Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Benham, Agnes Mary Matilda (1850–1932)

by Alison Mackinnon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Agnes Mary Matilda Benham (1850-1932), socialist and advocate of sex reform, was born on 3 December 1850 in Adelaide, second daughter of Edward Planta Nesbit, schoolmaster, and his first wife Ann, née Pariss. Agnes grew up in a literary and reform-minded milieu: her father was deeply religious and wrote poetry. Her mother died after bearing a fifth child (Edward) Paris(s) Nesbit, later a notorious lawyer. The family had radical connexions, particularly through their English cousin Edith Nesbit, writer of children's fiction and wife of Hubert Bland, a founder of the Fabian Society. Agnes was part of a small, freethinking circle in Adelaide, one familiar with the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the Fabian socialists and the American idealists. They shared a faith in evolution towards human perfectability.

On 21 April 1870 at her father's house in North Adelaide Agnes married John James Benham (1835-1919), an English-born landbroker. The couple had three children; their daughter Rosamund Agnes (1874-1923) became an early medical graduate of the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1902) and like her mother an advocate of sexual reform. In 1893 only the decrepit state of the ship Royal Tar was said to have dissuaded the Benhams from moving to New Australia in Paraguay. Agnes was a frequent speaker at the Adelaide Democratic Club. Her first forays into print in the 1890s were in regular articles for the labour paper, the Weekly Herald (Herald), under the pen name 'Garde'. Later she wrote for the Morning (renamed the Century in 1901), founded and edited by her brother. In this weekly journal she developed a series of articles on relations between the sexes, which were to be the basis of her book Love's Way to Perfect Humanhood (Adelaide, 1904).

Benham's central concern was 'the right relations of the sexes and the propagation of children that may be truly called well-born'. Containing elements of transcendentalist, evolutionary and early psychological thinking, the book presented a challenge to patriarchy and a rationale for women's improved education and political rights as well as control of their sexuality. She deplored the contempt accorded those who gave birth outside wedlock, advocated divorce where love had departed (a loveless marriage was 'legalized prostitution') and insisted upon a woman's right to sexual passion, through which partners could achieve a finer spiritual union. The child conceived through love and nurtured prenatally by the mother—the 'soul gardener'—would strengthen the race and invest the mother with greater prestige. In this, Benham was of her time as well as ahead of it, as anxieties about racial degeneration were then pervasive. But within the constraints of available reform philosophies she was an original thinker. Her commitment to both social reform and to the reform of relations between the sexes was rare.

Mrs Benham was a foundation board-member of the South Australian Co-operative Clothing Co., opened in February 1902. In November, inspired by Tom Mann, she helped to form the Clarion Fellowship of Socialists. Rosamund married Thomas Gilbert Taylor, secretary of the Western Australian Social Democratic Federation, in 1903. They had two children before separating, when Rosamund and her children resumed her maiden name. In addition to practising medicine, she wrote poetry and had some verse published in the Sydney Bulletin. She worked in Queensland in 1908-18 and later at Sunbury and Kew asylums, Melbourne, until her death from chronic nephritis on 11 December 1923. Her mother, too, seems to have spent some time in Queensland, as well as in Western Australia. In the last decades of her life Agnes lived in Melbourne. Survived by a son, she died on 7 March 1932 at Queen Victoria Hospital and was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Chivers, The Benham Family in Australia (Adel, 1970)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 15, 1987, p 110
  • A. Mackinnon and C. Bacchi, ‘Sex, Resistance and Power: Sex Reform in South Australia c.1905’, Australian Historical Studies, vol 23, no 90, Apr 1988, p 60.

Citation details

Alison Mackinnon, 'Benham, Agnes Mary Matilda (1850–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benham-agnes-mary-matilda-12792/text23083, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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