty pounds is a very poor solatium.  If I had been so suspiciously regarded by my own sex for a term of years I should require to be pensioned off for life and a good stiff pension too. (p.200)

It was not her own sex, however, who caused most of that obloquy. One of the many scurrilous parliamentarians insulting Mary was one Ebenezer Ward.  What is not often realised is that the most vehement objections to granting the female franchise came from the liquor industry who feared restrictions that might come from enfranchised women who (then as now) suffered most from men’s abuse of alcohol. Ward—whose profile at the ADB Online reports on his scandalous private life and his bankruptcy but has nothing to say about his abuse of Mary Lee— was often drunk in parliament. Women politicians today complain about bullying in parliament, but at least they are there as of right and have the protection of standing orders; Mary Lee had to endure Ward’s monstrous insults without any right of reply except through her letters in the press.

The first part of the book covers Mary Lee’s early life, reconstructed from all kinds of administrative records, and deftly written to convey the atmosphere, society and social mores within which she grew up, married and became a teacher, a mother, and a widow.  While this is illustrative, it does not – cannot – tell us the one thing I most want to know.  Who or what were the formative people or events that triggered her activism?  What books did she read?  What lectures did she attend?  Which speakers inspired her?  These catalysts matter as much today as they did then: what makes a person get up and do something to make the world a better place instead of just thinking or talking or generating #hashtags about it? The loss of her journals and letters makes these answers irretrievable.

Because, as this biography is at pains to confirm, in the 19th century there were social conventions about women and marriage that made feisty women such as Mary Lee very rare indeed.  Whereas in Australia women from the earliest convict days had broken all kinds of conventions, in Ireland (where Mary Lee was born, grew up and married) and Britain (where she had her children, taught alongside her husband George, started her own school, and was widowed), social conventions were more rigid.  And unlike her middle-class compatriots in the battle for women’s rights, Mary was working-class, which makes her achievements all the more remarkable.

Mary Lee is part of the Wakefield Press History series and is the first to be published about this remarkable South Australian woman.  The author, Denise George PhD, researched Mary’s life in Armagh, Monaghn, Cambridge, London and Adelaide, to create this very readable and totally inspiring biography.  If you would like to donate to other history projects at Wakefield Press, visit their site for further details.

See also Pamela Burton’s review at Honest History.

Photo Attribution: Pdfpdf at English Wikipedia

Author: Mary Lee
Title: Mary Lee, the life and times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018, 256pp including notes, bibliography, acknowledgements & index
ISBN: 9781743055960
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press and Fishpond: Mary Lee: The Life and Times of a ‘turbulent Anarchist’ and Her Battle for Women’s Rights


  1. Sounds like my sort of woman, I’d better buy the book. (One of my daughters will shortly be getting Clare Wright’s). It’s hard to tell what was read more than a century ago, though JS Mill is often cited, but I’ve recently run into another (in Brona’s Books), by Mary Shelley’s mother, which I’ve downloaded and hopefully will soon start reading.


    • Definitely your sort of woman! But you’ll also be pleased to know that there were some terrific men as well, without whose support the struggle would have been that much harder:)


  2. Another unsung heroine. Definitely my kind of woman and will be reading as well as promoting her accomplishments. As one who identifies as working class and recently discovering a number of feminists from Glasgow am always delighted to hear of these marvellous women both near and far.


    • Their stories should be told too. Mairi Neil, who comments here from time to time, has written a screenplay about another amazing woman – all we need is for the ABC to fund it for our TV screens!




  4. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  5. I would want to know what books she read as well. In biographies, often that’s the one passage I flag to put into my notes: it feels like a key! Still, this does sound like a rewarding read all the same.


    • It must have been so frustrating for the author. Maybe, someone, cleaning out her stuff, disposed of it all, knowing – or not knowing? – how important she was; or maybe because she had to keep moving to cheaper and cheaper places as she aged and her poverty bit deep, things were mislaid or disorganised or just couldn’t be taken with her.
      When I packed up my old music teacher’s house, (because I was her executor) I found lots of documents, annotated music scores, and old photos, and I had no idea what was important what was not. So I took 13 boxes of it to the State Library and let the experts decide. It’s taken a while but now if I search her name, there is a file for her documents, some of her music programmes have been catalogued and so have some of the photos. So even though it was a huge hassle, it turned out to have been worth it:)


  6. I looked to see if ‘my’ Catherine Helen Spence was connected with her, but Spence came late to the idea of women’s suffrage.In fact, she sounds a bit ambivalent about it.


    • Yes, she gets a mention, but in the context of her enthusiasm for a change in the voting system – one that she couldn’t vote in!
      My intuition tells me that there is a back story to this, but it’s shrouded in lost documents…


      • I’ve been meaning to look up CHS’ autobiography – finished after her death by her companion Jeannie Young. I really must get a copy.


        • I went to a terrific talk by Janine (Resident Judge) about Spence. She was a fascinating woman. And I loved her book Mr Hogarth’s Will.


  7. […] Mary Lee, by Denise George […]


  8. […] book because they did not go to England to help their sisters with the campaign there:  Mary Lee, see my review of Denise George’s bio), Catherine Helen Spence (See Janine’s review at the Resident Judge of Port Phillip, of Susan […]


  9. […] the Federal Convention held in Adelaide.  (Read my review of Denise George’s biography of Mary Lee, SA’s indefatigable suffragist to find out how suffrage was achieved, and ditto for Clare […]


  10. […] were heroes such as Catherine Helen Spence, (see my review of her autobiography;) Mary Lee (see my review of Denise George’s bio); and the South Australian public servant William Boothby; and the emerging Labor Party was […]


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