Catherine Helen Spence

In 1897, Catherine Helen Spence became Australia's first female candidate for public office.

Honour Roll

Catherine Helen Spence was born on 31 October 1825 near Melrose, Scotland and migrated with her family to South Australia in 1839. Catherine worked as a governess hoping to fulfil her childhood ambition to be a teacher and a great writer.

She wrote the first novel about Australia by a woman, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever which was published anonymously in London in 1854. Other books followed which bore her name as the author until she stopped writing fiction in 1889. She was more interested in writing as a literary critic and social commentator with articles published regularly in South Australian newspapers and magazines.

In 1872, Catherine was involved in the formation of the Boarding-Out Society to find homes for orphaned, destitute and reformed delinquent children. She worked as a visitor who checked on their progress. She supported the foundation of kindergartens and a government secondary school for girls. She wrote a book The Laws We Live Under (1880) which became the first social studies textbook used in Australian schools.

Under the influence of J.S. Mill's review of Thomas Hare's system of proportional representation Catherine became an enthusiast for electoral reform in 1859 and wrote and published a pamphlet entitled 'A Plea for Pure Democracy' (1861). In 1892, she proposed the modified Hare-Spence system as the way to achieve true proportionate representation of political parties. Her campaign was given financial support by R. Barr Smith and was launched through public meetings in 1892-93. She was gaining confidence as a public speaker and in 1893 went to the Chicago World Fair to speak and then lectured around the world. In 1895, she formed the Effective Voting League of South Australia.

When she ran for the Federal Convention in 1897 she became Australia's first female political candidate, coming twenty-second out of thirty-three candidates. In the following two years she campaigned unsuccessfully for the introduction of 'effective voting' in Federal elections, and from 1902-10 her supporters introduced proportional representation bills into the South Australian Parliament.

Catherine was active in the fight for female suffrage throughout the 1890s. After South Australian women were given the vote in 1894 she went on to support campaigns in other states. She died on 3 April 1910, having raised three families of orphaned children in succession. She is remembered as 'The Grand Old Woman of South Australia'.