Mary Lee a prime mover in campaigns for social purity, better working conditions, the vote


Mary Lee campaigned passionately for women when they had few legal rights, poor wages and working conditions, and restricted opportunities in public life.
A widow who had given birth to seven children, Lee, 58, migrated from Ireland with a daughter in 1879 to care for a sick son. She stayed after the son’s death in 1880.

Despite poverty and her age, Lee’s campaigns started as ladies secretary of the Social Purity Society, which had the age of consent for girls increased from 12 to 16, and she served on the Female Refuge committee.

She was important in forming the South Australian Women’s Suffrage League in 1888. As secretary, Lee steered campaigns, petitions and deputations, wrote letters to newspapers and spoke at meetings.

At an 1889 meeting in Adelaide Town Hall regarding sweated labour, Lee called for women’s trade unions to address long hours and low pay in the clothing and boot trades. Lee was founding secretary of the Working Women’s Trade Union (1890–92). She visited factories to recruit women and get employers to adopt the union’s log of rates. In 1893, Lee, as vice-president of the Working Women’s Trade Union, became a delegate to the United Trades and Labour Council (formed in 1884).

Through the 1890s depression, Lee served on the UTLC’s Distressed Women and Children’s Committee. In 1896, Lee was appointed the first and only female official visitor to the Lunatic Asylum (1896–1908). Mary Lee’s final years were impoverished but she remained defiant and proud of her achievements.

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