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Alicia Teresa Jane O’Shea Petersen (1862–1923)

by Vicki Pearce

This article was published:

Alicia Teresa Jane O’Shea Petersen (1862-1923), social activist and political candidate, was born on 2 July 1862 at Broadmarsh, Tasmania, daughter of Hugh McShane, farmer, and his wife Jane, née Wood. Alice became a machinist in the clothing industry. On 28 May 1884 in St Joseph's Catholic Church, Hobart, she married Patrick O'Shea, a draper and widower with a son. Patrick died in 1886 leaving her to care for her stepson with a small annuity and a house in Wilmot Terrace (Harrington Street), Hobart, in which she lived until her death; there on 16 December 1891 she married with Catholic rites William (Hjalma) Petersen (d.1912), a mining investor from Gotland, Sweden. She had no children by either marriage.

Alicia joined the Tasmanian Workers' Political League, which her cousin John Earle, later Labor premier of Tasmania, founded in 1903. That year she came to public attention when, as '(Mrs) A. O'Shea-Petersen', she placed an open letter in the daily press offering herself as a Senate candidate in the Federal election. She proposed the abolition of State governors and the replacement of each State parliament by a locally elected body based on economic and social interests. A protectionist, she agreed with the White Australia policy and favoured old age pensions, equal pay for equal work and arbitration to prevent strikes. Aware that she was breaking new ground as a woman candidate, she said 'I will ask no favour for a woman that I am not prepared to give to a man'. Within a week of this announcement she had withdrawn her candidacy but she continued to be active throughout the campaign.

O'Shea Petersen attended parliament whenever it was in session. From about 1905 she was a member of the Tasmanian Women's Political Association. While expressing sympathy with Labor women, she remained committed to the non-party stance espoused by the T.W.P.A. During 1906, in the campaign to secure a royal commission on sweating, as a delegate of the Catholic organization Ladies of Charity, Mrs O'Shea Petersen emerged as a prominent speaker for the Citizens' Social and Moral Reform League, established by the Anglican bishop J. E. Mercer. She founded in 1909, and was later life president of, a local branch of a friendly society for women, the Australasian Women's Association (from 1916 affiliated with the Australian Natives' Association). Also active in the Women's Health Association and the National Council of Women, she helped to establish the Bush Nursing and Child Welfare (Health) associations. Her belief in personal self-improvement was expressed practically in 1914 by gaining the certificate of sanitation from the Royal Sanitary Institute, London.

In 1913 O'Shea Petersen became the first woman to stand for parliament in Tasmania when she contested the Federal seat of Denison. Although she sought election to represent the interests of women and children, she held broader political views, which the press trivialized or ignored. She was accused of accepting funds from both political parties, and the National and Labor parties brought female organizers from Victoria to campaign against her. She received 261 of the 17,043 votes polled. During World War I she supported the women's anti-conscription campaign of Vida Goldstein during the latter's 1917 visit. A member of the Criminal Law Reform Association (established in 1921), with Frances Edwards she campaigned to raise the age of consent. She was also on the State council of the Workers' Educational Association.

O'Shea Petersen was a frequent contributor to the press; her letters were 'always to the point, sometimes caustic and occasionally humorous'. Women obtained the right to stand for State parliament in Tasmania in 1922 and in June that year she was a candidate for Denison in the House of Assembly. Ill with cancer, she was unable to campaign and placed a notice in the press asking voters to judge her on her twenty years work. She gained only 0.6 per cent of the vote. O'Shea Petersen died on 22 January 1923 at her home.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • S. Petrow, The Furies of Hobart (Hob, 1993)
  • S. Petrow, Sanatorium of the South? (Hob, 1995)
  • M. Roe, The State of Tasmania (Hob, 2001)
  • V. F. Pearce, '"A Few Viragos on a Stump”: The Womanhood Suffrage Campaign in Tasmania 1880-1920’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 32, no 4, Dec 1985, p 151
  • Examiner (Launceston), 2 Dec 1903, p 1, 23 Jan 1923, p 7
  • Mercury (Hobart), 28 Aug 1906, p 6, 18 Aug 1909, p 8, 3 June 1922, p 9, 23 Jan 1923, pp 4 & 5
  • Daily Post (Hobart), 1 May 1913
  • World (Hobart), 23 Jan 1923, p 4
  • Weekly Courier (Launceston), 25 Jan 1923, p 33
  • V. F. Pearce, The Lowest Common Denominator—Children, State and Society, Tasmania, 1896-1920 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 1984).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Vicki Pearce, 'Petersen, Alicia Teresa Jane O’Shea (1862–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • O'Shea, Alicia
  • McShane, Alicia
  • O'Shea-Petersen, Alicia

2 July, 1862
Broadmarsh, Tasmania, Australia


22 January, 1923 (aged 60)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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.