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Catherine Helen Spence: her achievements and firsts

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The range of Catherine Helen Spence's interests and achievements are truly amazing. She had a huge impact on the development of South Australia. As an example of what women can achieve she merits a close look. The following summary of her life's work is adapted and reproduced here with kind permission from Suzane Fabian from The changemakers: ten significant Australian women by Suzane Fabian and Morag Loh (Milton, Qld., Jacaranda Press, 1983).

Teacher, journalist, novelist, literary critic, social reformer, political theorist and activist, educator, feminist, public speaker, lay preacher. Catherine's name is linked with an amazing list of 'firsts' and activities.

First female political candidate

When Catherine stood as a candidate for election to the Federal Convention in 1897 she was our first female political candidate. She was told in advance that, even if she won, she could not sit in the house. She was socialist in sympathies and had been nominated as the labour candidate. However, she was not elected.

First fighter for effective voting

Catherine's proposals included political reform. She outlined what she called "pure democracy" and meant to achieve it with a daring new idea - one man, one vote. She was the first and strongest fighter for 'effective voting' (ie., proportional representation).

First female member of several Reform Boards

Catherine was a member of most reforming bodies in the colony; in 1896 she was the first woman member of the Destitute Board, she was on the commission of inquiry into the state of the Adelaide Hospital, she was the first woman member of the South Australian Education Department's Board of Advice, and of the Criminology Society of Adelaide. She became the vice-president of the Kindergarten Union which called for free state child-care centres and encouraged the demand for kindergarten education as a right.

Co-founder of the first fostering-out scheme for children

She helped found the first fostering-out scheme, which became official South Australian policy in 1872 and set the trend for all other colonies. Even today the fostering system is the preferred scheme of dealing with neglected children.

Pioneering the children's courts in Australia

Thanks to her propaganda work the rest of Australia finally followed suit and the country's attitude to the treatment of orphans and illegitimate children changed.

First professional woman journalist in Australia

Catherine's articles were scholarly and covered a wide range of subjects. She wrote about politics, the role of women, class divisions, the poor and the destitute, and religious matters. She claimed to be the first to debate the issue of the land tax that was meant to break up the big squatters' holdings and put small selectors on the land.

First woman novelist in Australia

Catherine is now known as the first Australian woman who wrote Australian novels in the sense that her writing focused on Australia rather than on the mother country. Her books described local conditions as well as the European origins of her characters. She managed to blend the two worlds, while most other colonials looked back to England for their inspiration. Her first novel was Clara Morison about the plight of South Australians at a time when many men deserted the colony for the Victorian goldfields. Throughout her career in fiction she championed the causes of those disadvantaged by bigotry, and wrote about woman's dependent status, the plight of illegitimate children and their right to legal recognition, and the inadequacy of divorce laws.

Wrote the first legal studies textbook produced in Australia

In 1880 Catherine's school textbook The laws we live under was the "first school primer adopted to give the youth of the colony a general idea of the laws they live under". Even now it would be considered a most comprehensive outline of citizens' rights and responsibilities. Like so many great social reformers, Catherine realized the need to educate children to bring out lasting change. Her text outlined the law as it affected the family, land ownership, education, labour, capital, tariffs, governments, insolvency, marriage, banks, building societies, companies, trade unions, insurance, patent law, the press, censorship; and many other topics. Commissioned by the South Australian government, The laws we live under was to become a school text for many decades. It was the first legal studies-type text written at a time when the citizens' obligations were more openly emphasized than the citizens' rights.

Among the first to combat the squatters' monopoly of land

Spence was sympathetic to the problems of small farmers and was among the first to suggest breaking up the squatters' land monopoly to accommodate more selectors.

Helping women workers

Catherine helped found a cooperative factory to enable women workers to set up their own business, cut out the middle man and share the profits among themselves. They took over a small factory and named it the South Australian Cooperative Clothing Co. Ltd. Catherine became the president of the company, and although the factory was not a financial success, once again the 76 year old Miss Spence had shown women a possible way to independence and had given them the confidence to try.

Progress for women within her lifetime

"Born in 'the wonderful century', I have watched the growth of the movement for the uplifting of the masses, from the Reform Bill of 1832 to the demands for adult suffrage. As a member of a church which allows women to speak in the pulpit, a citizen of a State which gives womanhood a vote for the Assembly, a citizen of the Commonwealth which fully enfranchises me for both Senate and Representatives, and a member of a community which was foremost in conferring University degrees on women, I have benefited from the advancement of the educational and political status of women for which the Victorian era will probably stand unrivalled in the annals of the world's history. I have lived through the period of repressed childhood, and witnessed the dawn of a new era which has made the dwellers in youth's 'golden age': the most important factor in human development". From her Autobiography.

In the feminist cause-equality of opportunity

She had devoted her career to the cause of justice for the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. She argued that women belonged to this category. Her books and newspaper articles constantly argued for equality of opportunity. As she herself realized, "had she been born a man instead of a woman, her many talents would have found much higher recognition as well as richer rewards". Catherine scoffed at the useless education middle-class girls received and her life was devoted to proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that women were equal with men.

Public speaker pioneering the public voice of women

The South Australian Institute requested that Catherine write an article on the poets the Brownings. Instead of giving the lectures to a man to read she decided to read her own lecture, "to make it easier henceforward for any women who felt she had something to say to stand up and say it". From her Autobiography.

Combating political ignorance among women

Catherine was a founding member of the Woman's League set up to educate women in their political responsibilities. This group lasted only two years as an organisation but it was just the beginning of Catherine's work in politicizing her sister voters. Suffragists such as Rose Scott and Vida Goldstein gave her the inspiration to try again. In 1902 she was elected Vice-President of the South Australian branch of the National Council of Women. However, disappointed by the lack of interest among women for the intricacies of politics, she resigned in 1906. Later she founded the Women's Non-Party Political Association, later to change its name to the League of Women Voters of South Australia, and continued to argue that only by staying independent and not allying themselves with any political parties could women hope to exert any influence.

Preaching from the pulpit

As a young woman of thirty Catherine had been impressed by the independence and liberalism of the Unitarian Church. She had always been a devout Christian, but in later life she was one of the few women who could and did preach in the Unitarian Church. Even today, a woman preacher is a rarity; in some religions it has yet to be accepted. Catherine's sermons have been reprinted under the title Each in his own tongue (Adelaide, Vardon and Pritchard, 1904).

A proud free-thinker

Although loyalty to her home state was very much a characteristic of Catherine's writing, she was not blind to the dangers of militarism. In all her summations of her life, she always explained that she had helped in making South Australia the sort of colony it was and was proud of its progressive and humanitarian pioneering of laws relating to the poor and to women and children. However, when the Boer War resulted in military marches and 'war sacrifice', her opposition was not to be silenced. Catherine wrote of her 'abhorrence' of war. She objected not only to the war itself, but also to the way in which it encroached on civil liberties: race hatred was encouraged to whip up nationalistic feelings, censorship was strictly enforced to silence opposition, and protest meetings were banned. A staunch democrat, Catherine continued to argue against Australian involvement in the Boer War.


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