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Lee, Mary 1821-1909

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Born: 14 February 1821 [Monaghan, Ireland]

Died: 18 September 1909 [Adelaide, South Australia]

Female suffragist, social reformer, trade unionist

Little is known about Lee's early life in Ireland. She was a widow when she and her daughter, Evelyn, arrived in South Australia in 1879 to nurse her sick son John Benjamin (known as Ben). Ben had immigrated to Adelaide some time earlier. He died in November 1880 and Lee chose to stay on in Adelaide.

Lee's commitment to social and political reform issues began with her interest in Jewish emigration to South Australia. In 1883 Lee joined the Social Purity Society and was appointed secretary of the ladies' committee. The Society promoted reforms which would protect women and children from exploitation and abuse. Lee and other members of the Social Purity Society established the Women's Suffrage League in July 1888 to agitate for women to have the right to vote. Lee was nominated as the League's co-secretary. Sir Edward Stirling was the president; he had moved the first Bill in parliament calling for women's suffrage in 1886 which had failed to gain the absolute majority required to pass. Members of the League believed that only after women had the vote would they have the power to influence issues concerning women in other areas. Several Bills were introduced to the South Australian parliament in the late 1880s and early 1890s, but failed to be carried with the absolute majority required. In the meantime the Women's Suffrage League coordinated several petitions which were presented to the parliament, the largest known as the 'monster petition' contained 11,600 signatures gathered by members of the Women's Suffrage League including Lee who travelled to country areas such as Port Pirie and Port Augusta. Lee spoke at many meetings and wrote letters to newspapers, keen to keep the issue in the minds of the public and to win further support. The successful Bill was passed by the Legislative Council in July 1894 and by the House of Assembly in December.

Lee also worked to better the conditions in which women worked, which led her to the union movement. In December 1889, she proposed the formation of a trade union for women and in January 1890 the Working Women's Trades Union (WWTU) was established with Lee as its secretary. In 1893 she became vice-president of the WWTU and was its delegate to the United Trades and Labour Council. Lee also worked on the Distressed Women's and Children's Committee which provided clothes and food to women suffering the effects of the depression of the early 1890s.

In 1895 two trade unions nominated Lee to stand for parliament, but she refused. On her 75th birthday she was awarded the sum of fifty sovereigns donated by the public in recognition of her key role in securing the vote for women. In the lead up to the election in 1896 when South Australian women were to exercise their voting rights for the first time, Lee held public lectures advising women on their voting responsibilities. Also in 1896 Lee was appointed the first woman official visitor to the lunatic asylums; she held the post for 12 years. Lee ended her days in poverty; unfortunately she was not remembered for her role in the women's suffrage movement or for the relief she had given others.

A bronze bust of Lee stands on North Terrace, Adelaide, near the entrance to Government House.

Key achievements

1883: Appointed Secretary of the ladies' committee of Social Purity Society

July 1888: Women's Suffrage League established; Lee nominated secretary

December 1889: Proposed the formation of a women's trade union

January 1890: Working Women's Trades Union established; Lee named secretary

1893: Elected vice-president of Working Women's Trades Union

December 1894: South Australian women granted the right to vote; Lee and the Women's Suffrage League played a vital part

1896: Appointed the first woman official visitor to the lunatic asylums

Did you know?

Lee called the Labor party 'a lot of nincompoops' in 1893 when yet another Women's Suffrage Bill failed to win a majority of votes because of extraneous conditions that Labor MPs had attached to it.

See also:

Themes: Radical Dream: Women's movement

Further reading

Kwan, Elizabeth. 'Mary Lee (1821-1909)', Living in South Australia : a social history, vol. 1, p. 172

Lee, Mary.Letters from Mary Lee, D 7178(L)

'Mary Lee', The Chronicle, 25 September 1909, p. 47, col. e

Mansutti, Elizabeth. Mary Lee 1821-1909 : let her name be honoured, [Kensington, S. Aust.] : E. Ho in association with Women's Suffrage Centenary History Sub-committee, c1994

Votes for women [videorecording] / written by Ann Brookman ; produced & directed by Paul Worthington, [Adelaide] : Dept. for Education and Children's Services, c1994


Australian Dictionary of Biography Online: Search for Mary Lee

Australian Women's Register Search for Mary Lee

State Library of South Australia: Mary Lee website

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