1857-1943 | VIC | Reporter & editor
Alice was almost certainly the first woman journalist in Australia to be taken on to a newspaper staff and trained on the job when she joined the Australasian in the 1880s. She became one of Australia’s most prominent feminists and social reformers. Her journalism championed the causes of juvenile courts, women’s hospitals, proportional representation, epileptic colonies, care for the handicapped and labour reform. In 1905, she went to the United States for 30 years, achieving prominence as secretary of the Chicago branch of the National Women’s Trade Union league and editor of the League’s journal Life and Labor.
It took a pony ride to awaken a young Alice Henry to the realities of sex discrimination. Raised in the bush on the edge of the Gippsland forests by her accountant father and seamstress mother, Henry had never known any difference in treatment between her brother and herself. “No sex division, still less sex inferiority, obtruded itself on my mental picture,” the pioneering journalist later wrote, until the day a visitor offered her brother a ride on his pony, but took no notice of her. Such was the fairness of the Henry household, that even Alice’s mother remarked upon the incident. “That was perhaps my first lesson in feminism,” she said.
Alice Henry always anticipated a life of adventure. She appears to have had no deep, personal relationship beyond that of her adored brother, whose eventual demise seems to have brought about Henry’s own decline. She sought but was denied university education, and determined to provide her own income and security. The early influence of the cross-Channel swimmer, Harriet Elphinstone-Dick was crucial, promoting the cause of physical education for women. Henry later said that the swimmer instilled ambition and self-respect into the hearts of many girls.
In 1884, at the age of 27, Henry had her first success in journalism, with publication in The Australasian of an article advocating the use of coke as fuel. She went on to secure a position with the paper, a country weekly associated with the daily Argus. Her editor, David Watterston, was a conservative and strict man and Henry recalled that he provided what seems a classical, and now rare, education in the basics of good journalism: “(His) standards of accuracy and of good English were high as well as his sense of balance in arranging news. On little points of journalistic etiquette he expected his staff to be well informed and I owe him much for the training he gave me.”
Over the next 20 years, Henry’s range was unusually broad: the usual women’s stuff – weddings and recipes – but also stories on social problems, the children’s courts, labour and feminist issues. When she couldn’t get these stories past her conservative editor Henry submitted her yarns under the nom de plume, A.L.F. – her brother’s initials.
Much of her work was published in The Argus, including articles about the training of intellectually disabled children and adults, and the care of people with epilepsy, but the paper was a bitter opponent of the women’s suffrage movement. When at one stage editor Watterston proposed to restrict Henry to “the women’s columns of fashions, frills and frivolities” she revolted and threw in the job.
In 1893, Henry met and began a great friendship with Catherine Helen Spence, the leading suffragist and Australia’s first female political candidate. Henry had a short stint as a small-business woman (her enterprise on the Queens Walk off Swanston St offered shopping for country women and an agency for governesses and domestic servants) while working as a part time journalist and as secretary of the women’s Warrawee Club.
In 1905, inspired by Spence’s view that there were greater opportunities for reforming women overseas, Henry sailed for Europe, England and later America as a delegate for the Melbourne Charity Organisation Society. She attracted the attention of the prominent reformer Margaret Dreier Robins, who invited Henry to work for the National Women’s Trade Union League of America in Chicago.
She achieved fame as the secretary of the Chicago branch of the union and as a courageous public speaker. Her formidable appearance – a strong face with a prematurely white shock of hair, and an eccentric dress-sense – made her a highly recognisable figure.
Henry lived for thirty years in America and published two books on the trade union movement and on women and labour. In 1937, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, her brother was lost at sea, and her health began to deteriorate. In 1938 she gave up her American citizenship. A year later she entereda nursing home. She died in hospital at Malvern on 14 February 1943 and was cremated.
If Alice Henry was reporting today, she would be considered an “activist journalist”; but at the turn of the century, she was one of a generation of men and women who made no distinction between their personal philosophies and passions and the reporting she believed she had a responsibility to do. Henry was swept into a growing and defiant movement of suffragettes, trade unionists and Fabian socialists calling for voting and labor reform, access to education and emancipation of the working class, and that wave took her a long way from the much more restrictive and conservative Australian shores. For Henry, journalism was the means to achieving social change.
Virginia Trioli is a Walkley Award winning print, radio and television journalist. She is the co-host of ABC News Breakfast.
Portrait of Alice Henry. Courtesy State Library of New South Wales.
Alice Henry at a union rally in the US. Henry sits in the front row, third from the right.
Life and Labor: A Monthly Magazine, January 1914.
Excerpt from A Trade Union Woman, Alice Henry, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1915.
Portrait of Henry, courtesy of State Library Victoria.
'Henry, Alice (1857-1943)', Diane Kirkby, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, Melbourne University Press, 1983.