Catherine Spence

1825-1910    |    South Australia    |    Reporter

Catherine Helen Spence was a leading suffragist, a social and political reformer, novelist and journalist. Writing under her brother’s name, she was the Adelaide correspondent for the Argus in the 1840s and 50s. Her Clara Morison (1854) was the first novel about Australia written by a woman. Her journalism covered a wide range of subjects, especially proportional representation in elections and votes for women. She was a charismatic public speaker across south-east Australia and in 1893-4 across the United States of America. She became Australia’s first female political candidate, an event commemorated in the year 2000 when her image was printed on the five-dollar note.




Catherine Helen Spence


In July 1878 the editor of South Australia’s oldest daily newspaper invited Catherine Helen Spence to be “a regular outside contributor to the Register and its weekly, the Observer”. She later exclaimed: “What a glorious opening for my ambition and my literary proclivities came to me … when I was in my fifty-third year!” She “felt as if the round woman had got at last into the round hole which fitted her”.

The fifth of eight children of two middle-class Scots who emigrated to the new British colony in South Australia in 1839, she joined the Unitarian Christian Church in Adelaide and, having decided that she did not want to get married, sought to earn her living by writing. Initially, she wrote occasional pieces for local newspapers, and during the late 1840s and early 1850s was the regular Adelaide correspondent for the Melbourne Argus until the telegraph rendered such reports unnecessary.

By then, she had taken to writing novels. Clara Morison: a tale of South Australia during the gold fever, published as a book of two volumes in London in 1854, is a startlingly vivid and often hilarious account of life in Adelaide when all the men had left for the goldfields. It was the first novel written by a woman in Australia. Others followed but she was to comment, wryly, that novel writing had not been for her “a lucrative occupation”.

Her work for the Argus was published over her brother’s name, and other pieces for journals appeared anonymously until the 1870s when Henry Gyles Turner and Arthur Patchett Martin established the Melbourne Review. Spence had recently broken all the rules prohibiting women of her class from participating in public life by delivering a lecture to the South Australian Institute.

Turner asked for the lecture to be included in his serious new journal. It appeared in the second number in 1876, and it appeared over her name. Her anonymity evaporated. Her reputation as a literary scholar and critic was established. The South Australian Register noticed this piece, remarking that it was “characterized by the clearness of thought and argument and attention to detail in all Miss Spence’s writings”. The invitation to join the staff of the Register followed.

She rejoiced in “the breadth of the canvas” on which she could draw her “sketches of books and life”. She was in command of material ranging from land legislation, relations between capital and labour, wages and taxation, and agricultural machinery quite as fully and competently as she addressed questions about marriage, domestic labour and forms of hospitality.

“The newspaper”, she told South Australian school children, “partly leads and partly follows public opinion”, a responsibility properly fulfilled only by “the wisest and best people whom the common folk can understand”. She was not to be confined to issues considered appropriate for a woman to write about.

She despised the work of a journalist she met in the United States in the 1890s because it was, she wrote, “essentially woman’s work, dress, fashions, functions, with educational and social outlooks from the feminine point of view”. Her own work, she maintained, “might show the bias of sex, but it dealt with the larger questions that were common to humanity”.

Four of her articles so impressed her editor that he re-published them as a pamphlet. They display a prodigious range of reading. They also present an optimistic depiction of a society moving inexorably towards the promises of suffrage-era feminism. It was a generous optimism, for Miss Spence’s appointment to the Register was as a “regular outside contributor”: she would not mingle with the men in the offices and around the press in Grenfell Street; she worked at home.

She was amused, then, when another travelling journalist, admiring those articles, wrote to the editor urging him to be sure to “invite the writer of this article to join us” with “a few choice spirits” when he was next in town. Miss Spence could hardly have wanted better confirmation of the breadth of her appeal than this invitation to join a drinking session in that heartland of exclusive masculinity – the pub.

A public intellectual she became, with two chief political projects. One was the rights of women of any class to income-earning work, and to votes for women, a victorious campaign which she helped lead in South Australia, the first Australian colony to pass legislation enfranchising women – in 1894. The other was proportional representation, the voting system presently used in elections to the Australian Senate; she considered this the fairest of any electoral system.

To promote both causes, she took to public platforms in South Australia, in Melbourne and in Sydney, and—remarkably – throughout the United States, an unaccompanied journey at the age of sixty-nine, in 1893-4, a journey which won her many plaudits as a charismatic public speaker.

In the first cause she provided help and advice to Melbourne journalist Alice Henry to go to the United States, and for the second cause she nominated for election to the Federal Convention in 1898, becoming Australia’s first political candidate.

Her journalism was not always wholly serious. A story for children published in the Adelaide Observer one Christmas day is called ‘The Hen’s Language’. Dr. Polyglot decides to learn the languages of the poultry yard. Then he asks his cocks and hens to say what they would like. The cocks “who are always bold and forward birds” respond:

A handsome yard to me then give,
As large as this or bigger,
With fifteen handsome hens to live
And cut a splendid figure…

The hens cut in to propose a different wish:
But cocks must fight
To keep all right
So do not pen
Us up in flocks; Why not one hen
To fifteen cocks?

Of course, Catherine Spence, like everyone else, knew that “one cock suffices to keep fifteen hens in fertile eggs and chickens”, observed historian Barbara Wall: this story is not about the mechanics and economics of the fowl-yard. Rather what the cocks are talking about is “pleasure and power”. And if the mainspring of life is pleasure and power, then why not, as the hens sing, one hen to fifteen cocks? It was, Dr. Wall notes, “a remarkable joke for a woman to publish in a newspaper in 1886”.

Susan Magarey was made a member of the Order of Australia for pioneering Women’s Studies as a field of academic endeavour. Author of five books and many articles, founding editor of the journal Australian Feminist Studies, she is also Founder of the Magarey Medal for Biography, a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and Professor Emerita at the University of Adelaide.

Further reading


Unbridling the Tongues of Women: A biography of Catherine Helen Spence, Susan Magarey, University of Adelaide Press, Adelaide, 2010.



'Spence, Catherine Helen (1825–1910)', Susan Eade, Australian Dictionary of Biography


Ever Yours, C.H. Spence: Catherine Helen Spence’s An Autobiography (1825-1910), Diary (1894) and some correspondence (1894-1910), edited by Susan Magarey with Barbara Wall, Mary Lyons and Maryan Beams, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, 2005.