Mary Lee – Australia’s Unsung Suffragist

Day 283 of Colourisation Project – February 14

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Australia was one of the leading countries in the world when it came to giving women the right to vote but it is South Australia in particular that holds the distinction of being the first place anywhere in the world to not only grant women the right to vote but also the right to stand for parliament. The year was 1895.  Two years earlier, New Zealand claimed the mantle of being the first self governing colony in the world to give women the vote although they were barred from standing for election until 1919.

Western Australia  granted women the right to vote in 1899 while women in the remaining colonies had to wait until after federation, and then even longer for the right to stand for parliament. It was not until 1923 that Victorian women were able to join their sisters in South Australia in standing for parliament.

Instrumental in this landmark achievement was Mary Lee, an Irish-Australian suffragist and social reformer. Born this day, 14 February, 1821, Lee was the chief organiser of the 1894 petition of 11,600 signatures presented to the South Australian Parliament in August 1894, requesting that women in the Colony be granted the right to vote.

Mary Lee

Photographer Unknown ~ Mary Lee c 1895 ~ Colourised by Loredana Crupi

Born in county Monoghan, Ireland, Lee was 58 years old when she immigrated to Adelaide in 1879 to be with her son, Ben who had fallen ill. By now a widow, she made the long journey out on the maiden voyage of the steamship Orient with her daughter, Evelyn. Unfortunately her son died the following year.

Lee remained in South Australia and for the next 30 years threw herself into working to improve the lot of women and campaigning for political and social reform. In 1883 she became active in the ladies’ committee of the Social Purity Society, which advocated an end to child labour, child brides and child prostitution.

Lee fought tirelessly for changes to the law relating to the social and legal status of young women. Success came with the passage in 1885 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Amendment Act which raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, making it illegal for a man to have sex with a girl under 16.

In 1888 she established the Women’s Suffrage League of South Australia and was instrumental in the formation the Working Women’s Trades Union in 1890. Her advocacy work didn’t stop with women however. Lee also advocated for the rights of the working class and was an outspoken objector to Australia’s involvement in the Boer War.

By the time the suffrage was won in South Australia, Mary Lee was 73 years old. The Constitution Amendment Act was passed in December 1894, making South Australian women the first in Australia to gain the parliamentary vote, and on the same terms as men. Lee’s work now was to encourage women to register for the vote and to educate them in the best use of their votes.

The following year, Lee declined two nominations to stand for parliament preferring to work ‘on the side of right … unfettered by pledge or obligation to any party whatever’.

Mary Lee died in 1909 from pleurisy following influenza at the age of 88 and was buried in the Wesleyan cemetery, Walkerville, with her son Ben.

It would take another fifty years after her death for the first South Australian women, Joyce Steele and Jessie Cooper, to be elected to Parliament in 1959. Though the road was long, Lee had laid the groundwork for women to stand up for themselves and to be counted.

Charles Tucker, the Mayor of Adelaide, said at the Testimonial presentation to Lee on her 75th birthday in 1896,

“you fought against great difficulty, prejudice and other opposition, but by your courage and persistency carried the point. You were the motive power in bringing about Women’s Suffrage and your name will be honoured for that.”

Fine words but the truth was that following her death in 1909, her work was scarcely remembered. Mary Lee was largely one of Australia’s unsung heroes. Her critical social reform work had been almost forgotten and remained unrecorded until the late 1970s when Helen Jones, a South Australian historian rediscovered her.

On the centenary of Women’s Suffrage, Sunday 18 December 1994, a bronze bust of Mary Lee was unveiled in the North Terrace Gardens Adelaide, to commemorate her work.


Post Script
In 1863 the colony of Victoria unintentionally granted women the right to vote just seven years after the opening of the first Parliament of Victoria,  through the newly legislated Electoral Act, which enfranchised all ratepayers listed on local municipal rolls. So it was that many women in the colony actually exercised their right to vote at the elections of 1864.
It was a short-lived enfranchisement. Embarrassed and alarmed by their oversight, Members of the Legislative Assembly hastily amended the Act the following year to restrict the vote for parliamentary elections strictly to male rate-payers.


Let husbands, brothers fathers be kept in mind that it is the duty of every free man to leave his daughters as free as his sons….as women assist in maintaining Government they have a right to a say how and by whom they shall be governed. Nineteenth century civilisation has accorded to women the same political status as to the idiot and the criminal. Such is the basis of our reverence for the person of women and of our estimate of her work.”     ~    Mary Lee

This entry was posted in Australia, Australian Politics, Colorization, Colourisation, History, Opus Loredana, Photography, suffrage, Women, Women in Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Mary Lee – Australia’s Unsung Suffragist

  1. goodrumo says:

    Fantastic, loved reading this blog about Mary, I saw Utopia Girls and you have reminded me to purchase the documentary! Thankyou and also re-blogged, beautiful.


    • Loredana Isabella Crupi says:

      Yes…The Utopia Girls a fascinating story/doco. May revisit it myself. Glad you enjoyed the blog and Thankyou for reblogging.
      Cheers L 🙂


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