Review Blog

Jan 08 2019

Mary Lee: The life and times of a 'turbulent anarchist' and her battle for women's rights by Denise George

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Wakefield Press, 2018. ISBN 9781743055960
Highly recommended. Themes: Biography. Mary Lee. South Australian history. Women's rights. Politics. Denise George has written a wonderful biography of one of the under-recognised pioneers in South Australian history - Mary Lee. Mary Lee was born in tough times in Ireland; later she worked hard in England as a teacher and came to South Australia in 1879. Her drive, faith and passion to assist those who were under-privileged came too and enabled her to make a difference in our society. Mary saw injustice and instead of remaining silent, she spoke out and wanted to ensure that inequality was addressed. From relatively humble beginnings, she argued and pressured local politicians and influential people to make it possible for women to have a voice in politics by gaining the right to vote. The result of her agitation and advocacy was to inspire many to become involved in the Women's Suffrage fight; to put pressure on the male politicians of the day; and ultimately to enable South Australia to become the first Australian state to provide the vote for women, and (somewhat accidentally) to be the first government to allow women to stand for political office. Her story though reveals that if not for her feisty and determined advocacy, this 'first' for South Australia would not have occurred when it did. Looking back in history can be confronting as we are reminded that the things we now consider obvious rights have in fact not always been the case. (I was stunned by the reference to the need for advocacy to change the age of consent - initially raising it from age 10 to 12, and also of the prevailing attitude of the men towards the intelligence of women in that era.) The world has indeed changed for women since Mary Lee lived and worked, and her role in promoting women's rights in South Australia should be remembered and acknowledged, and not just by those who are female.
This is a great book for those who love history and are interested in the history of South Australia and particularly the position of women in our history. It certainly should be on every library shelf in South Australia, but also would make a great gift for history buffs. Denise George has accessed many sources to paint a picture of a woman, who because of her gender perhaps did not always have her private life recorded for posterity. Fortunately, her advocacy has left a collection of powerful letters and writing that George has used to tell the story of this amazing woman who worked hard into her senior years on behalf of South Australian women.
Highly recommended.
Carolyn Hull

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