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Smyth, Bridgetena (Brettena) (1840–1898)

by Farley Kelly

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Bridgetena (Brettena) Smyth (1840?-1898), campaigner for women's health reform and women's political rights, was born in Melbourne, second daughter of John Riordan, merchant, and his wife Bridgetena, née Cavanagh. On 28 October 1861 she married storekeeper William Taylor Smyth at St Paul's United Church of England and Ireland, Kyneton. After his death in 1873 she converted the family greengrocery in North Melbourne into a drapery and druggist's business. She had borne five children of whom four were living when she was widowed.

From the age of 43 Brettena was prominent in feminist causes. An active member of the first Australian suffrage organization, the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society (founded 1884), she formed the breakaway Australian Women's Suffrage Society in 1888. In the mid-1890s this group was eclipsed by the temperance-backed Victorian Women's Franchise League and the United Council for Women's Suffrage organized by Annette Bear. Like a number of the early suffragists, Brettena Smyth was also a freethinker, opposed to orthodox religion and disposed to question other institutions and forms of authority. Her work was supported by the controversial Australasian Secular Association.

Recognizing the liberating potential of birth control for women, Mrs Smyth lectured to large female-only audiences at the North Melbourne Town Hall and other centres, describing various contraceptive techniques and promoting a rubber 'French pessaire preventatif' (sold at her shop) as 'the only article of the kind that can be used without the knowledge of the husband'. Although she was publicly sympathetic to those forced into prostitution and lobbied for reduced gaol sentences for women desperate enough to kill their illegitimate children, she was no champion of sex outside marriage. As did many contemporary women activists, she saw a new kind of family and an enhanced role for motherhood at the heart of social reform. In her lectures and pamphlets she argued that well-matched couples could form a more equal partnership. Planned families would mean fewer children, liberating women from the psychological and financial strains of unwilling pregnancy and motherhood. Such eugenic arguments were not uncommon in the United States of America, providing Smyth with many of her ideas and much of the material she used in well-advertised publications such as Love, Courtship and Marriage (1892), The Limitation of Offspring (1893) and The Social Evil (1894).

Self-taught but widely read, interested in fringe practices such as electrotherapy and phrenology, she planned to study medicine at the University of Melbourne, but her savings intended for fees vanished in the financial crashes of the 1890s. Her book, What Every Woman Should Know: Diseases Incidental to Women (1895), albeit somewhat unpolished and derivative, provided women with information that was otherwise relatively inaccessible.

Brettena Smyth enjoyed public speaking; almost six feet (183 cm) tall, she had a commanding presence. She became a well-known and respected Melbourne identity, especially in labour circles. Survived by two sons, she died of Bright's disease on 15 February 1898 at Morwell and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery, with Catholic rites—an ironic end, given her history of support for secularism and birth control.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Kelly, ‘Mrs Smyth and the Body Politic’, in M. Bevege et al (eds), Worth Her Salt (Syd, 1982)
  • E. Fry (ed), Rebels and Radicals (Syd, 1983)
  • Labour History, Nov 1963, no 5
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1893
  • North Melbourne Gazette, 18 Feb 1898.

Citation details

Farley Kelly, 'Smyth, Bridgetena (Brettena) (1840–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smyth-bridgetena-brettena-8564/text14947, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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