South Australia




Catherine Helen Spence, aged 84

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,

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

Contributed by:

Pamela Harris



Vida Goldstein c1902, National Library

Vida Jane Goldstein (1869–1949)

Victoria was the first of Australia’s colonies to organise for women’s suffrage – and the last to gain the vote. Without the right to elect their parliamentarians, Victorian women were unable to vote on Federation in the Referendums of 1898 and 1899.

Yet the suffrage movement was no less vigorous – nor the women involved no less vibrant advocates of citizenship equality – than in the other five Australian colonies. In 1884 a group of women including Henrietta Dugdale and Annie Lowe formed the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society and were joined by other prominent activists like Annette Bear-Crawford and Isabella Goldstein. As in the other colonies, the fight was shared by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed in Victoria in 1887.

Federalist and feminist

Ten years after they had taken up the fight for the vote, some women were joined by their daughters – one of these young women was Vida Goldstein, whom became a leading ‘Founding Mother of Federation’. She was 19 when she helped her mother collect signatures for an historic petition to the Victorian Parliament, the huge Woman Suffrage Petition of 30 000 signatures presented in the Parliament in 1891.

This was in the early years of the Federation movement that gathered strength through the intercolonial congresses of the 1890s. In Victoria as elsewhere the ideals and arguments for a new united nation echoed for suffragists their own case for equal citizenship.

As well as campaigning for the same voting rights for women and men, these organisations worked for equality in property rights, marriage and divorce, and the custody of children – in other words, the key barriers to women’s participation as equal citizens. By 1894 there were numerous groups working for these goals and Annette Bear-Crawford formed the United Council for Women’s Suffrage (UCWS) to coordinate the efforts of the numerous suffrage societies.

When Annette Bear-Crawford died in 1899, her protégée Vida Goldstein became leader of the women’s reform movement in Victoria when she made her first speech on the suffrage platform. That was also the year of the final Referendum when the Colony’s voters gave a resounding ‘Yes’ to the question of Federation.

An impressive speaker whose witty responses could disarm the most abusive heckler, Vida Goldstein was an articulate advocate for suffrage and equality for women. She read widely on politics, economics and law and spent long hours in the visitors’ gallery at the Victorian Parliament House absorbing debate and procedure.  learned procedure while campaigning for a wide variety of reformist legislation.

Western Australia

Miss Franchise look at that hussy (Miss Federation) but that's the way with all men Western Mail 16 June 1899

Miss Franchise: ‘Look at that hussy Miss Federation – but that’s the way with all men’ Western Mail 16 June 1899

Two organisations focussed on women’s suffrage and federation were created in Western Australia in the early 1890s.  The first was the international Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed to foster ‘Social purity, total abstinence, and womanhood suffrage’.  The second was the politically well-connected literary and cultural society, the Karrakatta Club for women. Amongst its strengths the Karrakatta Club fostered members’ public speaking skills.  A third organisation, the Women’s Franchise League, was formed in 1899 with an Executive of women ‘faddists’ drawn from these two organisations, plus key male politicians and supporters in the colony. This organisation deliberately set out to broaden the participation of women of all socio-economic status in the debate on women’s suffrage.

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Women’s History Month event at State Library of South Australia

SA Life Finding Founding Mothers

March 18 @ 6pm, State Library of SA

In the State Library of South Australia’s historic Institute building, hear about SA leading light Catherine Helen Spence from her biographer, Professor Susan Magarey.  Learn about her domestic life through to her work on the national stage.

Then take a Founding Mothers’ tour through the Library wing named in honour of Spence and onto the glorious Mortlock Chamber, where we’ll serve refreshments while your browse the historic exhibitions.

Women Making History

Women Making History: Writers, Thinkers, Makers, Icons 1700–1900.
Tuesday 12 March to Wednesday 19 June 2013

An exhibition at The Johnston Collection, In Melbourne, of interest… this includes examples of literature, garments and artefacts associated with the early stages of the women’s rights movement.

To visit this exhibition phone: +61 3 9416 2515 or email:

(Visitors are collected by courtesy bus from the foyer of the Hilton on the Park Hotel, 192 Wellington Parade, East Melbourne)

New South Wales

Although women in the latter half of the nineteenth century were prevented from equal participation in parliamentary politics, many were active in pursuing educational, social and political reform. Their efforts seriously hampered by their inferior legal status, particularly their lack of the vote, in New South Wales as in the other colonies, they formed political organisations and lobbied hard for the franchise.

Maybanke Susannah (Wolstenholme) Anderson (1845–1927)


Lone Hand 2 February 1914 National Library of Australia

One such reformer who worked strenuously for both women’s suffrage and for federation was Maybanke Susannah Wolstenholme as she was known at this time of her activity.  Her interest in woman suffrage was driven by her understanding that only with the vote could women achieve the social changes she saw were so necessary and her interest in federation was an expression of her belief that it was the way to force the states, who were reluctant to join SA and WA in granting women the vote, to do  Continue reading

First Ladies – Significant Australian Women 1913-2013

First Ladies profiles women who have achieved noteworthy firsts over the past 100 years. The focus display includes Australia’s first female Governor General, Quentin Bryce; Elizabeth Blackburn, the first Australian-born woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize; and aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton, Australia’s first female commercial pilot. First Ladies maps the milestones accomplished by Australian women across diverse fields of endeavour, from politics, activism and academia to sport, science and business, taking in the stories of household names as well as unsung heroines.

First Ladies

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra:   1 February – 16 June 2013