Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Mary Lee (1821–1909)

by Helen Jones

This article was published:

Mary Lee (1821-1909), suffragist, was born on 14 February 1821 in Monaghan, Ireland, daughter of John Walsh. In 1844 she married George(?) Lee, organist and vicar-choral of Armagh Cathedral; they had four sons and three daughters. In 1879 Mary, widowed, sailed with her daughter Evelyn for Adelaide to nurse her sick son John Benjamin; after his death next year they remained, Mary becoming devoted to 'dear Adelaide' which she could not in any case afford to leave.

For the rest of her life Mary Lee, 'once the slip of an old red-hot Tory stem', worked single mindedly for political and social reform. Her qualities of leadership, conviction and perseverance matched the social and political climate of late nineteenth-century South Australia. Initially interested in Jewish colonization, she later became ladies' secretary of Rev. J. C. Kirby's Social Purity Society working for legal changes in women's sexual and social status. Through the society's intensive lobbying and its stimulus of public and parliamentary debate, substantial alterations, including raising the age of consent to sixteen, were incorporated in the Criminal Law Consolidation Amendment Act (1885). Kirby gave Lee the principal credit for this. She and other Purity Society members, recognizing that women's suffrage was essential to their further improved status, inaugurated the South Australian Women's Suffrage League in July 1888. Through her work in the league, initially as co-secretary and soon as secretary, Mary Lee played a major part in South Australian political history. She saw the suffrage as her 'crowning task' and, under (Sir) Edward Stirling's presidency, steered the campaign skilfully, combining her experience of political processes with her knowledge of women's social disabilities and of the value of publicity to awaken public interest and understanding.

Unafraid of controversy, determined and sometimes abrasive, she publicized her commitment in the Register: 'If I die before it is achieved, like Mary Tudor and Calais, “Women's enfranchisement” shall be found engraved upon my heart'. She regarded manhood suffrage as 'only half a victory' and female suffrage as 'the pivot on which turns the whole question of the moral, social and industrial status of women'. The league's objects from July 1888 remained simply enfranchisement on equal terms with men, without claiming access to parliamentary seats. From 1891 Lee worked harmoniously with the league's second president, Lady Colton; Stirling and Catherine Helen Spence became vice-presidents.

In frequent speeches, newspaper articles and letters, Mary Lee illustrated her case by using historical, literary and biblical allusions; this did not prevent the 'abuse' and 'obloquy' of opponents, most of whom argued on traditional grounds against women voting. Short, plump and erect, she went energetically about the city, suburbs and country, speaking eloquently at league meetings and socials, at Democratic clubs and, despite her dislike of total abstinence, at Woman's Christian Temperance Union meetings. She planned the league's wider strategies and also collected shilling subscriptions and organized petitions and deputations. A practical Christian, she had adopted the social reformist ideas of the Primitive Methodist minister Hugh Gilmore.

Acting on her concern at working women's conditions, and simultaneously promoting the suffrage cause, she proposed the formation of women's trades unions at a public meeting on sweating in December 1889. After the Working Women's Trades Union was founded next year she was secretary for two years; her visits to clothing factories and workshops, to persuade employers to adopt the union's log of prices, met with some success. As the union's vice-president in 1893 she was delegate to the Trades and Labor Council where she worked on a sub-committee examining sweating in the clothing trades with Augusta Zadow and on the Distressed Women's and Children's Committee, which distributed relief clothes and food to women suffering in the economic depression. She was also a member of the ladies' committee of the Female Refuge.

A supporter of the single tax, Mary Lee responded fluently, proclaiming women's suffrage, to a toast to the ladies at a farewell to Henry George in 1890. She corresponded with New Zealanders and with women in other colonies, notably Lady Windeyer in Sydney, whom she advised on organizing the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales on South Australian league principles, and Rose Scott.

In parliament Stirling's successful 1885 resolution for female suffrage was followed, from 1886, by seven suffrage bills, five having a property qualification; six failed to gain the required statutory majority. Lee joined league deputations to premiers Playford, Holder and Downer and from 1889 worked untiringly on numerous parliamentary petitions. With United Labor Party backing from 1891, the issue was approaching realization. Premier Kingston's minister for education presented a female suffrage bill in 1893; an attached referendum condition caused its failure and her patience snapped. Quiz deplored her hot temper when she called the Labor Party 'a lot of nincompoops'. Kingston acknowledged public demand and political pressure for female suffrage; his government presented an unencumbered bill in July next year. Mary Lee had organized a colony-wide petition which yielded 11,600 signatures; the document—400 feet (122 m) long—was presented to the House of Assembly in August. Women 'deluged' members with telegrams and thronged the galleries; over fifty members spoke, flippantly or seriously. The Constitution Amendment Act was passed on 18 December 1894, making South Australian women the first in Australia to gain the parliamentary vote, and on the same terms as men. Additionally, it gave them the right to postal votes and to stand for parliament; these were unique provisions anywhere.

Mary Lee, exhausted but jubilant, received congratulatory letters from Kingston and Chief Secretary (Sir) J. H. Gordon. In 1895 two trade unions nominated her to stand for parliament; she declined, preferring to work 'on the side of right … unfettered by pledge or obligation to any party whatever'. On her 75th birthday in 1896, at the Adelaide Town Hall Kingston handed her a purse of fifty sovereigns, publicly donated through the Mary Lee Testimonial Fund, with a 'handsomely bound and artistically engrossed' address which acknowledged that the achievement of women's suffrage 'is mainly due to your persistent advocacy and unwearied exertions'. At public meetings before the March 1896 elections Lee advised women on their voting duties.

That year the government appointed her the first female official visitor to the lunatic asylums and she performed this task with courage and compassion for twelve years. In 1898 she backed the medical superintendent on the contentious issue of Paris Nesbit's release from Parkside Lunatic Asylum, maintaining that special provision should be made for such brilliant and disturbed patients. She visited the Destitute Asylum regularly as a friend to the inmates.

As her financial resources dwindled, Lee asked (Sir) Josiah Symon to arrange the sale of her library. In 1902 Kirby initiated an appeal for her relief in the Express and Telegraph and the Australian Woman's Sphere, but with poor response. Kirby observed that many had benefited from her work, but her advanced views and outspokenness had not made her widely loved. Although her daughter Evelyn worked in the Telegraph Department, Mary's last years were blighted by poverty; she complained bitterly to Rose Scott that her public work had all been at her own expense. She died in her North Adelaide home on 18 September 1909 and was buried in the Wesleyan cemetery, Walkerville, with her son Ben. Her daughter and a son in England survived her. Her work remained unrecorded until 1980, her only memorial her tombstone, a small white marble scroll, engraved 'Late Hon. Sec. Women's Suffrage League of S.A.'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Jones, Nothing Seemed Impossible (Brisb, 1985)
  • United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, Minutes, 5 May 1891, 17 Mar, 5 May, 7 July 1893
  • Government Gazette (South Australia), 20 Feb 1896
  • Quiz and the Lantern, 24 Nov 1893, 20 Feb 1896
  • Australian Woman's Sphere, 10 May 1902
  • Register (Adelaide), 21, 27 July 1888, 30 June 1896, 20 Sept 1909
  • Observer (Adelaide), 22 Mar 1890, 6 June 1891, 21 May 1892, 14 Sept 1895, 26 Feb, 14 Dec 1898, 25 Sept 1909
  • Express and Telegraph (Adelaide), 7 Apr 1902
  • H. Jones, Women's Education in South Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1980)
  • United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, Minutes, 5 May 1891, 17 Mar, 5 May, 7 July 1893 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Adelaide Lunatic Asylums, copy of minutes from visitors' book, 1897-1907 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Rose Scott correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Lady Windeyer papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. Symon letters (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Lee, Mary (1821–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mary Lee, Hammer & Co, 1880

Mary Lee, Hammer & Co, 1880

State Library of South Australia, b21254278

Life Summary [details]


14 February, 1821
Monaghan, Ireland


18 September, 1909 (aged 88)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Key Organisations