MARY AGNES LEE / Women's suffrage campaigner

mary lee.jpg

Mary Agnes Lee, 1821–1909

Women’s suffrage campaigner

Born in Co. Monaghan in February 1821, she is now remembered as one of the most prominent Australian suffragists, but she also advocated on behalf of women workers and asylum residents.Following the death of her church-organist husband, Lee and one of her daughters emigrated to Australia in 1879 to care for her terminally-ill son.After his death,Lee remained in Australia,because she could not afford to return to Ireland and had grown fond of ‘dear Adelaide’.

Freshly liberated from domestic obligations at almost 60 years of age, Lee threw herself into politics.She first became secretary to the Social Purity Society, lobbying for the Criminal Law Consolidation Amendment Act (1885) that raised the legal age of consent to sixteen.Historian Audrey Oldfield described how a‘large and enthusiastic’ public meeting convened to institute the South Australian Women’s Suffrage League on 21 July 1888, rejecting any limitation of age or property on women’s suffrage. Lee was elected co-secretary to the committee of 13 women and 15 men, quickly proving herself a fiery orator and becoming the best-known champion of South Australian women’s suffrage. Lee herself stated, ‘If I die before it is achieved, “Women’s enfranchisement” shall be found engraved upon my heart.’

Lee was a suffragist, meaning she preferred constitutional means to secure equality of franchise. She seems to have been less concerned about enabling women to run for elected office;she declined an invitation to run for election in 1895. Nevertheless, her emphasis on social justice and her concerns for working women posed a threat to the establishment. She supported the foundation of women’s trade unions, and was secretary to the newly-formed Working Women's Trades Union in 1891–3. She visited the clothing factories in which women workers ‘sweated’, convincing employers (with varying degrees of success) to set union wages. She also distributed food and clothing to the impoverished.Lee corresponded with New Zealand suffragists, who had achieved their aims in 1892. She organised a petition of 11,600 signatures from across the colony of South Australia in 1894. The 122-metre-long document was presented to the House of Assembly in August 1894, while women swamped MPs with telegrams, and filled the galleries of the House.In December 1894, South Australian women became the first in Australia to gain a parliamentary vote on the same terms as men. This was a landmark moment in international suffrage and was achieved with both middle-and working-class support. It is important to remember, however, that neither male nor female Indigenous Australians would have equality of franchise until the 1960s. In 1896, she became the first woman appointed as an official visitor to asylums, a role she conducted for twelve years with great compassion for the patients.

Lee’s activism was recognised in her lifetime. On her 75th birthday, Adelaide town hall presented her with 50 sovereigns from public donations; a public address praised her leading role in the suffrage campaign. However, her later years were marked by financial difficulties, and her pleas for further public aid fell on deaf ears, despite the great personal sacrifices she had made during decades of activism. One biographer suggests that her ‘sharp tongue and uncompromising attitude’ left her with few friends–evidence that, while women had secured voting rights, they were still expected to conform to certain behavioural norms.She died at her home in Adelaide in September 1909 and her tombstone bears the words: ‘Secretary of the Women's Suffrage League’. Its understatement forms a sharp contrast with the passionate campaigning that consumed the last 20 years of her life.

Sources:Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition; Audrey Oldfield,Woman Suffrage in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 1992);Dictionary of Irish Biography online edition; James Keating, ‘Piecing Together Suffrage Internationalism: Place, Space, and Connected Histories of Australasian Women’s Activism’,History Compass, 16, no. 8(2018).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.