Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies

Review: Lee-Talbot

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Deb Lee-Talbot

Deakin University

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Mary Lee: The Life and Times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights

Denise George, Mary Lee: The Life and Times of a ‘turbulent anarchist’ and her battle for women’s rights, Mile End, Wakefield Press, 2018; pp: 256; RRP $34.95 Paperback.

Illuminating the presence of women in Australian history has its challenges. As European immigration dramatically increased and flowed into new colonial spaces, migrants passed through documentary systems not designed to be international, and historical, records. The voices and presence of members from low socio-economic groups were often obscured by the voices of the wealthy. Should women manage to appear in historical records, they were often eclipsed by the colonial institutions’ preference to focus on keeping records regarding the actions of men.

Mary Lee is then a testament to both the lure of the archives to researchers and the skill required to construct an interesting and informative biography from highly problematic resources. Denise George explains it was the ‘absence of information about Mary’s life and work that fuelled her curiosity’ about this formidable woman. Mary Lee immigrated to Australia as a widow at the age of 59 years. Subsequently she became a notable Australian suffragist while also working in the wider community as an advocate for women, children, the mentally ill and destitute.

Archival silences, especially concerning Mary’s early life in Ireland and first months in South Australia, have George drawing on interdisciplinary research and writing skills, obviously gained during the completion of her PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide. Within highly descriptive passages George sets the scene of Mary’s early life in Northern Ireland as a wife, mother and educator. The description in these chapters construct Mary as an educated, devoutly religious, working-class woman. These chapters demonstrate a good understanding both Irish life and the social and cultural demands made on women during the nineteenth century. The book’s assumption of a chronological, birth to death, format does highlight the significant archival gaps in this part of Mary’s history. Not until the third chapter is there a true sense of Mary as an individual, as readers are granted comprehensive insight into Mary’s work life, and her devotion to her family and God.

After detailing the social and cultural structures by which Mary was bound, George’s book focuses on Mary’s arrival in 1879 to the South Australian colony. The primary consideration by George is the subsequent and significant role Mary undertook to gain women the right to vote. A particular highlight in the narrative are details concerning Mary’s role in the organisation of a colony-wide petition that produced 11,600 signatures and was presented to the House of Assembly in August 1894. George’s research into South Australian women’s demands to gain the parliamentary vote, on the same terms as men, illustrate them obtaining a positive outcome on 18 December 1894. George’s approach illustrates Mary was highly innovative in her pursuit of the female vote, as she urged multiple social groups to work together ‘to achieve basic human rights for all and women’s suffrage in particular’ (p.168). 

Once Mary’s involvement in gaining the vote reaches its climax, George clearly illustrates Mary’s widespread passion for social equality. George demonstrates Mary’s involvement with the Female Refuge, Social Purity Society, Women’s Suffrage League and Working Women’s Trade Union. Particular attention is paid to Mary’s role as the only female visitor appointed by the Kingston government to visit the Adelaide and Parkside asylums (1896-1908).

By the book’s conclusion it is apparent had Mary Lee not been a ‘turbulent anarchist’ the voice of this determined humanitarian would have been lost in a colony which cared little for widows and the working class. It was in this hostile environment that Mary worked to make herself heard ‘against a barrage of antagonism from politicians and a hostile public’ (p.x). Because of her tenacity Mary’s voice appears in colonial newspapers and personal letters. And it is for this reason the reader gains a greater understanding of Mary’s devotion to social reform.

An interesting thread of analysis throughout Mary Lee is the tension between her religious belief as a devoted member of the Wellington Square Primitive Methodist church and her social work. George argues Mary Lee’s religious involvement was ‘as much a political affiliation as religious endeavour’ (p.59). George identifies that ‘Mary’s desire for women’s suffrage was governed by a deep abiding spirituality. She believed religion would prove the master force of nineteenth century social and political revolution’ (p.172). Accordingly, the reader becomes aware Mary utilised church conferences as much as public hall gatherings as forums in which to speak about human rights.

Overall, this book primarily examines the thirty years in which Mary was involved with policy reform and public debates relating to the role of women- colonial and Aboriginal- within early European settlement. George's book is most important for its demonstration of how women, especially those on the margins due to ethnicity, class and age, negotiated colonial society and the time it took for permanent governmental change to occur. Followers of contemporary feminist movements, such as #Metoo and #Destroythejoint, would do well to read George’s book. Not only to recognise the significant work of Mary Lee, but also to recognise there is a tradition in Australia of strong women instigating, and successfully instilling, social change.  

Deb Lee-Talbot
Deakin University

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Saturday, 31 August, 2019 11:16 PM