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Mary Lee

Mary Lee was the founder of the Working Women's Trade Union.

Inducted:
2001
Category:
Honour Roll

Mary Lee was born on 14 February 1821 in Ireland. She married George Lee and together they had seven children. By 1879, she was a widow and sailed with her daughter, Evelyn, to Adelaide to nurse her sick son John Benjamin. He died the following year but they stayed in Adelaide. She spent the rest of her life working tirelessly for political and social reform.

Mary became secretary of Reverend Kirby's Social Purity Society, which worked for legal changes in women's social and sexual status. One of their achievements was raising the age of consent to sixteen in 1885. She realised that women's suffrage was necessary for women to improve their lot, so she helped establish the Australian Women's Suffrage League in July 1888. She steered their campaign and understood the value of publicity to arouse public interest in this issue.

Mary travelled energetically around the city and country speaking publicly about franchise. She collected shilling subscriptions and organised petitions and deputations. Mary was concerned with working women's conditions so she proposed the formation of women's trade unions at a public meeting on sweating in December 1889. The Working Women's Trades Union was founded the following year and Mary was secretary for the first two years.

She visited factories and workshops, trying to persuade employers to adopt the Union's recommended wages. In 1893, as vice-president, she was delegate to the Trades and Labor Council where she examined sweating in the clothing trades. She also worked on the Distressed Women's and Children's Committee which distributed clothes and food to poor women. Mary was also a member of the ladies' committee of the Female Refuge.

From 1889, she worked tirelessly on parliamentary petitions calling for female suffrage. In 1891, the United Labor Party decided to back the cause. Mary organised a colony-wide petition, which contained 11600 signatures and was 400 feet long. It was presented to the House of Assembly in August 1894. Women 'deluged' members with telegrams and thronged the galleries. The Constitution Amendment Act was passed on 18 December 1894, making South Australian women the first in Australia to gain the parliamentary vote. It also gave them the right to stand for parliament. Mary was exhausted but jubilant.

In 1895, two trade unions wanted her to stand for parliament however she did not want to be hampered by obligation to a particular party. In 1896, she celebrated her 75th birthday at Adelaide Town Hall. Premier Kingston handed her a purse of 50 sovereigns, which was publicly donated through the Mary Lee Testimonial Fund. Her role in the achievement of women's suffrage was officially acknowledged.

In 1896, she was appointed first female official visitor to the lunatic asylums and performed this task with immense courage for twelve years. Her financial resources dwindled and in 1902 an appeal was launched with little result. Her last years were blighted by poverty. She died in her North Adelaide home on 18 September 1909. Her work remained unrecorded until 1980.

Reviewed 26 May 2022

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