Catherine Helen Spence

Catherine Helen Spence

Australia's Greatest Woman.

Born near Melrose, Scotland on 31 October 1825, Catherine Helen Spence decided by the age of thirteen that she would become a teacher and later an author. Unfortunately her formal education came to a stop in 1839 as a result of her father's financial ruin and social disgrace. With borrowed money her father invested in land in the new colony of South Australia and by the end of that year she arrived with her parents and seven brothers and sisters in Adelaide and lived for some time at Brownhill Creek.

Although disappointed she worked hard and regardless of financial hardship, and the death of her father in 1843, was able to open her own school, with the help of her mother and younger sister, in 1845. By this time she had already started with her novel, Clara Morison, which was also the first novel written about Australia by a woman. It was published in 1854 and declared 'a capital story of South Australia's life' by Rowland Hill and 'the best Australian novel we have met with' by Frederick Sinnett.

Five other novels were to follow. Tender and True in 1856, Mr Hogarth's Will in 1864, The Author's Daughter in 1868, Handfasted in 1879 but not published until 1984, Gathered In, serialised during 1881-82 and finally published in 1977 and A Week in the Future in 1889. She also wrote a social studies textbook in 1881, The Laws we live under. The Melbourne Leader when reviewing it wrote, Miss Spence, whose writings are well and favourably known throughout Australia, has just executed a little textbook for the Government of South Australia.

We are doubtful ourselves how far it is wise to attempt to teach even the elements of law and political economy in primary schools, but if we assume this to be desirable, we do not know that a better textbook than Miss Spence's could easily be found. It is very clearly and simply written, and the illustrations, which are commonly taken from South Australian history or life, are so frequent as to keep alive the interest which might flag over discussions of abstract principle.

It is also a very fair book. No one can read it without seeing that the author's sole object has been to do her work of explanation as thoroughly as possible, and that the book is not in any sense a party pamphlet. We are not always able to agree with her conclusions, but we always feel that she has endeavoured to state both sides of the case.

She also published many papers on other different subjects. Her autobiography, started a few years before she died in 1910, was eventually finished and published in 1937. She became famous for her work as an author and social and political reformer. She was a capable journalist and contributed numerous articles to several Australian newspapers. With the help of other concerned women she founded the Boarding Out Society in 1872 and became very involved in helping destitute women and children. Later she joined the State Children's Council and was appointed in 1897 to the Destitute Board. Catherine also supported the Social Purity Society where Mary Lee was doing a lot of good work.

In 1866 she visited England and wrote about her impressions. Her role, and that of other men and women, in urging education for women resulted in the establishment of kindergartens and the Advanced School for Girls, the first government secondary school for girls in Australia. It resulted in women being admitted to Teacher's Training Colleges and finally at University in 1881. The first woman to graduate from Adelaide University in 1885 was Edith Dornwell where she gained a B.Sc.

Catherine's efforts to obtain the votes for women and her life-long battle for a system of proportional parliamentary representation were widely acknowledged. In her attempt to bring this and many other reforms about, Spence became the first female political candidate in Australia when she stood (unsuccessfully) for a seat at the Federal Convention elections of 1897. She travelled extensively in Australia and overseas and gave many lectures in America, Canada and England.

Catherine Helen Spence was also instrumental in getting the Working Women's Shirtmaking Co-operative established. It operated a clothing factory in Adelaide which was owned, controlled and managed by and for women. She was an ardent supporter of women's advancement and her work as a writer, journalist, speaker and reformer was an example of what women could achieve in public life and encouraged women all over the world.

After federation Catherine urged women to become involved in public affairs and eventually became leader of the Women's Political Association, later called the League of Women Voters. She is buried at the St Jude's Cemetery at Brighton. As part of the South Australia Jubilee 150 celebrations in 1986, a statue commemorating her achievements was unveiled in Light Square, Adelaide.

Spence honoured on the new Five Dollar note.


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