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mary lee : the life and times of a turbulent activist

This is a fascinating book. It is a relatively small and light paperback , written in a clear and easy to understand style . Divided into seventeen chapters ,the biography has a handy table of contents as well as a list of abbreviations used and a Forward by the author at the front , several pages of footnotes and a well researched bibliography and index at the back.There are some black and white photos throughout and there is a rather delicate and charming portrait of Lee as the frontispiece .

Solidly researched, following trails in Armagh, Monaghan, Cambridge, London and Adelaide Denise George examines the extraordinary inspirational life of Mary Lee, a suffragist and social justice advocate . At times Lee broke/ignored society’s restrictive conventions of the times to improve the lot of women and others.

Lee was born in 1821 in Monaghan, Ireland daughter of a Protestant working class family and trained as a school teacher. In 1844 she married George(?) Lee, organist and vicar-choral of Armagh Cathedral; they had four sons and three daughters. Before travelling to Adelaide in 1879 Lee had escaped the devastating potato famine in Ireland and moved to England with George , first Cambridge and then London becoming principal of her own school .’ She spoke lovingly of George and held a high regard for her late husband many years after his death ‘.

In 1879 Mary, by then sadly widowed, sailed with her daughter Evelyn ( known as Eva ) for Adelaide to nurse her very ill son John Benjamin who had moved to Adelaide in 1877 . She arrived a widow of limited means, with few surviving family and friends .After John Benjamin’s death in 1880 she and Evelyn stayed.

Lee battled the opposition of antagonistic politicians and a conservative public to become involved in various high profile campaigns in support of Jewish colonisation, female safety in domestic violence and/or poverty, battling the appalling conditions Indigenous people faced at that time, raising the age of consent , improving women’s working conditions and the campaign to give women the vote – campaigns supporting the Female Refuge, Social Purity Society, Woman’s Suffrage League, and Working Women’s Trade Union among others . A practical Christian, she had adopted the social reformist ideas of the Primitive Methodist minister Hugh Gilmore.

Short, rather plump and gracefully erect Lee became known as a fearless ,fiery and inspirational speaker at many meetings, clubs and socials, and the author of many letters to politicians and newspapers .
In 1892 Lee among other things was involved in a campaign against capital punishment and also organising relief for stricken miners after a horrendous strike at Broken Hill.

In 1893 Lee spearheaded the colony-wide petition which yielded 11,600 signatures; the document—400 feet (122 m) long—was presented to the House of Assembly in August. Eventually South Australia becoming one of the first places in the world to give women the vote, in 1894 – and the first in the world where women could be elected members of parliament. These were unique provisions for any country in the world at that time . (Even today, the number of women in parliament is still a hot discussion issue.)

On her 75th birthday in 1896, at the Adelaide Town Hall Kingston handed her a purse of fifty sovereigns, publicly donated through the Mary Lee Testimonial Fund, with a ‘handsomely bound and artistically engrossed’ address which acknowledged that the achievement of women’s suffrage ‘is mainly due to your persistent advocacy and unwearied exertions’. While it was gratefully accepted , it was by no means enough for Lee to survive comfortably on.

In 1896 the government appointed Lee the first female official visitor to the lunatic asylums and she performed this task with courage and compassion for twelve years.In her last years Lee was involved in yet more controversial campaigns in particular regarding the cases of Paris Nesbit , Joshua Beard and Notella Habibulla.

Although her daughter Evelyn worked in the Telegraph Department, the last years of Lee’s life were crushed by oppressive poverty .Lee died in her North Adelaide home on 18 September 1909 and was buried in the Wesleyan cemetery, Walkerville, together with her son Ben. Eva and a son in England survived her. There is a bust of Lee at North Terrace in Adelaide and she is depicted in a tapestry at Parliament House. The epilogue looks at Lee’s legacy and how it is still extremely relevant today.

Mary Lee’s journals and most of her private letters have apparently vanished .This factor as well as the inadequacy of recorded women’s history, has kept her contribution to history hidden for more than 125 years and it is only now really being evaluated .

Author Denise George studied Professional Writing and Communication, and has a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Adelaide.

Category Biography/Autobiography/True Stories
Format Paperback
Size 210 x 140 mm
ISBN 9781743055960
Extent 268 pages

Price: AU$34.95 including GST


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