Many people have been the first to do something, but few have done as much as the forgotten Catherine Spence.
Quite a few people are first at something: running a certain distance in a certain time, or combining chocolate, chili and pork without making people throw up. But it is not often that a person has more than one first to their name, and even more rare if there are many of them. At the pinnacle of this category stands Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910). She was – count with me here – the first professional female journalist in Australia, the first woman to write a novel about the country, the first to write a legal book on citizens rights, the first female political candidate in Australia, the first fighter for proportional representation, the first female member of several Reform Boards and the first co-founder of a fostering system for children in care. And this only tells half the story of her remarkable life. No wonder one of her obituaries said that she was “the most distinguished woman in Australia” at the time: “If she had been a man, that man might have commanded the most important position among Australian statesmen. As it was, she greatly elevated the status of her sex.” But that was when she was safely dead. During her life, there was far more vicious criticism of what she tried to do, especially her actions to better the lives of women and children. A few years before she died, somebody wrote that she had “the kind of intellectual strength which everybody calls masculine,” and that was not meant as a compliment. This is why Catherine Spence is Maverick number 17: a “clear-brained common sense woman of the world,” as she defined herself. And a courageous one at that.
When Catherine Spence was 13 years old, her father got into serious financial trouble. The only way out was to move to the other side of the world, from Scotland to Australia. The family put their stuff in some trunks, gathered the five children and got on a boat. They arrived in 1839, on Catherine’s 14th birthday, and took possession of a wheat selection at the height of the drought. The girl was, she would later write, “inclined to go and cut [her] throat.” After nine months her parents also felt less than cheerful and decided to relocate to Adelaide, where her father, David, became the first Town Clerk. Adelaide was only a few years old and anything was still possible. So when Catherine’s father died in 1843 and left the family without an income, the women – Catherine, her mother, and sisters – were allowed, and even encouraged, to set up a school. For a couple of years, Catherine taught and worked for some of the elite of Adelaide as a governess. But in secret, she also wrote. Poetry, and journalism, for the South Australian and the Argus, that published her stories under her brother’s name. There had never been a female journalist in Australia and editors felt it was a little unseemly for women to write. But Catherine was good at it, so after a few years, she got a byline all of her own. By that time, she had also tackled the bigger stuff: her novel, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, was published in 1854. Again, it was a first. Never before had a woman written fiction about Australia. And again, it needed a pseudonym, just in case it would upset the punters.
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For a while, Catherine wrote a book every two years. Usually, they were serialised in the newspapers first, which made some money and brought its author, when her name was finally mentioned, under the attention of the public and literary critics. People like Miles Franklin compared her to Jane Austen and thought she was a great social commentator. Often the books were about women’s roles in society and once in a while they were so scandalous that nobody wanted to publish them. Handfasted, for instance, was rejected because it was deemed to “loosen the marriage tie: too socialistic and therefore dangerous.” Although Catherine had nothing against marriage, she herself decided to stay single and childless. That was fortuitous, because early in the 1850s, her best friend died, after making Catherine the guardian of her five children. They would not be the only orphans she would raise. In total there were ten children, from three different families, that came to call her mother. It not only kept her busy, it also opened her eyes to the dire circumstances other parentless children lived in. Most of the time they were locked up in asylums, where they mixed with people with mental illnesses and criminals. They didn’t go to school, had to work from an early age and were often separated from their siblings. Frequently they were housed in horrible institutions, beaten a lot and not fed enough. Worst off were little girls. The mentality was, as Catherine wrote in her autobiography, that “if girls were taught to read, where would we get servants.” Keep them uneducated, dependent and on a short leash, then you can make them do what you want.
That was not what Catherine had in mind. Early in the 1870s, she and a friend, Caroline Emily Clark, also a British migrant, founded the Boarding-Out Society, the first foster care organisation in the country. The idea was to take children out of the institutions and bring them up in families, where they could be loved and get a good education. “Guarded from injustice, neglect and cruelty” they could then become “young fellow citizens” instead of angry little criminals, Catherine thought, and she was very much encouraged by the result: “their cheeks have become rosier and the eyes have a new light in them,” she wrote, and pressed harder to make the system the default for the whole of South Australia. After some pushback, this happened in the 1880s, which gave Catherine the opportunity to also advocate strongly for a State Children’s Council, the foundation of kindergartens and government secondary schools for girls. These too became official South Australian policy soon after and even led to women being admitted to Teacher’s Training Colleges and finally the Universities. To help with the curriculum, Catherine wrote The Laws We Live Under, the country’s first book about citizens’ rights geared towards children. She hoped that it would teach them to become active participants in the country’s future and “hitch their wagon to a star.” Catherine was proud, because it was her aim “to develop a perfect society in the land of my adoption,” and this was step number one.
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In the mean time, Catherine had branched out into another area of reform. In the 1850s, men had been given the vote in South Australia and Catherine was delighted to tell her friends in Britain and America that she was “from the land of the secret ballot,” something they didn’t have. But something was missing. The only people able to vote were men, and that was not enough for Catherine. Soon she became a vocal advocate for a new principle called Proportional Representation, or one man/woman, one vote. She wrote a pamphlet called A Plea for Pure Democracy, which was praised by John Stuart Mill, although he was less certain about her appeal to give minorities and women not only a vote, but a bigger voice in the running of the country. Catherine had written her book “at a white heat of enthusiasm” and “had the feeling that in our new colonies the reform would meet with less obstruction than in old countries bound by precedent and prejudiced by vested interests. Parliament is the preserve of the wealthy in the United Kingdom, in Australia it will not be.” She was also hopeful that men in this country would be more open-minded than those in America, where “Pilgrim Fathers have ignored the right of the Pilgrim Mothers to the credit of founding the United States.” And she was right, because Australia would become one of the first countries in the world to give the vote to both men and women, as long as they were white.
After a few decades of activism, Catherine went to the 1893 Chicago World Fair, to give speeches on topics ranging from charity, electoral reform, women’s suffrage and peace. On her way back to Australia, she lectured around the US, Britain and Europe and by the time her ship docked at Adelaide she was even more famous than when she left. She was almost in her seventies now, but that didn’t stop her. In 1894, just after women got franchised, she formed the Effective Voting League of South Australia. And in 1897 Catherine Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate, for the Federal Convention, the organisation that was tasked with preparing the country for Federation in 1901. She lost, of course, but the point had been made and over time, women running and (eventually, although it would take a while) being elected would become an almost normal event.
Having ticked goal number two off the list, Catherine spent the last years of her life doing “little” things, which would be big for most of us. She wrote A Week in the Future, a slightly utopian prediction of what Australia could be if it set its mind to it. She founded a cooperative factory to enable women workers to make their own money and cut out the middleman. When the Boer War broke out in 1899, she was one of the strongest voices for peace and against the “abhorrent” conflict that had whipped up race hatred and encroached on civil liberties. Catherine also regularly gave sermons at the Unitarian Christian Church, and spent a good part of her money supporting women in the arts, like modernist Margaret Preston. Just before she died, she wrote her autobiography, because she wanted “to make it easier henceforward for any woman who feels she has something to say to stand up and say it.” Women had to learn to “not be such nervous and timid individuals,” she thought, then they could achieve anything they wanted. Her only regret was that “had I been born a man instead of a woman, my talents would have found much higher recognition as well as richer rewards.” Nevertheless, when Australia celebrated the Centenary of Federation, it brought out a special five-dollar note with Catherine Helen Spence at its centre. And that was only right. Because this Scottish migrant turned maverick Australian left our country better than she found it when she arrived. We can all be grateful for that.