Kiera Lindsey reveals how a petition to Queen Victoria shows that early colonial women were more politically active than is commonly acknowledged.
One spring morning in 1850 over eight thousand men and women marched through town — many behind brass bands and with Union Jacks held aloft – towards Sydney’s old Barrack Square where a rally had been organised to oppose the resumption of transportation. It would be the largest protest in Australia thus far, an event Henry Parkes later described as ‘the birthday of Australian democracy’. Before the rally and on the day itself, Parkes and a group of like-minded men circulated a host of ‘Anti-transportation’ petitions throughout New South Wales, including, the press reported, somewhat snidely, two ‘ladies petitions’ in Sydney itself. When I first read this reference in Peter Cochrane’s epic tome, Colonial Ambition, my curiosity was immediately piqued.
Could such a document prove that colonial women had participated in politics in ways that had been overlooked because historians typically focus upon the male orators and agitators of this age? If I could determine the number of women who signed this and find out why they had done so, I might challenge, or at least complicate, the idea of colonial democracy as something created by men and for men. Raised in 1850, these petitions pre-dated not only the women’s suffrage movements of late nineteenth-century, when Australian women had been among the first in the world to secure the vote, but also, 1854, when Claire Wright’s ‘unbiddable women of Ballarat’ had been crucial to the Eureka rebellion. And, for me as a colonial historian with a commitment to finding female perspectives of the past, these documents promised a rare encounter with voices that are often extremely difficult to hear within the colonial archive.
While most petitions from this era were destroyed once tabled in parliament, I wanted to be sure. Enlisting the assistance of archivists from the State Records and State Library of NSW and Parliamentary Archives of NSW, we went in search of these documents both in NSW and the UK House of Commons, where such petitions were typically despatched. As we were riffling through online sources and various dusty stakes in search of these petitions, I went hunting for contextual information that might reveal more about what compelled these Sydney women to put ink to paper.
Colonial society had a well-deserved reputation for being fractious and male-dominated and yet, in 1850, colonists of ‘every class and shade of opinion’, including these women, had successfully united against a common enemy. Shortly after the rally, 40 petitions were delivered to the Legislative Council, then to the House of Commons and Queen Victoria. While those in favour of transportation secured only 525 signatures, Parkes and his men collected 36,589 signatures from 32 petitions, including 11,963 from Sydney men and 9189 signatures from Sydney women. The NSW census figures indicates these signatories comprised at least forty-two percent of Sydney’s female population, a number that challenges our understanding of colonial women as being completely confined to the domestic sphere and entirely excluded from the political processes of the period.
And yet, this is certainly what should have happened according to the conservative politician, William Charles Wentworth, who questioned whether his fellow Councillors should ‘sanction’ such activities when these petitions were delivered to Legislative Council. Indeed, Wentworth went so far as to warn the husbands of those women who had signed, that they ‘would have their dinners far better cooked, their shirts better washed’ … if their wives had tended to their ‘duty’ rather than become ‘political ladies’. He further predicted that if such conduct was indulged, the Legislative Council would soon be crammed with petitions ‘praying for the rights of women’ and that ‘some Mary Wollstonecraft’ was likely to rise up in Sydney and instruct ‘sister politicians to stop tending to their husbands’ altogether. Wentworth was clearly aware of, and threatened by, the radical potential of these petitions. And yet, in response to his assertions, John Lamb, the councillor who had presented these petitions to the Council, insisted they were ‘the first of its sort’ in Australia, and that these women had both a ‘bounden duty’ and ‘undoubted right’ to step ‘out of their sphere’ to express their concerns this way.
While a cohort of well-connected colonial women were the ringleaders of this petition, I was surprised to discover Parkes had been a key instigator. So, what was it that inspired these women to add their voice to this protest and what led Parkes to send his campaign team doorknocking throughout the streets of Sydney to secure female solidarity in this cause?
Months after I began my investigations, Rosemary Sempell, the archivist at the New South Wales Parliamentary Records called to say she had found the original 207-page petition from ‘the female inhabitants of Sydney’ hidden away in a large blue box within the stacks. It is hard to describe my excitement, when, the following day, I opened that box, experienced a flood of female voices as I and read the original address from these ‘wives and daughters of the citizens of Sydney’.
Describing the ‘deep anxiety and alarm’ these women felt in regards ‘the long-suspended question’ of transportation’ the female petitioners emphasised ‘the vast calamity’ that would be ‘inflicted upon New South Wales’, if it was returned to ‘a Penal Settlement’. Insisting that convictism was ‘fearfully perilous’ to their ‘sacred and responsible duties’ regarding ‘the infant training and moral instruction’ of Australia’s ‘rising generations’, these women argued the colony had a right to decide upon its own future. Indeed, the concluding sentences suggest these women were most incensed by the way the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, had persistently ignored the colony and the Legislative Council’s ‘solemn and unanimous’ rejection of his policy to resume transportation. And it was his flagrant disregard for both due process and local authority that compelled these women to petition the Queen directly.
At the end of this address fifteen women signed their names, including Lady Eleanor Stephens, wife of Chief Justice Alfred Stephens, who was no doubt particularly infuriated by this insult to her husband’s position. The remaining 206 pages have been signed by hundreds of Anges’, Harriets’ and Ediths’ whose confident cursive script suggests they may have been from the colony’s upclasses. Alongside such names, however, are many Marys and Anns who expressed their consent, after the signature collector had written their names on their behalf, with a simple cross.
Although the language of the address suggests these women responded cautiously, even conservatively to what was their first opportunity to participate in politics, this was probably sound strategy given the fraught circumstances of the moment. Indeed, by deferring to their male counterparts as ‘citizens’ and emphasising their role as mothers and moral custodians, the petition would have played well with its intended audience, Queen Victoria. And although we cannot rule out the possibility that Parkes and his campaigners were the authors of this address, there are numerous clues to suggest this was not so. Not only does the handwriting of this document have much in common with Eleanor Stephen’s hand who signed her name smack-bang in the middle of the end of the address, but, the tone of the address itself is quite difference from comparable male petitions, which are often more intemperate, several even calling for the immediate sacking of the Colonial Secretary.
Authors or not, the broad scope of grievances articulated in this address were remarkably effective in accommodating a diverse spectrum of social positions within Sydney’s female population. In addition to acknowledging establishment figures those, like Lady Stephens, who wished to insist upon local autonomy, the petition expresses the concerns of middleclass mothers who feared the corrupting influence of convicts. While, the presence of those illiterate crosses serves to remind us that this document was also signed by women with firsthand experience of transportation. And, as I know the political persuasions of one signatory — Adelaide Ironside — who is also the subject of my forthcoming biography — I can also confirm that at least one female signatory was not only politically engaged but also shared Parkes’ vision regarding colonial democracy.
As the ‘first of its kind’, this petition was effective in momentarily uniting over 9000 ‘sister politicians’ in ways that may well have been, as Wentworth feared, a forerunner for the future suffragist movement. Although that movement would not gain momentum for another thirty years or so, there is further exciting work to do, I believe, in cross-referencing the 9000 or so names in this document, against other sources concerned with education, religion, emancipist and immigrant status to see if we can bring these shadowing figures into the light and possibily identify among those later political pioneers some of the individuals and families who signed this document. The fact, for example, that Adelaide Ironside embarked for England and Italy in 1855, intent upon ‘elevating her sex’ and ‘hoisting the colours of her dear old country’, suggests that were women who signed this document who carried such convictions. Indeed, I have wondered what contribution Ironside may have played in that later movement had she not died in Rome in 1867.
Certainly, the discovery of this petition has the potential to contribute to what Marilyn Lake previously described as ‘a need to ‘see more clearly the complexity of women’s political history and the vital interrelationship of public and private life’. These women were not necessarily the marginalised radicals we acquaint with the late nineteenth-century suffragist movement, although some of them may have been. Some, like Eleanor Stephens, were establishment figures whose political inclinations probably shifted between lowercase liberal and conservative, while others were part of Sydney’s rapidly expanding middle-classes and others the must maligned emancipist set. Nonetheless, when it came to the topic of transportation and the Colonial Secretary’s disregard for local authority and due process, all these women had the strength of feeling to ‘step out of their spheres’, as John Lamb suggested, put their name to paper and in so doing also write themselves into the history of this political conversation.
I suspect that the majority of women who did so, felt the Colonial Secretary’s imperious model of imperial rule had brought matters to a head such that the colony was now determined to chart its own course and they wanted to be part of that process. Indeed, I think it telling that in the petition’s final sentence, the word ‘particularly’ has been crossed out and replaced with ‘patriotically’. Although this may have been an editorial error, it suggests that Parkes was correct: 1850 did represent a new spirit of ‘local feeling’. Although the colonial archive has previously encouraged us to assume that only men were involved, these “ladies petitions” reminds us that Sydney women were not only present at the ‘birthday of Australian democracy’ but determined to play a role in shaping its future.
If, as Wentworth feared, the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft was stirring in Sydney, it seemed to have been encouraging these women to believe that the ‘rights of men’ did not have to be predicated ‘upon the wrongs of women’, as she once famously asserted. Instead, in this, their first foray into the political domain, these 9000 or so Sydney women demonstrated they could have their voice heard — not only by other colonists and British Parliament — but even the Queen herself.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for sharing their expertise in my search for these petitions Edith Ho, State Library of NSW, Bonnie Wilde, State Records of NSW and Rosemary Sempell, Parliament of NSW Archives.
Dr Kiera Lindsey is an award-winning historian based at UTS where she is conducting an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Award entitled ‘Historical Craft, Speculative Biography and the Case of Adelaide Ironside’. Her first book, The Convict’s Daughter, was published with Allen & Unwin in 2016 and her next, regarding Adelaide Ironside will be published by Allen & Unwin in 2021.