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Why didn't she stand for Parliament?

> View our Catherine Helen Spence Library Guide for more information.

In considering why Catherine Helen Spence, and indeed May Lee, would not stand for Parliament, we know some of their reasons for not standing and can guess at others. Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Adelaide, Susan Magarey has written an erudite 17 page analysis on 'Why didn't they want to be Members of Parliament: suffragists in South Australia' which bears complete reading. It is chapter 4 of Suffrage and beyond; international feminist perspectives: edited by Caroline Daley and Melanie Nolan (Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1994) held in the Bray Reference Library. An extract is adapted here with kind permission from Susan Magarey.

"When Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence were invited to stand for election in South Australia in 1896, both of them declined. There are a host of reasons for these two suffragists to have refused even to consider becoming Members of Parliament. Two were personal and practical: their relative lack of the means to finance an election campaign, and their age. Mary Lee’s last years were blighted by poverty, and the income that Catherine Spence earned from her journalism was generally less than 300 pounds a year. Moreover, in 1896, Catherine Spence was 71 and Mary Lee was 75. Yet this second is not an entirely convincing reason; they were not the only suffragists who could have been nominated, but there is no evidence that either they or anyone else, considered suggesting younger women in their place. Age did not deter them from continuing in the public life of the colony/state. Mary Lee took her responsibilities as official visitor to lunatic asylums very seriously. Catherine Spence went on not only to campaign for election to the 1897 Federal Convention, in which she scored 7,383 votes, coming 22nd out of 33 candidates, but also to continue her campaign for effective voting which lasted until she was on her death bed in 1910.

A third reason for their refusal to consider becoming Members of Parliament was their 19th Century faith in other, non-parliamentary, means of bringing about change leading to greater social justice. They were far from being alone in this. After all, substantial elements in the labour movement had been seeking social justice by direct industrial action, rather than parliamentary representation, only a few years earlier, and were to do so again in the future.

But the principal reason for both Mary Lee and Catherine Spence declining their nominations for election lay in their commitment to forming organisations that would enable women to work, collectively, in the interests of women, and their recognition that such a commitment conflicted with the very different priorities of the newly emerged political parties based on the competing economic interests of labour and capital. Mary Lee explained her refusal of nomination in 1896: she did not want, she said, to be ‘bound by pledge or obligation to any party whatever’. Catherine Spence’s campaign for 'effective voting' and her commitment to the principle of co-operation rather than competition, cut across the lines dividing the new political parties. Rather than accepting nomination for election to Parliament, she went on to attempt to found a South Australian branch of the National Council of Women; to help establish the Co-operative Clothing Company—in which the workers held shares just as the investors did, all women—and to chair its board of management; and to preside over the meeting that founded the Women’s Non-Party Political Association. The development of political parties based on economic class, and the competition between them was anathema to her.

Over the ensuing fifty-odd years, only fifteen women even contested seats in South Australian elections, and they were not successful. Not until 1959 did a South Australian woman gain a seat in the South Australian legislature.

So we have a paradox. Women were proud of having gained this right, even if they had not sought it. But they were then not able to exercise it successfully for a further half century. Yet this should come as no surprise. After all, as North American feminist historians Nancy Cott and Joan Scott have both noted, in Joan Scott's words, 'The history of feminism is the history of women dealing in paradox, and of the radical impossibility for women of resolving the paradoxes with which they are presented.' I want to explore two paradoxes raised by the question presented to the South Australian suffragists of women becoming legislators. The first is a paradox of establishing equal rights between bodies of different sexes. The second is a paradox of liberal democracy itself, a form of government that aspires to egalitarianism in profoundly unequal economic and social conditions.

For Mary Lee, the paradox presented by the campaign for votes for women, and its logical extension, women taking their places in the houses of Parliament, was the paradox of claiming equal rights with men, while simultaneously recognising, and promoting, difference between women and men. Like many proponents of female suffrage, she believed that women and men were intellectual equals: 'mind has no sex' she asserted. But experience has. The experience of the majority of women was the experience of working as wives and mothers, experience that emphasised essential bodily differences between women and men—the experience of motherhood, for women.

Mary Lee went on to draw analogies between the necessity for class-based political representation and representation grounded in difference. 'How can men raised above the workers, living on a totally different social plane.... represent working men?' she asked. She answered her own question: They cannot think for working men because they cannot think as working men. They cannot think as working men because they are not working men. Thus, too, how can men represent women? Men cannot think for women because they cannot think as women, and they cannot think as women because they are not women' (Voice 21 April 1893 page 77).

The conceptual factor that for Mary Lee, as for many other suffragists.., resolved this paradox was a concept of evolution, derived, at several removes, from Darwin. Evolution required both. 'Masculine and feminine influence must be wedded, co-ordinated, in order to fairly round out the moral and spiritual functions of men and women.'

For Catherine Helen Spence, the paradox presented by the campaign for citizenship for women was a two-fold paradox at the heart of liberal democracy in a capitalist economy and a patriarchal gender order, the paradox of demands for egalitarian and altruistic government amidst profoundly unequal economic interests and the continuing subjection of women in their most intimate as well as their most public relationships.' (Analysis indebted to Carole Pateman The disorder of women.)

Two of her six novels, Clara Morison and Mr Hogarth's will, contain passionate depictions of the difficulties for women trying to earn their livelihoods in a gender-segmented market. Two other novels, Gathered in and Handfasted, advanced powerful arguments for change to the laws and customs governing marriage as one of the principal means of keeping women financially dependent and hence subordinate to men. If women were to continue to be subjected to the authority of fathers, husbands and brothers, then how could they exercise their votes independently and in their own interests?

In 1986 historian Carol Bacchi noted the paradox of South Australia's achievement of the right for women to stand for election and the long wait before they were able to do this successfully. Bacchi's explanation of this paradox is of 'prevailing attitudes... towards women and their appropriate roles', and the contradictions between them. Mary Lee resolved the paradoxical claims of equality and difference by adding a third term—'evolution'. Others since, including Bacchi, have deconstructed the binary opposition between the terms 'equality' and 'difference' showing that claims for equality are not necessarily assertions of sameness, so that recognition of difference does not necessarily prohibit granting of equal rights.

Such an explanation ignores the double-edged paradox enacted and written about by Catherine Spence throughout her life: equality for women will require a sweeping re-negotiation of the 'sexual contract' at the heart of liberal democracy; change to the gender segmentation of the labour market; to power relationships within marriage; and to the sexual division of labour within households, if the formal achievement of votes for women, and the rather accidental achievement of the right for women to stand for election, can possibly achieve greater equality for women."


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