THE ROLL CALL OF REMARKABLE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN WOMEN – Mary Lee, Catherine Helen Spence, Helen Mayo, Roma Mitchell and so on – stems from middle class, educated, liberal, Protestant Dissenter Nonconformist factors behind the colony’s founding. The Nonconformist (Methodist, Congregationalist, Unitarian etc) push against the conservative establishment created conditions for women to make gains.
A key condition was education. The free public Advanced School for Girls in 1876 provided secondary education. Adelaide University was second in the English-speaking world (after London University, founded in 1878 with support from George Grote, a prominent figure in colonising South Australia) to admit women on terms equal with men.
The labour shortage, due to the 1850s Victorian gold rush, allowed the union movement to assert itself. A Working Women’s Trades Union, concerned with sweatshop conditions in clothing factories, followed in 1890. This coincided with the rise of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, concerned with social purity, family values and social justice rights that, it realised, could only be achieved by having the vote.
Enlightened liberal politicians, such as professor Edward Stirling and premier Charles Cameron Kingston, backed the suffragettes’ 11,600-signature petition. In 1894, South Australian women (including Aboriginal) led the world in both gaining the vote and the right to stand as candidates for parliament.
But South Australia was the last state to have a woman elected to state parliament, and the last state, in 1967, to abandon the temperance union’s beloved six o’clock closing of hotels. It remains the only state where prostitution is totally criminalised.
In politics, South Australian women eventually achieved the goal of producing an Australian prime minister. But 19th Century issues, such as equal pay, domestic violence and prostitution, remain alive.
19th CENTURY WOMEN LEAD THE WAY IN CONCERN FOR COLONY'S UNFORTUNATE
The men who founded South Australia in 1836 didn’t want rampant prostitution in the colony. They failed. A sex industry soon thrived in early Adelaide, especially around Waymouth and Hindley streets, highlighted by moral outage in the newspapers. A more sensible debate, led by women of the Social Purity Society, emerged in the late 19th Century, when prostitution was seen as the result of poverty and women's dependence on fathers, husbands and sons.
South Australia opened a destitute asylum – the first of its kind in the Australian colonies – in 1856 to provide “indoor relief” to 65 women, 30 men and 43 children. Fifteen of those women were in the final stages of pregnancy or recovering from childbirth. Ten of them were unmarried. Inmates could only leave the premises one afternoon a week. They were allowed to see visitors for three hours every Wednesday. Parents were allowed to see their children for two hours once a month.
Saddened by the plight of girls in the destitute asylum, Julia Farr, the frail wife of St Peter’s College’s second headmaster, set up a committee in 1860 to start the Anglican orphan home and training centre for them in the former German and British Hospital building in Carrington Street, Adelaide. Farr later turned her energies to planning a home for those with physical disabilities: the Home for Incurables was renamed the Julia Farr Centre (and now Julia Farr Services) in 1981.
Caroline Emily Clark, in the 1860s, led South Australia into being the first Australian colony to take children out of government institutions and into boarding-out family foster care, to break their poverty cycle. Foster families would be paid a government subsidy for the child’s support. After initial government reluctance, Clark’s boarding-out system was enshrined in South Australian law that also set up industrial and reformatory schools. The Boarding Out Society was absorbed by the State Children’s Council in 1886. Clark, who came from England to join brother John Howard Clark (owner of the Register newspaper) in 1863, floated her idea from what she had seen in Scotland. She was also spurred on by fellow Unitarian Annie Montgomerie Martin.
19th CENTURY SOUTH AUSTRALIAN WOMEN GIVEN EDUCATION LEAP FORWARD
The Advanced School for Girls, in Franklin and then Grote streets, opened in 1879 as the first government secondary school. Before that, boys could get a secondary education at private schools but there was none for girls. The Education Act 1875, making education compulsory for all, acknowledged women’s changing role, especially for them to fill the need for well-educated teachers. The Advanced School provided almost two thirds of Adelaide University's earliest female graduates.
University of Adelaide, founded in 1876, was the second in the English-speaking world (after the University of London, 1878), and first in Australia, to admit women officially on equal terms with men in 1881. But women (making up more than half the enrolments) had studied alongside men at Adelaide University from 1876, and were equally eligible for all academic prizes and honours. Adelaide University's admission of women was 40 years ahead of Oxford University. Its first female graduate in 1885 was Edith Emily Dornwell, also the first person in Australia to receive a bachelor of science degree. The university also graduated Australia's first female surgeon, Laura Fowler (1891), and Australia’s first woman with a doctorate in music (1918). In 1902, Adelaide’s Helen Mayo became the first woman elected to an Australian university council. Nearly 50 years after graduating in law in 1934, Roma Mitchell returned to the university as chancellor – another first for Australian women.
A product of the Advanced School for Girls, Emily Dornwell became Adelaide University’s first female graduate and also Australia’s first person to graduate in science in 1885. In 1883, she received the Sir Thomas Elder Prize (a microscope) in physiology, taught by professor Edward Stirling. After graduating in 1885 with first class honours in physics and physiology, Dornwell taught mathematics, physics, Latin and physiology at her former Advanced School for Girls in Grote Street, Adelaide.
Laura Fowler became the University of Adelaide's – and Australia's – first woman medical and surgery graduate, also winning the Elder Prize, in 1891. After graduating, Laura Fowler worked as house surgeon at the Women's and Children's Hospital until 1893 when she married fellow physician Charles Henry Standish Hope. The couple went to India on a mission to provide medical help. They devoted 30 years to this work in Bengal, despite theclimate's poor effects on their health.
SOCIAL PURITY PUSH ALIGNS WITH VOTES-FOR-WOMEN CAMPAIGN
The main groups campaigning to get the vote for South Australian women were the Women’s Suffrage League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Working Women’s Trade Union. This alliance was concerned about the effects of alcohol, sexual purity and working conditions on family stability. To make change, they needed the vote. The Women's Suffrage League, set up in 1888, organised petitions, lobbied MPs and mustered many women to attend the debates.
Mary Colton’s campaigns for female and children's causes were shaped by being one of Adelaide’s earliest Sunday school teachers. A staunch Methodist, Colton in 1883 became women's president of the Social Purity Society, campaigning to raise the age of consent from 12 to 16. This campaign had a win when Colton’s husband John (premier 1876-77, 1884-85) made it the law in 1885. This success convinced Colton that women needed the vote to fix other injustices.
Elizabeth Webb Nicholls was a founder of Adelaide's Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) branch.Elizabeth Webb Nicholls, daughter and niece of House of Assembly members Samuel and William Bakewell, made her public-speaking début at a Methodist women's conference in 1885. Nicholls took the temperance movement into wider causes, most notably votes for women. A councillor of the Women's Suffrage League, Nicholls helped gather, through the WCTU, 8,268 of the 11,600 signatures for the 1894 suffrage petition to parliament. Nicholls also campaigned on issues ranging from prison reform to sex education and working conditions.
Preacher Serena Thorne Lake was radical in her Biblical view of the equality of women – but women in the role of moral guardians in the family home. In 1888, she seconded the motion for the founding of the South Australian Women’s Suffrage League. Lake became a leader of the votes-for-women campaign as a way get the power to curb the “abominable liquor traffic” but she believed women’s equality to be “the original design of the Creator”. Lake had been invited to Adelaide in 1870 by Bible Christians Samuel Way (future chief justice) and Dr Allan Campbell, a pioneer of South Australia’s health system. Two thousand people heard her preach at Adelaide Town Hall.
SOCIAL PURITY SOCIETY AND WORKING WOMEN'S TRADE UNION BECOME ALLIES
Impoverished widow Mary Lee was an important founding force of the Social Purity Society, the Women’s Suffrage League (1888) and the Working Women’s Trade Union (1890). Lee, at 58, had migrated from Ireland with a daughter in 1879 to care for a sick son. After her son died, Lee took up campaigning passionately for women at a time when they had few legal rights, poor wages and working conditions, and restricted opportunities in public life.
With Mary Lee, Augusta Zadow was a strong advocate for women working in sweated conditions in Adelaide clothing factories. German-born Zadow moved from being a governess to tailoring in London in 1868. She arrived with her husband, a tailor and political refugee, in Adelaide in 1871. Zadow, a suffrage campaigner, was a major force behind forming the Working Women’s Trades Union in 1890. She became South Australia’s first “inspectress under the Factories Act” in 1894.
Another leading South Australian women's suffrage campaigner, Catherine Helen Spence was active in many causes. She chaired the all-female South Australian Co-operative Clothing Co., Adelaide's first electric-powered clothing factory, set up in 1902, to protect women workers from being exploited in the “sweating” system. 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.
After seeing South Australian women gain the vote and right to stand as candidates in 1894, Catherine Helen Spence, with her niece Lucy Morice, founded the Woman's League (that later made way for the Women’s Non-Party Political Association) “to educate women politically and to work for the interests of women and children”. In 1897, she became Australia’s first female political candidate after standing (unsuccessfully) for office at the Federal Convention in Adelaide.
QUEEN VICTORIA SIGNS ASSENT TO THE 'MAD WICKED FOLLY'
As the wife of a prominent Adelaide store manager, the devout Baptist Rosetta Birks directed her energy into philanthropy and causes such as social purity and votes for women. Regular meetings at Knutsford, the Birks' home at Glenelg, won support for women's suffrage in wealthier social circles. She had joined the Ladies' Social Purity Society in 1882 and worked as treasurer of that and many groups. The high point of her work for girls was within the Young Women's Christian Association.
In 1886, Edward Stirling introduced the first parliamentary bill (unsuccessful) to allow women the right to vote. Stirling, a distinguished scientist, had followed his father in 1884 by becoming a member of South Australia’s Legislative Council. Stirling also believed in women’s education. He lectured at the Advanced School for Girls and campaigned for women to be admitted to Adelaide University's school of medicine. His own five daughters benefited from an excellent education.
Premier Charles Cameron Kingston called women’s suffrage the colony’s “greatest constitutional reform”. Queen Victoria called it a “mad wicked folly” but she signed assent to the law in 1895. Kingston had initially opposed votes for women but he had brought in other important laws such as the Married Women’s Property Act 1883. He was persuaded by ministerial colleagues John Cockburn and Frederick Holder and lobbied by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union to introduce the suffrage bill. On August 23, 1894, when the Adult Suffrage Bill was read in the South Australian parliament, the women presented a petition with 11,600 signatures and 122 metres long. On December 18, women were granted both the right to vote and to stand as candidates for parliament – the first legislation in the world of its kind.
Although South Australia had a long wait for women to represent it in parliaments, Susan Benny and Agnes Goode had early 20th Century success in local government. In 1919, Benny became Australia's first woman councillor when she was appointed to Seacliff Ward on Brighton Council. Goode, in 1924, was the first woman to win a council election (St Peters’ Hackney Ward) and the first female preselected as candidate by a South Australian political party (Liberal) in 1923.
STRONG 19th CENTURY LEGACY CONTINUES
Catholic nun Mary MacKillop’s work thrived with support from the liberal strain within South Australia’s Protestant Christianity, epitomised by her friendship with Presbyterian Joanna Barr Smith. Poverty was central to the rule of life for MacKillop's Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart order that, starting with a school at Yankalilla in 1867, set up schools, orphanages and institutions throughout Australia.That rule of life led to a clash with the Roman Catholic church bishops.
Kindergartens became the most passionate cause of Lucy Morice, a social reformer alongside her aunt and close friend Catherine Helen Spence. In 1905, she helped to found the Kindergarten Union of South Australia as a way to a just society. Her compassion for children caused her, with Helen Mayo, to found the School for Mothers Institute in 1909. Also in that year, Morice started the Women's (later Non-Party) Political Association, succeeding Spence as its president.
Adelaide (Addie) Miethke, a driving force of South Australian patriotism during both world wars, was, ironically, the daughter of a Prussian schoolteacher. Miethke also became a teacher, schools inspector, and active in the Australian Public Schools Teachers’ Association’s push for better wages. In a 1915 address to the Women’s Non Party Political Association, Miethke outlined her ideas on girls’ technical education – a concept taken up by the education department. The energetic unmarried Miethke was president in 1936 of the Women’s Centenary Council of South Australia that raised £5000 for an Alice Springs base of the Australian Aerial Medical Service (later Flying Doctor Service) and the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden in Adelaide. She also designed and organised a grand Empire Parade.During World War I, Miethke had organised the South Australian Children’s Patriotic Fund. In 1940-46, she directed the School Patriotic Fund of South Australia. It raised £402,133, and money left over after the war bought a hostel, Adelaide Miethke House, for country girls studying in Adelaide. Other money went to the flying doctor service. A friend of the service's founder John Flynn, Miethke was first president of its state branch. On a trip to Alice Springs, she fostered the idea of “bridging the lonely distance”. She single-mindedly set up the world’s first school of the air in Alice Springs in 1950. Miethke continued to be involved with causes, including kindergartens and children. The Adelaide Miethke Kindergarten in Woodville honours her.
The ideas of Catherine Helen Spence influenced Kate Cocks when she joined the State Children’s Council staff in 1903. Cocks became South Australia’s first probation officer for juvenile first offenders, realising prevention was better that prosecution – an attitude she maintained as the state’s first female police constable in 1915. In retirement, she moved to Brighton to run a property bought by the Methodist church to look after unmarried girls, their babies and other needy babies.
Helen Mayo took maternal and infant health and welfare in South Australia and Australia to new heights. After matriculating at the Advanced School for Girls in 1895, she topped her class in medicine at Adelaide University. Mayo gained wider knowledge from two years working in infant health in England, Ireland and India. Returning in 1906, she started a private practice and was clinical bacteriologist at Adelaide Hospital (1911-33), honorary clinician at Adelaide Children’s Hospital and clinical lecturer at Adelaide University. In 1909, Mayo addressed an interstate conference on South Australia’s high infant mortality and the need to educate women for motherhood. That year, she and Harriet Stirling (daughter of Edward Stirling) founded the School for Mothers in Adelaide. Despite criticism that spinsters Mayo and Stirling couldn’t teach mothers, the school flourished from a Wright Street cottage. It became the Mothers’ and Babies’ Health Association (MBHA). By 1927, it had branches throughout South Australia and a training school for maternal nurses. Because Adelaide Children’s Hospital wouldn’t treat infants aged under two, Mayo and her group in 1914 rented a St Peters house as a hospital for infants. Mayo set up strict anti-infection protocols later for what became the 70-bed Mareeba Hospital, run by the state government at Woodville. Mayo also served on Adelaide University’s council (a first for Australian women) 1914-60, set up a women’s club and St Ann’s boarding college there, and encouraged a students’ union. She also founded the Lyceum Club for professional women.
Roma Mitchell set a series of firsts for Australian women as a judge, Queen's Counsel, chancellor of Adelaide University and a governor of South Australia. She was also a pioneer of the Australian women’s rights movement. Mitchell served on many committees and contributed actively to many organisations, particularly those concerned with education, heritage, arts, equal opportunities and human rights. She was patron of the Centenary of Women's Suffrage in 1994.
Wheelchair-bound Taylor first showed her concern for the needy by organising a small soup kitchen for Norwood children during the Depression.
She became a vigorous campaigner for the aged and disadvantaged after World War II. Meals on Wheels as an organisation could be traced to a meeting in the Rechabite Hall, Norwood, in 1953. It first kitchen opened in Port Adelaide in 1954. The organisation’s first chairman was the MP for Norwood, Don Dunstan.
Removed from her family home as a child, Lowitja O’Donoghue was refused nurse training in the 1950s at Royal Adelaide Hospital. She fought the decision and became the hospital's first Aboriginal nurse. In 1990, become first chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, after being president of the National Aboriginal Congress in the 1980s when, as Australian of the Year, when she was the ﬁrst Aboriginal to address the United Nations General Assembly.
FROM TEETOTAL SOCIAL PURITY TO SEXUAL LIBERATION BUT WITH PROTECTIONS
Six o’clock closing of hotels, enforced since 1915 and fiercely protected by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, ended in South Australia – the last state to do so – in 1967. In the 1930s, temperance union members had protested against moves to end 6pm closing with a famous suitcase parade and again in 1938 with an umbrella parade. The waning of WCTU’s influence in the 1960s saw it leave Willard Hall in Wakefield Street to Hutt Street and later to suburban Cowandilla.
Premier Don Dunstan’s 1960s/70s reforms emphasising equal opportunity coincided with South Australia's second wave of feminism. This second wave was spearheaded by the Women’s Liberation Movement (1969) and Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL, 1972), concerned with issues such as family planning, abortion, child-care, domestic violence and divorce. The rape-in-marriage law was the most controversial of reforms by Don Dunstan’s Labor government and little-l Liberals.
South Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 – a first for Australia – introduced by Liberal backbench MP David Tonkin, had a profound effect on the state’s workplace and elsewhere. In the SA police force, for instance, women could now be promoted into all areas and they also were allowed to remain in the department after marriage. In the wake of the act, Mary Beasley became Australia’s first commissioner for equal opportunity to oversee reforms on a wider scale.
Anne Summers, radicalised by an abortion experience in 1960s Adelaide, helped found the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia.Becoming pregnant after a brief relationship in 1965, Summers was refused a referral for termination by her Adelaide doctor. After an expensive, but incomplete, abortion in Melbourne, she returned to her Adelaide GP and was referred to an Adelaide gynaecologist to do the abortion safely. This experience was key to her later work for women.
FIRST SOUTH AUSTRALIAN FEMALE PARLIAMENTARIANS IN THE 1950s
South Australia’s first female member of parliament, Nancy Buttfield, was the daughter of Ted Holden, of car industry fame. Although brought up in the privilege of the family’s home, “Kalymna” on Dequetteville Terrace, Kent Town, Buttfield had her father’s belief in public service. Among visitors to “ Kalymna,” Robert Menzies advised Buttfield on a parliamentary career. After making gains as Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Adelaide, she was chosen to fill a senate vacancy in 1955.
Although South Australia in 1894 was first to grant women the right to stand as candidates, no woman was elected to the state’s parliament until 1959 when Liberal Country League candidates Joyce Steele (House of Assembly) and Jessie Cooper (Legislative Council) broke through. Steele become a minister in Steele Hall’s government (1968-70) and Cooper in 1979 controversally crossed the floor to ensure businessman Alan Bond didn't gain control of the Santos company.
Kay Brownbill’s win for the Liberal Country League in the federal seat of Kingston (1966-69), Isobel Redmond as leader of state Liberals (2009-13) and Vicki Chapman as first deputy (from 2018) feature among South Australian women’s political firsts: Heather Southcott as first Australian Democrats woman in House of Assembly. Ruby Hammond was first Aboriginal woman candidate for state parliament and Kelly Vincent first Australian politician elected on a disabilities platform.
In 1965, Molly Byrne led the way for South Australian Labor female parliamentarians as a member of the House of Assembly for the seat of Tea Tree Gully. Anne Levy in 1975 was first Labor woman in the Legislative Council and, in 1986, its president. This made her the first presiding office of any house of parliament in Australia. Barbara Wiese (1985) was the first Labor woman and Legislative Council member to be a minister, from 1985 to 1994, mainly in the tourism portfolio.
KEY ROLES IN CANBERRA FROM THE 1980s
Janine Haines’ election to the senate in 1980 started a high-profile phase for South Australian women in federal politics. In 1986, Haines was elected leader of the Australian Democrats who gained the balance of power in the senate. Haines used this to negotiate changes in areas such as health care and equal opportunity for women. She furthered the senate’s role as a house of review. In 1990, Haines resigned to contest (unsuccessfully) the South Australian seat of Kingston.
Meg Lees put South Australian women further into the federal political spotlight – and heat – as leader of the Australian Democrats from 1997. When Cheryl Kernot defected to Labor, Lees became Democrats leader, with another South Australian, Natasha Stott Despoja, as deputy. Lees came under pressure when she negotiated aspects of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Many Democrats disliked the deal and Stott Despoja successfully challenged for the leadership in 2001.
Amanda Vanstone and Julie Bishop, as little-l liberals achieving in a conservative environment, continue South Australia's tradition of political mavericks. In 1984, at 31, Vanstone was the youngest Australian senator and in 1996 became a minister who weathered controversies such as the "Pacific Solution" for boat people. Bishop has been Liberal Party deputy leader to Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Turnbull again. She was acting prime minister for a short time in 2017.
Julia Gillard, as 27th Australian prime minister 2010-13, achieved the ultimate political goal for Australian women. Born in Barry, Wales, Gillard migrated with her family to Adelaide in 1966. She attended Mitcham Demonstration School and Unley High School then onto Adelaide University. In her challenging time (2010-13) as prime minister, Gillard made education a main focus but also took bold decisions such as a carbon tax to tackle climate change.
THE STRUGGLE GOES ON
South Australia remains part of the growing awareness of domestic violence and its increasing rates of death across Australia in the 21st Century. This is an overhang from the 19th Century when the status of women as property was as dominant as the right to vote in the women’s rights struggle. Besides having no claim to property, married women had few rights if deserted by husbands or caught in violent relationships. It was lawful for husbands to beat their wives.
South Australian prostitution stays criminal but it remains tolerated under the guise of massage parlour or escourts. During parliamentary debate in 1885, Dr John Cockburn (premier 1889-90) warned that it was “absolutely impossible to abolish brothels.” In 1907, police reported 103 brothels operating in Adelaide. But that year, the state government's Suppression of Brothels Bill responded to Adelaide City Council concerns that properties next to brothels “deteriorated in value”.
After numerous failed attempts in state parliament since 1980, South Australia status on prostitution is little changed from the 19th Century; the only state where prostitution is completely illegal. Sex industry law reform in late 20th Century South Australia grew out of the 1970s feminist movement. A Women's Electoral Lobby seminar in 1978 supported a prostitutes union but voted against legalising prostitution. Sex workers formed the Scarlet Alliance to advocate for their rights.
The South Australian Equal Opportunity Act, enacted in 1984, was among the earliest comprehensive pieces of equal opportunity legislation in Australia.
But gender equality shortfalls were highlighted in the South Australian public service and police force in 2016. The police union objected to a push for 50:50 gender equality in the South Australian police force ranks and the state government launched an audit of pay inequality in the public service.
RANGE OF SERVICES TO HELP WOMEN
South Australia’s Office for Women was recognised in 2016 for its work to prevent violence against women, with a trophy from Arman Abrahimzadeh, the 2016 Young South Australian of the Year. Abrahimzadeh became a passionate advocate of empowering women and working against domestic violence after his mother Zahra was murdered by his father. The Office for Women leads the state government’s work towards women’s equality through developing policy and providing advice.The office works with both government and nongovernment agencies including women's domestic and Aboriginal violence services, Yarrow Place Rape and Sexual Assault service and the Victim Support Service.Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show: one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence; one in four women have experienced emotional abuse from a current or former partner, and one in three women have experienced physical violence.
Since 1978, the Women’s Information Service (formerly Switchboard) has been giving advice covering health and wellbeing through to education, training and career paths. Part of the Office for Women, the service offers information and advice online, by phone and from its shopfront at 101 Grenfell Street, Adelaide (opposite Regent Arcade) on areas such as: Family life and relationships; domestic/family violence, sexual assault and safety; accommodation and financial security.
The Adelaide International Women’s Day (March 8) breakfast has become the largest event of its type in Australia. This event was started in Adelaide in 1993 and has big support, attracting more than 2300 people in 2015 and raising $50,000, which was donated to UN Women National Committee Australia. In 2001, the International Women's Day Committee (SA) developed the first 20th Century Honour Roll for South Australian Women, complied by Betty Fisher.