CATHERINE HELEN SPENCE
An Eminent Federalist and Political Pioneer
In 1902, a leading Australian publisher honoured Catherine Helen Spence for her contribution to the creation of the Australian Constitution in a series called ‘Eminent Federalists’. Spence had sought election five years earlier as one of the South Australian representatives to the second Constitutional Convention, thus becoming Australia’s first woman political candidate. Spence stood for election so she could champion a long-held belief that election results decided by a simple majority did not adequately represent minorities. She argued that a truer, more equitable form of democracy would be achieved by what she termed Effective Voting (also called proportional representation or the single transferable vote). Although Spence did not receive sufficient votes to take part in the Convention, her campaign for Effective Voting played a major role in the debates concerning Australia’s new Constitution. Ultimately her efforts were not in vain – voting systems in many jurisdictions in Australia, especially Tasmania, the ACT and the State upper houses, use proportional representation.
Spence the electoral reformer
Spence, a single woman living in Adelaide with limited financial resources, largely supported herself and her widowed mother by teaching, publishing novels and writing for newspapers. Although formal education had ended when she was only 14, Spence’s inquiring mind led her to read widely in the areas of social, economic and political affairs. She admired the English political philosopher John Stuart Mill, for instance, and his review in the late 1850s of a book by Thomas Hare had a great impact on her. Unhappy with electoral results based on a simple majority vote, witnessed in her home state of South Australia, Spence believed this system insufficiently represented society’s minority groups. Hare, a British parliamentarian and lawyer, had argued in his book that introducing proportional representation would redress such inequities and lead to fairer voting results.
Articles she wrote for the Mebourne Argus supporting Mill and Hare failed to be published so, with financial support from her brother, Spence published a private pamphlet in 1861. Written in what she later called ‘the white heat of inspiration’, A Plea for Pure Democracy urged the adoption of Hare’s system, with one important modification. Because Spence believed that Hare’s proposal to have one electorate for the whole country was not practical for Australia, she proposed instead a large number of multi-member constituencies, ideally electing up to nine or ten members. One thousand copies of her pamphlet were distributed and Spence made sure they went to all South Australia’s MPs and leading citizens.
Over the next thirty years many other matters claimed Spence’s attention – social and charitable reform work (especially affecting women and children), travel overseas, guardianship of several orphaned children, writing and submitting novels and publishing newspaper articles and commentary. So many issues occupied her time that it might have been seemed that Spence had lost interest in electoral reform, but this was far from the truth.
By 1891 Spence had become a supporter of the movement for female suffrage and a year later became Vice-President of the Women’s Suffrage League in South Australia. When the Women’s Suffrage Bill was enacted in 1894, it entitled all South Australian women to vote and also to stand for election – a first for all Australian states. Spence went on to support similar campaigns in Victoria and NSW, unaware that she herself would be the first woman to stand for election in Australia.
By now an accomplished and effective public speaker, Spence was encouraged in 1892 to undertake a lecture tour on Effective Voting through South Australia. The following year she agreed to travel to the US as a Government Commissioner and a delegate to the Great World’s Fair Congress in Chicago. During this trip she gave over 100 lectures, mostly in support of proportional representation. Back home and with the financial assistance of a long time supporter, Robert Barr Smith, Spence formed the Effective Voting League of South Australia in 1895.
Keen to pursue her cause in the federal sphere, Spence then attempted to influence the debates leading towards Federation. Her pamphlet What is Effective Voting and How is it to be Secured? set out a clear account of the advantages of what had become known by then as the Hare-Spence system. Spence ended the pamphlet with the rallying words ‘let South Australia and South Australian women lead the way’.
Encouraged by her supporters, Spence agreed to stand as a candidate for South Australia to the Constitutional Convention of 1897. She was not disgraced, coming 22nd out of 33 candidates, and believed her campaign had raised the profile of Effective Voting. She continued to argue through 1899 and 1900 for the introduction of proportional representation at the Federal level. Her ideas proved significant in the debates surrounding the 1902 Commonwealth Electoral Bill and close examination of the records show there were many informed references by those taking part to the advantages of the Hare-Spence system.
In 1902, the United Australia Magazine in its series on ‘Eminent Federalists’ recognised Spence’s political contribution, commenting that ‘in 1897 there was really only one woman who took a strong interest and endeavoured to have an influence on the debate towards Federation … a pioneer in the political arena of Australia… eminently qualified to enter the circle and take her place as a legislator’.
In the penultimate year of her long life, Spence attended the inaugural meeting of the Women’s Non-Party Political Association and was elected Foundation President. She continued to champion Effective Voting pointing out that women had much to gain by supporting it – ‘only by staying independent and not allying themselves with any political parties can women hope to exert influence’.
Spence’s influence reached across Australia and beyond during her lifetime and she became a symbol of what Australian women could aspire to and achieve. Spence’s said of herself that she was ‘a new woman …awakened to a sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to the family and the household, but to the State.’ When she died on 13 April 1902 she was widely mourned as ‘The Grand Old Woman of Australia’. She had worked for many important causes but Effective Voting and electoral reform were probably her greatest legacies. The struggle for a fairer form of democracy continued after her death and over time proportional voting systems were introduced in many jurisdictions in Australia. During the Centenary of Federation celebrations, almost 100 years after her death, Spence was fittingly commemorated on the five dollar bill for her contribution to Australia’s Federal system.
Spence’s early life and other career highlights
Born near Melrose in Scotland on 31 October 1825, Spence was the fifth of eight children. Plans for her to attend an advanced school for girls in Edinburgh had to be abandoned when the family’s finances failed. Emigration to the relatively new colony of South Australia followed in 1839 and her formal education ended. After her father’s death, Spence’s father became a governess, for a short time running a small school with her mother.
Spence is regarded as the first woman writer in Australia to write novels that focused on life in Australia. Her novels championed the causes of those disadvantaged by bigotry, and she wrote about woman’s dependent status, the plight of illegitimate children and their right to legal recognition, and the inadequacy of divorce laws. Her eventual success as a journalist made her Australia’s first professional woman journalist.
Spence was active in various women’s and children’s causes. Focusing on education and financial independence, her work covered labour reform, the State Children’s Council, the Destitute Board, the Boarding Out Society, and the initiation of Childrens’ Courts in South Australia. She was active in a number of organisations, including the Effective Voting League of South Australia and the Women’s Non-Party Political Association.
Eade, Susan, ‘Spence, Catherine Helen (1825–1910)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spence-catherine-helen-4627/text7621.
Farrell, David M. and Ian McCallister “1902 and the origins of preferential electoral systems in Australia” in Australian Journal of Politics and History v.51, no.2, 2005
Ever yours, C.H. Spence, edited by Susan Magarey with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Mayan Beams, Kent Town, Wakefield Press, 2005
Magarey, Susan, Unbridling the tongues of women: a biography of Catherine Helen Spence, Adelaide, University of Adelaide Press,(1985; 2010)
Catherine Helen Spence, edited by Helen Thomson, St Lucia, University of Queensland, 1987
State Library of South Australia http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/women_and_politics/spence1.htm