Lee, Mary (1821–1909)

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Lee, Mary (1821–1909)

Irish-born Australian suffragist. Born Mary Walsh on February 14, 1821, in Monaghan, Ireland; died on September 18, 1909, in North Adelaide, Australia; daughter of John Walsh; married George Lee (an organist and vicar-choral of Armagh Cathedral), in 1844 (died around 1879); children: seven, including Adelaide Lee .

Mary Lee, born Mary Walsh in 1821 in Monaghan, Ireland, married George Lee, an organist and vicar-choral of Armagh Cathedral, in 1844. The couple had seven children. Following the death of her husband around 1879, Mary sailed with her daughter Adelaide to care for her sick son, then living in South Australia. Although the young man died a year later, Lee remained in Australia, since she could not afford the trip home, and became one of the country's leading proponents of political and social reform. As early as 1883, she was active in the women's division of the Social Purity Society, which was successful in raising the sexual age of consent to 16. Becoming secretary of the Adelaide branch of the Social Purity Society, Lee directed the campaign for women's suffrage, calling it her "crowning task." "If I die before it is achieved," she said, "like Mary Tudor and Calais, 'Women's enfranchisement' shall be found engraved upon my heart." Her arguments, set forth in speeches, newspaper articles, and correspondence, were filled with historical, literary, and Biblical allusions.

By 1888, the Purity Society became the Women Suffrage League and, as such, sought enfranchisement on equal terms with men, without claiming access to parliamentary representation. From 1888 to 1892, Lee worked with League president Edward Stirling, who had first introduced a resolution for female suffrage in the South Australian Parliament in 1885. In 1892, when Mary Colton (1822–1898) became president, Lee became a devoted helpmate. Lee spoke at Suffrage League meetings, at Democratic clubs, and at Woman's Christian Temperance Union meetings (despite her views against total abstinence). With the League's council, she planned strategy, organized petitions, and solicited membership subscriptions. In 1891, following the endorsement of several churches and the United Labor Party, public interest in suffrage grew, as did Lee's confidence. Although she privately admitted that she was devastated by the frequent criticism of her "advanced" views, she could be outspoken, even abrasive, in her approach. In 1893, she called the Labor Party "a lot of nincompoops" when they supported a suffrage bill burdened by a conditional referendum. In 1894, after six separate bills, a seventh unencumbered suffrage bill finally passed. Lee then organized a colony-wide suffrage petition which was presented to Parliament in August 1894. In December of that year, the Constitution Amendment Act was passed, giving South Australian women the parliamentary vote. Subsequently, they won the right to a postal vote and the right to run for office.

Lee also supported trade unions for women and was the first secretary of the Working Women's Trade Union, founded in 1890. In 1893, she was elected the organization's vice-president and as such was a delegate to the Trades and Labor Council, where she served on the Distressed Women's and Children's Committee. In 1895, she was invited by two trade unions to run for Parliament, but she declined, claiming she could work better without obligation to a particular party. In 1896, on Lee's 75th birthday, the premier awarded her a purse of sovereigns, publicly donated, and acknowledged that the passage of women's suffrage was largely due to her "persistent advocacy and unwearied exertions."

Also in 1896, Mary Lee was appointed first female official visitor to the lunatic asylums, a post she served for the next 12 years. In these later years, however, she was plagued by poverty and an appeal for relief funds launched by an Adelaide paper brought little response. By the time of Lee's death in 1909, her achievements had mostly been forgotten.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.