Catherine Helen Spence was one of the most prolific Australian authors who drew a vivid picture of South Australia through her writings and lectures. She won reputation as a literary critic and social reporter and her articles were published in many South Australian newspapers and magazines like the ‘Cornhill Magazine’, ‘Fortnightly Review’ and ‘Melbourne Review’. She was also a famous suffragist and Georgist and Australia’s first female political candidate to run for the elections. She was 67 when she started her campaign but her enthusiasm was that of a young woman. She represented the Federal Convention at Adelaide though unsuccessfully. Catherine Helen Spence contributed to the accomplishment of the women’s suffrage movement and showed extraordinary resilience in transcending patriarchal restrictions on rightful activities. Spence dedicated her life for the education of girl children and betterment of the poor. Miles Franklin called her the “Greatest Australian Woman”. On her eightieth birthday, the image of this “Grand Old Woman of Australia” was placed on the Federation Australian five-dollar note. As a sign of her ever-present influence, Adelaide's daily newspaper ‘The Advertiser’ included her name in its list of the ten greatest South Australians of the 20th century. Spence described herself as 'a clear-brained commonsense woman of the world'.
Childhood & Early Life
Spence was born on 31 October 1825 in Melrose, Scotland to David S., an attorney and the first Town clerk of the City of Adelaide, and Helen (Brodie) Spence.
She was the fifth child in a family of eight siblings. Her brother John Brodie Spence went on to become a well-known banker.
In 1839, because of economic difficulties, her family shifted to South Australia, which was a British colony at that time. Spence was initially overwhelmed by the contrast to her homeland.
Her family had to go through “encampment” for seven months after which they moved to Adelaide.
She started working as a governess in Adelaide from the age of 17.
She nurtured an ambition of becoming a writer simultaneously. For several years, she wrote under her brother’s name for the South Australian division of ‘The Argus’ newspaper.
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Her first work was a novel, ‘Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever’, published anonymously in 2 volumes by J W Parker and Son in 1854.
In 1856, her second novel, ‘Tender and True’ was published in 2 volumes again. The book became popular and ran into its third edition.
Her third novel in 3 volumes was published in Australia as ‘Uphill Work’ and in England as ‘Mr. Hogarth’s Will’ in 1865. This was the first book that bore her name as an author.
In 1881-82, she wrote ‘Gathered In’ which came out as a series in ‘Observer’ and in 1880 she published ‘Hand Fasted’, a novel that was rejected by the ‘Sydney Mail’.
In 1888, she published her last major work of fiction — ‘A Week in the Future’, the narrative of a utopia.
Career As An Activist
In 1872 Spence assisted Caroline Emily Clark to found the Boarding-Out Society, an organization that supported orphaned, poor, and reformed aberrant children. In 1872-86, Spence was an official of the Society.
In 1886, she became a member of the State Children's Council and in 1877, she was appointed to the School Board for East Torrens.
In 1880, she published ‘The Laws We Live Under’, the first social studies textbook to be used in Australian schools.
Spence was greatly influenced by Thomas Hare's system of proportional representation. So, in 1892 she put forward the adapted Hare-Spence system to achieve truly proportionate demonstration of political parties. By then Spence had become a proficient public speaker, and had addressed the Australasian conferences on charity (1891 and 1892).
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In 1891, she joined the female suffrage movement and became a vice-president of the Women's Suffrage League of South Australia.
In 1892-93, her campaign for proportional representation was launched with the support of Labor Party and other socialist groups.
In 1893-94, she went to the US, the UK and Switzerland to address various international conferences.
In 1895, she formed the Effective Voting League of South Australia and came at twenty-second position out of thirty-three candidates.
In 1899 and 1900, Catherine Helen Spence launched a campaign to introduce ‘effective voting’ in Federal elections but the effort was unsuccessful.
She supported suffrage campaigns in New South Wales and Victoria and spoke at meetings of the Women's League about the political education of women.
In 1897, Catherine Helen Spence made a legendary leap in the history of federal convention elections by becoming the first woman to run as a candidate. The implication of the event was not reduced by her defeat in the election.
As the as vice president of Women's Suffrage League of South Australia she established the women's right to vote in state elections and the women's right to stand for the state parliament in South Australia.
Personal Life & Legacy
Catherine Helen Spence died on 3 April 1910 in Norwood, South Australia at the age of 84.
At the time of her death, she was writing her autobiography, ‘Catherine Helen Spence: An Autobiography’, which was posthumously completed by Jeanne F. Young.
She is commemorated with a bronze statue in Light Square, a building after her name in the University of South Australia and a wing after her name in the State Library of South Australia.
In 1975, Australia Post issued a postage stamp with her image.
Catherine Helen Spence was an early promoter of the work of Australian artist Margaret Preston. Preston drew her portrait, which now hangs at the Art Gallery of South Australia.