Burton, Pamela: Mary Lee: a turbulent anarchist in late 19th century Adelaide

Pamela Burton*

‘Mary Lee: a turbulent anarchist in late 19th century Adelaide’, Honest History, 27 January 2019

Pamela Burton reviews Mary Lee: The Life and Times of a “Turbulent Anarchist” and Her Battle for Women’s Rights, by Denise George

Mary Lee : The life and times of a 'turbulent anarchist' and her battle for women's rights - Denise GeorgeThis is an account of the significant role Mary Lee (1821-1909) played as a suffragist and social justice advocate in South Australia. It opens with Lee in the garden of her Adelaide home on a hot summer December day in 1880 and, presumably, grieving over the death of her 22-year-old son a month earlier. In 1879, news had reached her in England that her son had fallen gravely ill with tuberculosis in Australia, where he had intended to make a new life for himself. The news prompted Lee and her 19-year-old daughter to travel to Australia to care for their son and brother.

Lee, of Irish origins and from a working-class Protestant family, had married and raised a large family in England, most of whom did not survive her. She proved herself, however, to be robust, independent, industrious, and capable. To help make ends meet, she established a private boarding school that, after her husband’s death, provided her with a professional career and sufficient income to care for herself and her children. Her move to Australia was not, however, one that Mary had planned to make at nearly 60 years of age.

Once resident in her newly adopted country, this elderly widow of then limited means set out on a mission that contributed to a change in the course of South Australian history. In 1894, South Australia became the first place in the world to pass legislation giving women the right to vote and be elected members of parliament. This book tells of the little known role Lee had in that outcome.

In telling Lee’s remarkable story, author Denise George draws on extensive research and grasps the opportunity of painting a broad picture of the creation of the city of Adelaide. Her informative narrative tells us of the importance of remembering who were the original occupants and owners of the land it stands on. She provides a social and political account of the city – with its prosperity of the 1870s accompanied by a stark division between the rich and poor – and the economic impact on the state when that prosperity came to an end.

In the absence of Lee’s journals and letters, most of which had disappeared over time, George’s depiction of the society in which Lee found herself helps us understand the impact on Lee of the social injustices she observed: the terrible plight of Aboriginal women arising out of disruption of Aboriginal societies caused by white settlers colonising the land; ‘a dark underbelly in Adelaide’s West End’ (p. 61), with gangs of hungry children on the streets; destitute and mostly illiterate women begging for a few coins in exchange for sex. Lee was motivated to advocate for change.

What drives an individual like Lee to pursue an agenda vehemently opposed by others, and to believe they can, against the odds, bring about social change? Mary Lee’s story demonstrates that ‘being difficult’, being a ‘disrupter’, not caring that one is disliked, ignoring denigration and verbal abuse, often paves the way to effecting change. Following the heading of chapter 12, ‘Pushing ahead’, is a quote from a young South Australian in 1893: ‘I hope Mrs Lee will forgive me indicating that in my youthful opinion she is a turbulent anarchist’.

Lee was a woman of unswerving conviction, determination and intellectual energy, although she was seen by many as simply an eccentric local curmudgeon. When with another woman she was nominated for a seat in the Legislative Council when and if the female franchise was won – the nomination a privilege no woman had previously been given – she turned it down. Her reason was object-focussed: she wanted freedom to express her own opinions and not be ‘plagued by the consciousness that I am accepting place and pay for giving expression to other people’s opinions’ (p. 167).

George brings to the public record the momentous shift in attitudes that Lee was able to achieve, despite her age and the unrelenting criticism from her opponents, including many women on whose behalf she was pushing for reform. The author is to be credited for ensuring that Mary Lee claims her rightful place in history.

resource-PP-1-ARundle Street, Adelaide, c. 1890 (Getting it Together/MOADOPH/SLSA)

As a postscript, an enlightening chapter towards the end of the book resonated with me. Mary Lee became an unpaid ‘official visitor’ to an asylum, indeed, the first and only female visitor. The other official visitors, mostly male politicians, were paid appointees and signed their name in the visitors’ book to show they had visited. Lee, unpaid, made attitude-changing complaints about the way people suffering from mental health conditions were treated. As she became embroiled in more controversy, her comments were heeded and changes were made in how the mentally unwell were cared for, some of which improvements we are still striving to achieve elsewhere today. A few more Mary Lees in various Australian jurisdictions might raise community awareness of the need to destigmatise mental illness and expose inhuman restraint practices which are still hidden. The emergence of such effective individuals occurs only infrequently.

* Pamela Burton is a Canberra lawyer and member of the Honest History committee. For Honest History, she has reviewed books on Japanese war crimes trials, activist Mary Montgomerie Bennett, RAAF nurse Sharon Bown, and Australian nurses in Vietnam. She has also written about her father, JW Burton, and about being an independent scholar.


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