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Scott, Rose (1847–1925)

by Judith Allen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Rose Scott (1847-1925), by unknown photographer (after John Longstaff)

Rose Scott (1847-1925), by unknown photographer (after John Longstaff)

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 01434

Rose Scott (1847-1925), feminist, was born on 8 October 1847 at Glendon, near Singleton, New South Wales, fifth of eight children of Helenus Scott, Indian-born pastoralist and later police magistrate at Newcastle, and his wife Sarah Ann, sister of George William and Henry Keylock Rusden and an accomplished linguist and scholar. Rose and her closest sister Augusta (Gussie) were educated by their mother while their brothers went to boarding school. A renowned beauty and well-connected, Rose regularly visited Sydney. Like her sisters, she was brought up to marry, but unlike them, she remained unmarried. Later she claimed that life was too short to waste it in the service of one man. The bibliophile David Scott Mitchell was a cousin and a favourite, but her youthful romantic interests remain speculative.

The poor health of her mother, to whom she was devoted, kept Rose Scott fully engaged in domestic matters at Glendon. On her father's death in 1879 she inherited £500 a year and sole care of her mother. After her beloved Gussie's death in 1880, she adopted her 2-year-old son Helenus Hope Scott Wallace, known as 'Harry', and moved him and her mother to Sydney.

From the age of 35 Rose Scott became a Sydney celebrity. Many visitors later recalled her regular Friday evening salon at her home in Jersey Road, Woollahra, where gathered politicians, judges, philanthropists, writers and poets—including Barbara Baynton, (Sir) William Cullen, Victor Daley, (Sir) Frank Fox, William Lane, Roderick Quinn, Arthur Rae and B. R. Wise. She claimed that her feminism originated in hearing the story of Katharina's subjugation in The Taming of the Shrew and attributed much to J. S. Mill's The Subjection of Women (1861). Her library included the works of the great contemporary women novelists and pioneer British and American feminists. In her first published article in the Sydney Morning Herald (1889) entitled 'Home lessons' she condemned cramming and competitiveness in the education system.

Scott was a founding member of the Women's Literary Society in 1889 from whose members the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales was formed in 1891. Although her mother remained implacably opposed to women's suffrage, Scott as foundation secretary of the league concentrated her considerable energies on the struggle for franchise (1892-96), using her social contacts and lobbying skills astutely. She continued even more determinedly after the vice suppression bill was laughed out of parliament in 1892; it sought to raise the age of consent to 16 and to make the public soliciting of prostitutes and abandoning a woman seduced under promise of marriage punishable offences. She survived many internal disputes in the league; despite a public profile of sweetness, charm and tact, she had decided convictions about political modes and priorities, which made her relations with other feminists less than harmonious. The resignations of the first president Mary Windeyer in 1893 and Louisa Lawson soon after and the ongoing battles with feminists of the labour movement such as Annie and Belle Golding and Mrs Martel were instances of conflict over policy.

After her mother's death in 1896, Rose Scott diversified her activities. That year she became involved in the early closing movement for shops and factories and the 1899 Act was reputedly drafted on her dinner table. A foundation member of the National Council of Women of New South Wales in 1896, she was international secretary and convener of its legal committee from about 1904. As first lady president of a women's committee of the Prisoners' Aid Association in 1898, she inspected Darlinghurst Gaol and wrote a stinging report advocating a separate prison for women (opened at Long Bay in 1908) and many basic reforms of conditions and discriminatory practices. With Harry Holland she organized the Tailoresses' Union of New South Wales in 1901.

Socialists like S. A. Rosa had claimed that women voters would usher in rule by clergy, while conservatives feared that women would establish socialism. Like them, Miss Scott believed that women would vote as a sex, so that female suffrage could dramatically alter the character of political life with the threat of halving or doubling support for any party. Sharing the belief of many feminists that women must remain independent of party politics, she was first president (1902-10) of the Women's Political Educational League, founded when the Federal and State franchise was granted in 1902, as a lobbying organization to educate women in the use of the vote. The league established branches throughout the State and consistently campaigned for the issue closest to Scott's heart—raising the age of consent to 16, achieved in 1910 with the Crimes (Girls' Protection) Act.

In 1903-04 she campaigned for the release of Ethel Herringe, a young woman convicted for shooting her ex-employer at Cowra, after he had abandoned her upon learning she was pregnant to him: Scott was incensed that Herringe had been forced to give birth to her twins in Darlinghurst Gaol, only to have them taken away, and stressed that the shooting was an attempt to retrieve her honour in a situation lacking effective legal redress. The anti-feminist B. R. Wise had already clashed with Scott over women's suffrage and was unsympathetic to Herringe, whose release was effected by change of ministry in 1904. Rose Scott worked closely with (Sir) Charles Mackellar, offering him considerable tactical advice, for the Infant Protection Act (1904), which allowed an unmarried pregnant woman to sue the putative father for pre-natal expenses, maintenance for six months after the birth and for the child until adolescence. However, she refused Mackellar's invitation to appear before the 1903 royal commission on the decline of the birth-rate and instead wrote indignantly to the Daily Telegraph on the need for a quality not quantity population and more rights for mothers.

Rose Scott had strenuously opposed Federation and in 1900 wrote and spoke against Empire involvement in the South African War. Always a staunch opponent of competition and aggression, she became president of the Sydney branch of the Peace Society in 1908. As well as her involvement in post-suffrage feminist reform campaigns, including the Testator's Family Maintenance and Guardianship of Infants (1916), Women's Legal Status (1918) and First Offenders (Women) (1918) Acts, she took part in cultural activities and was a foundation member of the Women's Club established in 1906 by Dr Mary Booth. She was president of the New South Wales Ladies' Amateur Swimming Association from 1908 until 1911 when she clashed with its leading swimmer, Fanny Durack, over her competing at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games—she objected to the Olympics on pacifist grounds, also to women appearing in competitions when men were present.

A prolific correspondent who made a specialty of letters to newspapers, Scott damned the militancy of the English suffragettes (1911-12), which earned her frosty replies from Adela Pankhurst Walsh and others. Despite political ups and downs she maintained affectionate friendships with Miles Franklin, Vida Goldstein and Florence Wearne. In her private writings, Scott clearly saw prostitution as the ultimate symbol of sexual economics and of the degradation of all women—an institution brought forth by and enhancing 'the animal in man'. Hence she opposed any legislation which regulated the prostitute workforce even in regard to venereal disease. In 1912 she organized 'ladies only' meetings for the sex reformer W. J. Chidley.

After retiring from public life in 1922, Miss Scott gave newspaper interviews. She was now openly disillusioned about the progress of Australian women since enfranchisement and lamented that they had allowed themselves to be seduced by the men of party politics. She died on 20 April 1925 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. All her public life Rose Scott worked for measures to reduce men's power over women and to expand women's material options beyond marriage or prostitution. In seeking women's access to public office and staffing of public institutions (such as warders and police matrons) and the provision of public space for women's uses (such as rest rooms and parcel cloakrooms), she prized women's mobility and independence. In 1921 she gave £50 to the University of Sydney for a prize for women law students.

Her portrait by John Longstaff is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 10 Mar 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22, 27 Apr, 2 May 1925
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Scott family papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Rose Scott correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Windeyer family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Judith Allen, 'Scott, Rose (1847–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-rose-8370/text14689, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Rose Scott (1847-1925), by unknown photographer (after John Longstaff)

Rose Scott (1847-1925), by unknown photographer (after John Longstaff)

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 01434