‘There is no finality in human progress’: On Mary Lee

Wakefield Press intern Claire Morey recently graduated from the University of Adelaide with Honours in History. While she was here, she read and reviewed Denise George’s Mary Lee: The life and times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rightsNatasha Stott Despoja, who launched the book this month, said it should be in every classroom in every South Australian school. Read the review to see if Claire agrees!

Mary Lee: ‘There is no finality in human progress’

In this book, Denise George offers us the wonderful story of women’s suffrage campaigner Mary Lee. Enshrined in a bronze bust outside Government House in 1994, Lee has often been forgotten from Adelaide’s early history, which has long been dominated by the colonial men whose names adorn the city streets. One hundred years before the bust was constructed, Lee spearheaded the campaign for women’s suffrage and sought to improve the rights of all South Australian women, especially those who were considered destitute.

The book begins with a thorough background into Lee’s Protestant working-class upbringing in Northern Ireland where ‘famine, starvation, disease, poverty and death marked her formative years’. Due to the dire situation wrought by the Great Potato Famine, increasing revolutionary sentiment in 1840s Ireland, and Lee’s basic education (even that rare for a woman of her class), she set out to pursue a long life of social justice to improve the rights of the working class and women.

“famine, starvation, disease, poverty and death marked her formative years”

Before Lee arrived in Adelaide as a 59-year-old widow, she lived in Cambridge and later London with her husband George Lee and their children. Shocked by the lack of education for young women in London, she opened The Young Ladies Educational Institute in Hammersmith in 1860. Here, she taught girls literature, history, geography, natural science, language and religion in order for them to seek the same professions as young men. Despite the success of the school, tragedy struck when Lee’s son, Ben, who had recently moved to Adelaide, wrote home about his tuberculosis diagnosis in the late 1870s. So began Lee’s journey to South Australia with her daughter Eve in November 1879 aboard the Orient.

In South Australia, Lee not only advocated for female suffrage, but she also campaigned for the rights of all disenfranchised South Australians. She was shocked by the poverty and prostitution that ravaged the inner city, and as part of The Social Purity Society she helped to raise the age of consent for women. She travelled to countless country towns advocating the rights of both the impoverished rural working-class and women. Likewise, she despaired for the position of Indigenous people and the mentally ill in South Australia.

Her founding role in the Women’s Suffrage League and her controversial position as an outspoken foreign widow pushed her into a long and spiteful war with the press and much of Adelaide society. In part due to her strong Primitive Methodist faith, which was known for its forward-thinking social justice causes, Lee was a revolutionary who despised the conservative colonists in Adelaide. Reacting to British Prime Minister Gladstone’s opposition to female suffrage, Lee declared: ‘Dear old England swathed and mummified in centuries of tradition and prejudice … Will not, cannot, a young vigorous nation create its own precedent?’

‘Will not, cannot, a young vigorous nation create its own precedent?’

Despite the considerable opposition to women’s suffrage, Lee persisted in her constant campaigning efforts, all the while receiving no wage or benefits. In 1894 when South Australian women gained the right to vote and be elected to sit in parliament, the first place in the world to achieve both reforms, Lee found herself in dire circumstances with no money, deteriorating health, and few remaining children to come to her aid.

George begins the epilogue with a quote by Lee – ‘There is no finality in human progress’ – particularly significant, as the revised Commonwealth Franchise Act (1902) allowed women the right to vote, but prevented any Indigenous Australian, Asian, African or Islander the same freedom. George’s book is a fascinating, well-researched, and touching tribute to one of the most important women in our local and global history.

Perhaps most moving is the way George connects Lee’s remarkable life and achievements to the struggles of women in the contemporary Western world today. In the era of the #MeToo movement, when many women continue to be denied their basic rights to gender equality and Western governments are still largely dominated by men, Mary Lee’s remark is just as pertinent as it was in 1893: ‘What is democracy? A government of the people, for the people, by the people. How can a government of men, for men, by men, be a democracy?’

Mary Lee: The life and times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights is available in all good bookshops – and at our bookshop at 16 Rose Street, Mile End (or online).

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