Among many causes, Catherine Helen Spence heads clothing company with good conditions
Catherine Helen Spence, a polymath involved in rights, injustice and caring for women and children.
Image courtesy of State Library of South Australia
Catherine Helen Spence – hailed by novelist Miles Franklin as "the greatest Australian woman” – was the heart and active soul of issues linked to caring for women and children.
Spence, an author, teacher, journalist, politician and leading suffragist, was at the heart and active soul of every 19th Century South Australia issue concerned with rights, caring and justice.
Born in Scotland, Spence emigrated at 14 with her family, arriving in drought-stricken South Australia in 1839. Her father David was Adelaide’s first town clerk.
As a teenager, she wrote short pieces and poetry for The South Australian newspaper and became South Australian correspondent for The Argus, Melbourne.
Her first book was Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever in 1854. In 1888, she wrote A Week In the Future, on a utopia 100 years ahead.
Spence never married but was devoted to improving the lot of women and children. She raised three families of orphaned children.
She was a prime mover, with Caroline Emily Clark, of the Boarding-out Society, aimed at removing destitute children from the asylum into approved families. At first scorned by the South Australian government, the scheme was encouraged when institutions handling troublesome boys became overcrowded.
In 1902, Spence became chair of the all-female South Australian Co-operative Clothing Co., Adelaide's first electric-powered clothing factory, to protect women workers from being exploited in the “sweating” system. In the same year, Spence set a first for Australia women when she was appointed to an official commission of enquiry; in this case, into the Adelaide Hospital.