Book Review: Mary Lee, by Denise George

The first full biography of the driving force behind woman’s suffrage in South Australia.

By
Mary Lee would be nearly 70 years old by the time the Women’s Suffrage League was established .
Overall
4

Born in Ireland in 1821, into a working class Protestant family, Mary kept her faith all her life but her independence and education led her to question the political and social status quo – particularly following the potato famine in Ireland. She married George Lee in 1844 and soon after moved to England. By 1851 Mary was a mother to three young children and a teacher alongside her husband at Barnwell Normal School in Cambridge.

The growing family later moved to London and Mary continued to teach. Unlike many middle class women, Mary actually worked hard for her living and challenged the expectations of a typical Victorian woman as she successfully established and taught at her own school for young ladies after her husband died.

Although there are no journals or diaries extant, wonderful word pictures of the life and times of Mary Lee have been successfully created in this first full-length biography. Denise George’s energetic and confident writing reflects her extensive research and her admiration for her subject. She has drawn together many strands including official records, business directories, advertisements and later, when Mary was in Adelaide, parliamentary reports and newspaper accounts to weave a compelling account of a great South Australian who would be much better known if she had been a man.

George includes a fascinating narrative on the early years of Adelaide and reminds us of the dispossession of the Indigenous inhabitants. By the 1870s, when Mary and her daughter Eva came to South Australia to care for her youngest son, Adelaide was well established and prosperous. This was true for the fortunate few as there was great disparity between the wealthy and the poor whose poor living conditions were a breeding ground for diseases such as tuberculosis from which Mary’s son died.

The stark reality of this poverty and hardship; children starving on the streets; both white and Indigenous women being forced into prostitution just to survive, motivated Mary to advocate for social change. Her determination was not lessened by being denigrated in the press and parliament as she campaigned for votes for women in the face of vicious opposition.

Mary fought against discriminatory views of women which were held in society and in the law. She became well known for being difficult and disruptive but she also became impossible to ignore. She was nearly 70 years old when the Women’s Suffrage League was established by Mary and Mary Colton.

An important factor in the battle for women’s suffrage, which George highlights, was the opposition of the liquor industry. As the Women’s Christian Temperance Union supported votes for women it was thought enfranchising women would lead to alcohol restrictions. We read of Ebenezer Ward MP who was frequently drunk in parliament and used his parliamentary privilege to abuse Mary. But the movement was ultimately successful in 1894 when South Australia became the second jurisdiction, after New Zealand a year earlier, to grant women the vote.

Sadly, as the author has written elsewhere, such ‘bullying tactics were a sign of things to come and a means of intimidation that still persists in parliament today’ (source).

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: September 2018
RRP: $34.95

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