Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Henry, Alice (1857–1943)

by Diane Kirkby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Alice Henry (1857-1943), journalist and woman's rights advocate, was born on 21 March 1857 at Richmond, Melbourne, daughter of Charles Ferguson Henry, accountant, and his wife Margaret, née Walker, seamstress. Her parents, both Scottish-born, had met on the voyage out from Glasgow and married in Melbourne in 1853. Her brother Alfred was born in 1859. At one stage Charles Henry tried farming a selection of land in Gippsland. Here Alice received her first lessons from her mother. Remembering these as years of freedom and activity, she never lost her love of the bush. Back in Melbourne she attended several schools, matriculating with credit from Richard Hale Budd's Educational Institute for Ladies in 1874.

Her father's discussions of the protective tariff introduced her to politics. She later attributed her passionate commitment to justice, democracy, and women's rights to her Scots ancestry, the equal treatment she and her brother received from her parents, and Budd's advanced educational ideas. Denied access to a university education, yet accepting the need to support herself, Henry tried teaching but following a serious illness turned to journalism. Her first article appeared in 1884. For twenty years she wrote for the Argus, the Australasian, and occasionally other newspapers and overseas journals, under her own name or a pseudonymn, 'A.L.F.', 'Wyuna', or 'Pomona'.

Her journalism publicized progressive causes: juvenile courts, women's hospitals, proportional representation, epileptic colonies, care for handicapped and dependent children, and labour reform. She became a close friend and working associate of leading reformers Catherine Helen Spence, Henry Bournes Higgins and his sister Ina, Bernard O'Dowd, and Vida Goldstein and her family. She was active in women's clubs and the women suffrage campaign, and gained a reputation as a courageous public speaker in support of social change. For a time she also ran a business, from a city office, as a town shopper for country women and employment agency for domestic servants.

In 1905, aged 48, she left for England, sponsored by the Charity Organisation Society of Melbourne. There she heard George Bernard Shaw speak, observed the militant suffragists, and toured Scotland. In December she sailed for New York where American interest in Australian progressivism ensured her a ready audience. Her Fabian socialism fitted neatly with the philosophy of labour reform espoused by the new school of political economists, and her knowledge of Australian labour legislation and woman suffrage attracted the attention of the prominent reformer Margaret Dreier Robins. She invited Henry to work for the National Women's Trade Union League of America in Chicago where, as lecturer, as field-worker organizing new branches, and as journalist, she became a key figure in the campaign for woman suffrage, union organization, vocational education, and labour legislation. Her bearing was dignified and when she spoke it was with vigour and conviction. American audiences were 'in awe of her English accent, snowy head and great knowledge'. Despite some eccentricities in her dress, newspaper reports testified to her persuasiveness on the podium.

She wrote two books, The Trade Union Woman (1915) and Women and the Labor Movement (1923); in 1920-22 directed the league's educational department; and, with the assistance of her close friend Miles Franklin, for eight years edited the league's official journal, initially the women's page of the Union Labor Advocate (1908-10), then a separate publication, Life and Labor (1911-15). In 1924 the league executive sent her to England, Europe, and Australia; she arrived in Melbourne in February 1925, intending to stay for two months but remained for twelve. On her return to America in March 1926 she retired from active work, moving to Santa Barbara, California, in 1928. There, in 1929, her last significant article, on Henry Handel Richardson, was published in the Bookman.

In 1923 Alice Henry had become an American citizen. Suffering financial hardship during the Depression, and wishing to be with her brother, she reluctantly returned to Australia in 1933. Although she was welcomed as a notable and successful Australian woman, settling back into Melbourne was slow and painful. She attempted to continue her old activities: she joined the Playgrounds' Association and the press, arts and letters committee of the National Council of Women of Victoria; she gave radio talks on prohibition and modern poetry; she assisted Hartley Grattan in his tour of 1936-38; and in 1937 she compiled a bibliography of Australian women writers. But she missed her American life. Then, in 1937, her brother was lost at sea, and her health began to deteriorate. In 1938 she gave up her American citizenship, and in 1939 she resigned from her committee work. A year later she entered a nursing home. She died in hospital at Malvern on 14 February 1943 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Memoirs of Alice Henry, N. Palmer ed (Melb, 1944)
  • National Women's Trade Union League of America, Union Labor Advocate, 1908-10, and Life and Labor, 1911-15, and Life and Labor Bulletin, Apr 1943, and records (Library of Congress, Washington)
  • National Council of Women records (Melbourne)
  • Alice Henry papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Nettie Palmer papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Catherine Helen Spence papers (State Records of South Australia and State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Diane Kirkby, 'Henry, Alice (1857–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/henry-alice-6642/text11443, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014