Louisa Lawson

1848-1920    |    NSW    |    Publisher, editor, writer and poet

Louisa Lawson was a publisher, editor, writer and poet who championed the rights of women to equality before the law and in public life, and forced an open debate on the need for the vote for women. Born in rural New South Wales and married at 18, she well knew the frustrations of an existence confined by social convention to domestic drudgery. As the proprietor, editor and chief writer for The Dawn, a monthly journal that gave women a forum for their aspirations for life outside the home, Louisa is credited with being the originator of the campaign that gave NSW women the vote in 1902.

Louisa’s forceful advocacy of women’s rights was based not on theory. It stemmed from her life experiences.

Sally White on Louisa Lawson




Louisa Lawson


Louisa Lawson was a significant contributor to social and political transformation in late 19th Century Australia, using what she called the “most powerful agency of the press” to effect change.

On 16 May 1888, she launched The Dawn, the first journal that looked beyond the domestic sphere to Australian women’s growing public and political aspirations. “There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voice of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions,” she wrote in that first issue. “Here then is DAWN, the Australian Women’s Journal and mouthpiece—phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood.”

As proprietor, editor and main writer for the monthly Dawn, Louisa made it clear what those demands were: divorce law reform, fairness in labour laws to protect women and give them a living wage, the admission of women to public jobs as magistrates, factory inspectors and hospital doctors, the provision of crèches to ease the burden of overworked mothers, and education of girls so that they could gain independence and a release from the automatic assumption that a woman’s place was only in the home.

None of these goals could be achieved without the vote. So a year after the journal’s first issue, she announced its formal campaign for female suffrage and the formation of the Dawn Club to foster debate on women’s issues and experience in public speaking.

Louisa’s approach to change was pragmatic. The Dawns outspoken championing of controversial ideas was softened by an editorial mix of household hints, short stories, poetry, fashion, advice to newcomers on securing accommodation in Sydney, and international and local news about women’s achievements. It was a winning combination, drawing local and overseas subscribers and advertisers alike.

Her ideas on labour equality were not just words. She decided there was nothing inherently masculine about setting type and by late 1889 was employing 10 women as printers for both The Dawn and commercial printing jobs. The all-male New South Wales Typographical Association was appalled. It urged advertisers to boycott the journal and demanded the female printers be sacked. Association members heckled them in the streets. The printers kept their jobs and the nine-year advertising boycott had little effect—apart from the dispute providing spirited editorial copy in The Dawn.

Louisa’s forceful advocacy of women’s rights was based not on theory. It stemmed from her life experiences. Born on a station near Mudgee in February 1848, she was the second of the 12 children of Henry Albury and his wife Harriet. She was educated at the Mudgee National School but an offer to become a pupil-teacher never eventuated. Louisa had to stay at home to look after her younger siblings, the lot of many an older sister.

In 1866, at the Methodist parsonage in Mudgee, the 18-year-old Louisa married Norwegian-born Niels “Peter” Larsen. The couple joined the gold rush to Weddin Mountains and later selected land at Eurunderee, where Henry, the first of their five children was born in 1867. By then, Peter Larsen had anglicised his name to Lawson.

Louisa’s labour was unremitting. Often alone, as Peter sought contracting jobs or gold, Louisa did the domestic chores, cared for the children, took in sewing, tended a small dairy herd and fattened cattle for the Mudgee market.

But she still had time to write. One of her first published works was a poem commemorating the death of her infant daughter, Annette. More poems and short stories followed.

In 1883, after years of a tough rural life, Louisa left for Sydney with her remaining four children, although she did not publicly acknowledge the breakdown of her marriage. She supported the family by doing washing and sewing and taking in boarders.

Words and their power were beckoning. Taking the plunge, she bought the ailing political publication, Republican. She and son Henry—who was gaining a reputation as a poet—edited and wrote most of the copy. The Republican failed and The Dawn was born in its stead.

During the 1890s, apparently indefatigable, Louisa immersed herself in work: writing and editing, public speaking, joining women’s suffrage organisations.

In 1900 she was thrown from a tram at Circular Quay, injuring her knee and spine. Her momentum—and that of The Dawn—began to slow. A rift with Henry because of his alcoholism, a bank failure and an unsuccessful attempt to get compensation for her patented invention of a mailbag buckle, added extra stress. In 1905, The Dawn closed.

Louisa still found publishers for her poems and short stories but her health gradually deteriorated. On 12 August 1920, the woman who had been publicly acclaimed 18 years before as the originator of the women’s suffrage campaign died in the Gladesville Hospital for the Insane.

Sally White is a former journalist, educator, author and a founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby.

Further reading


Louisa, Brian Matthews, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Fitzroy, 1988.


The Complete Book of Great Australian Women: Thirty-six women who changed the course of Australia, Susanna De Vries, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2003.


Louisa Lawson, Henry Lawson’s Crusading Mother, Lorna Ollif, Rigby, Adelaide, 1978.