Sam Hanna Bell Samuel Beckett John Hewitt Bernard (Barney) Hughes James Joseph Magennis VC Frances Elizabeth Clarke Stewart Parker William Carleton Rosamond Praegar

Mary Lee (1821 - 1909):
Suffragist; trade union activist; welfare worker

Mary Lee was one of the foremost campaigners for women’s suffrage in Australia. Her life divided into two parts. She was born Mary Agnes Walsh in County Monaghan, and grew up there. In 1844 she married George Lee, the organist and choirmaster of Armagh Cathedral with whom she had seven children. When her husband died she travelled to Australia in 1879, not with the intention of permanent emigration but because of the poor health of one of her sons. He died within a year, and Lee decided to stay in Adelaide, partly through genuine affection for the city and partly because she could not afford the fare home. 

Whereas Lee in her life in Ulster had been described as “the slip of an old red-hot Tory stem”, she set herself with considerable enthusiasm to causes of political and social reform, especially in regard to women’s rights. She became involved with the Social Purity Society, founded by Rev JC Kirby, which through intensive lobbying and stimulus of public and parliamentary debate, managed to secure substantial legal changes, including raising the age of consent to sixteen, which were incorporated in the Criminal Law Consolidation Amendment Act (1885). Kirby ascribed these as achievements largely to Lee, who with other Purity Society members proceeded to inaugurate the South Australian Women's Suffrage League in July 1888. She regarded the vote for women as her “crowning task” and proved a skilful campaigner, not least through her understanding of what would today be called PR. She was an eloquent speaker and employed a range of techniques, sometimes rather grating, sometimes using biblical allusions, and, no teetotaller she, addressing Christian Temperance Union meetings. She was also a dogged fundraiser. 

In 1890 she became involved with the newly-founded Working Women's Trades Union, and took a particular interest in working conditions in sweated industries. She had a measure of success in persuading employers to adopt the Union's log of prices. In addition, in her capacity as Union vice-president, in 1893 she was a delegate to the Trades and Labor Council where she worked on a sub-committee examining sweating in the clothing trade and on the Distressed Women's and Children's Committee, which distributed relief clothes and food to women suffering in the economic depression. She was a member of the ladies' committee of the Female Refuge and was involved also with the Adelaide Sick Poor Fund. 

Probably the high point of all her campaigning came with the passing of the Constitution Amendment Act on 18 December 1894. This made South Australian women the first in Australia to gain the parliamentary vote, and this on the same terms as men. It also gave them the right to postal votes and to stand for parliament (in fact even Lee had not campaigned for this); these were provisions in advance of their time; in the Imperial home country of the United Kingdom, it took several more decades and the social revolution of a world war to secure the vote for the free-born Englishwoman and her British compatriots. 

Another of her concerns was with mental patients, always a thorny issue. Lee was appointed in 1896 by the South Australian government the first female official visitor to the lunatic asylums and she performed this task with courage and compassion for twelve years. In 1898 she backed the medical superintendent on the contentious issue of Paris Nesbit's release from Parkside Lunatic Asylum. Nesbit was a highly talented man and a brilliant lawyer, who nevertheless was apparently unstable emotionally and frequently confined to mental institutions. Lee argued that special provision should be made for such brilliant though disturbed patients. She visited the Destitute Asylum regularly as a friend to the inmates. 

On her 75th birthday in 1896, at the Adelaide Town Hall South Australian premier Kingston handed her a purse of fifty sovereigns, publicly donated through the Mary Lee Testimonial Fund, with a "handsomely bound and artistically engrossed" address which acknowledged that the achievement of women's suffrage "is mainly due to your persistent advocacy and unwearied exertions". 

In her later years Lee herself suffered, if not financial distress, certainly unfavourable financial circumstances, having campaigned to an appreciable extent on her own resources. After her death in 1909 her name fell into relative obscurity. But her true memorial remains her leading rôle in progressive, and especially women’s political, rights in her adopted country.

Born: 14 February 1821
Died: 18 September 1909
Richard Froggatt

Professor Sir Peter Froggatt


Australian Dictionary of Biography; Dictionary of Irish Biography