Catherine Helen Spence: ‘The most distinguished woman they had had in Australia’

Susan Magarey reflects on the life of Catherine Helen Spence as part of VIDA’s Inspirational Women series for Women’s History Month.

A charismatic public speaker at a time when women were supposed to speak only at their own firesides; a novelist comparable with George Eliot and Charlotte Perkins Gilman; a pioneering woman journalist; a public intellectual influential in the achievement of women’s suffrage in Australia: who could not find inspiration in the life of Catherine Helen Spence! A ‘New Woman’, she declared herself. ‘The Grand Old Woman of Australia’ others called her.

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Catherine Helen Spence, c. 1890s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Scotland in 1825, she emigrated to Australia with her family when she was about to turn fourteen, and built here a life of public achievement unprecedented in a time when ‘a woman’s ethic’ was ‘duty and renunciation’ exercised exclusively in the domestic sphere.

Powered by ambition, she certainly was; even before leaving Britain, she had determined to be ‘a teacher first, and a great writer afterwards’. Thanks to her education in a highly literate dame school, she found engagements as a governess by the time she was seventeen, work she enjoyed. That satisfaction, combined with horror at the Calvinist doctrine of predestined damnation, even of children, determined her that she would not bring children into the world and, however much she liked the chemist, James Allen, who proposed to her, she would not marry him — or anyone else. Her father’s job as Town Clerk had ended when the City of Adelaide went broke in 1843. He died three years later. The other children were leaving to marry or go farming. Young Katie Spence’s earnings were needed: ‘My mother said she never felt the bitterness of poverty after I began to earn money’. She set about becoming a writer.

Novels first: two in the 1850s; two more, both first serialised in the press before achieving print as books, in the 1860s; another, serialised in 1881, but not published as a book until 1977; her sixth was not published at all until a century later. Six three-volume novels and a novella was a substantial output, but writing novels, as Spence herself conceded, was not ‘a lucrative occupation’. It must have felt lonely: she was the first woman in Australia to write fiction, a remarkable achievement.

Her novels did gain attention and applause, belatedly. Miles Franklin compared her to Jane Austen. Kay Daniels admired her ‘clear, easy prose style’. Drusilla Modjeska declared her the founder of a genre of Australian realist fiction. Susan Sheridan applauded her social satire. Had she done nothing else, Catherine Spence would already have been a source of inspiration. But she did more, much more.

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A plaque commemorating Catherine Helen Spence who lived the first fourteen years of her life in Melrose, Scotland. The plaque is attached to the Townhouse Hotel in Market Place, Miss Spence lived in a building which is now part of the hotel. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Her difficulties with her religion were resolved when she joined Adelaide’s Unitarian Christian Church, a congregation which prized education, reading and good works. They supported her in her earliest ventures into public speaking, into preaching in their pulpit, into welfare work with destitute children. It was to replace a member of that congregation on the daily newspaper that she was offered regular employment as an ‘outside contributor’, writing literary articles, book reviews, and humorous pieces.

‘What a glorious opening for my ambition and my literary proclivities came to me in July 1878’, she exclaimed; she felt as if ‘the round woman had got at last into the round hole which fitted her’. This appointment established her as a public intellectual, in command of material ranging from capital and labour relations to differential calculus, from the prices of commodities to reviews of such current English novelists as George Eliot, South African feminist writer Olive Schreiner, and the Australian novelist Ada Cambridge. She thought that her work ‘might show the bias of sex’, but ‘it dealt with the larger questions that were common to humanity’.

It also gave her an opening for an occasional – and feminist – joke, disguised in one instance as a story for children called ‘The Hens’ Language’. In it, one Dr Polyglot decides to learn the language of the poultry yard. Once he can speak it, he approaches his cocks and hens and asks them all to say what they would like. The cocks ‘who are always bold forward birds’ respond first, each individually:

A handsome yard to me then give,
As large as this or bigger,
With fifteen handsome hens to live
And cut a splendid figure …

The hens strike in, indicating that the males do not ‘perfectly’ represent the rights and aspirations of the female. On the contrary. It is, of course, good ‘to have much food’ for themselves and their chickens.

But cocks must fight
To keep all right
So do not pen
Us up in flocks;
Why not one hen
To fifteen cocks?

This tossed-off glance at differences in pleasure and power between the female and the male appeared in the press in 1886, the very year in which Edward Stirling – one of Miss Spence’s pupils in his youth – introduced into the South Australian House of Assembly his (unsuccessful) Bill to enfranchise women.

As a public intellectual, it was but a short – if teeth-clenchingly courageous – step to becoming a public speaker, campaigning on platforms for the causes that she held most dear. These were the adoption of proportional representation for elections, and – as the campaign gathered momentum – votes for women. The high point of Catherine Spence’s career as a public speaker was her trip to the United States of America in 1893-4, alone and un-chaperoned, at the age of sixty-eight. There she gained accolades for the attentive hearings she won, frequently interrupted by applause ‘not such a common thing in America as it is in Australia’, she boasted. Further east, her progressive hosts praised her for ‘the finest political address given in Boston in ten years’.

She arrived back in Adelaide in December 1894, bringing news and greetings from a star-studded cast of women’s suffrage leaders in the United States – Charlotte Perkins Gilman, leading theorist of suffrage era feminism; Jane Addams and Ellen Starr, founders of Hull House and its settlement work; the charismatic Carrie Chapman Catt who so enchanted Vida Goldstein some year later; the venerable Susan B. Anthony, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who introduced Miss Spence to the Woman Suffrage Congress in Washington.

The South Australian suffragists fell upon her, declaring she had arrived just ‘in the nick of time’. A bill that would grant women the right not only to vote, but also to sit in the South Australian parliament, was coming up for debate in the House of Assembly. Unlike several earlier efforts, this one had no property qualifications, had been brought in as a government measure and had already passed in the Legislative Council. The suffragists organised a party to welcome Miss Spence back from her travels and listen to her affirming her support for the bill. On the day it was debated in the House of Assembly, she joined other suffragists in the House, where prominent parliamentarians greeted her and welcomed her home. The bill was not passed until the following morning. But it was passed, making South Australia the first Australian colony – and one of the first places in the world – to achieve female suffrage.

In 1897, Catherine Spence took the wholly unprecedented step of standing for election – not to the parliament (she had already refused an invitation to do that), but to the Federal Convention of 1897 (see J.C. Bannon ‘South Australia’). The press were pleased to see her there: ‘the only cheer raised during the reading of the nominations was at the announcement that Miss Spence was a candidate’; she was the first female candidate for political representation in Australian history. She did not gain a seat. But over a century later, in 2001, a picture of her face appeared on Australian five-dollar notes to mark the centenary of federation.

Vida Goldstein (c. 1900). Image via National Library of Australia.

Yet as much as such achievements and recognition might single Catherine Spence out as exceptional, she was not entirely isolated. Among her dearest friends were brilliant novelist, Catherine Martin, and Alice Henry, a Melbourne-based journalist who left Australia in 1905, ending up in Hull House with introductions from Miss Spence. It was Alice Henry who, by that time editor of the journal of the National Women’s Trade Union League in Chicago, internationalised her title as the ‘Grand Old Woman of Australia’. Spence also became good friends with Sydney suffrage leader, Rose Scott, a bond created through their opposition to war, and their shared status as elders of the Woman Movement in Australia.

Any of these women – Catherine Martin (see Margaret Allen ‘Biographical Background’), Alice Henry, Vida Goldstein (who campaigned for a seat in the Australian Senate year after year), Rose Scott – could justifiably have been figured on the Australian currency. And there are others who could be added to that list of first-wave feminists: in Sydney, brilliant journalist and publisher of the Dawn, Louisa Lawson, or sex radical Maybanke Wollstenholme; in Melbourne, early activist, Henrietta Dugdale or Mary Fullerton; in Perth, Edith Cowan, elected to the Western Australian parliament in 1921; in Adelaide, Elizabeth Webb Nicholls, leader of the suffrage department of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, later vice-president of the Women’s Service Guild and of the Australian Federation of Women Voters which gained accreditation with the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. It is a list that could go on. And on.

The same point could be made in relation to the four women whose faces appeared on Australian stamps in January 2011. They were Eva Cox, activist in the Women’s Liberation Movement, subsequently Boyer Lecturer, who has maintained a steady stream of pronouncements about, and analyses of, injustices confronting women in Australia; Justice Elizabeth Evatt, first Chief Judge of Australia’s Family Court and a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; Germaine Greer, author of the path-blazing book, The Female Eunuch; and Anne Summers, award-winning journalist, author of Damned Whores and God’s Police. All deserve such acknowledgement. But there are others who could join them, some from other parts of Australia besides Sydney, too. Consider, just for example, Zelda D’Aprano, Robyn Archer, Kay Daniels, Jackie Huggins, Barbara Pocock, Elizabeth Reid, Margaret Reynolds – and that’s just for starters.

If you are interested in reading more about Australia’s first-wave feminists, Susan Magarey’s Passions of the First-Wave Feminists is freely available to download under files here.


Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 5.52.58 PMSusan Magarey has degrees in English Literature and History from Adelaide University and the Australian National University. She was Lecturer-in-charge of the Women’s Studies Programme at the Australian National University (1978-83) and the Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies at Adelaide University (1983-2000), where she is now Professor Emerita in History. She is Founding Editor of Australian Feminist Studies (1985-2005), and remains a member of its Editorial Board; founder of the Magarey Medal for Biography; and author of Dangerous Ideas: Women’s Liberation – Women’s Studies – Around the World.

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