Catherine Helen Spence was one of Australia’s most important women, and she was a Scot. The life and achievements – which range from education and welfare, to feminism and politics – of the ‘Grand Old Woman of Australasia’ are so remarkable that her portrait features on the Australian five dollar note issued for the Centenary of Federation. She is another impressive example of the rich and exceptional contribution Scots have made to the Australian nation.
Born in 1825 to a family of eight living near Melrose, Scotland, Spence was a talented student at school and learnt to write at a young age. However, at the age of 14, her family – uprooted by financial hardship – migrated to South Australia. For seven months, the Spence family camped on an 80-acre selection, where they grew wheat. Spence was not destined to be rich – despite her achievements; her estate was just £215 when she died in 1910.
In her teens, Spence became attracted to journalism. She was a prolific and creative writer, and had numerous poems published by South Australian newspapers. She soon moved on to writing novels, although publishers were hesitant to recognise her obvious talents. While she never married, Spence dedicated her writings to improving the lives of women, families and orphaned children. Along with her written work, Spence had an active concern for social issues, especially the welfare of women and children.
Alone, she raised three orphaned families, including those of her own sister. In 1872, she helped found a boarding society to care for orphaned, destitute and reformed delinquent children. She was a consistent supporter of establishing kindergartens and girls’ schools in Australia. It was likely her schooling as a young girl in Scotland, where many considered accessible education of a high quality to be one of the most important features of any society, which was the defining factor in her concern for women, children, and families.
Spence was a confident public speaker and, after standing in for a minister one Sunday morning, was invited on many occasions afterwards to preach sermons in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Her speaking skills complimented her writing ability, and were major factors in her formidable strength as a socially and politically conscious woman.
In the 1850 and 60s Spence was a vocal advocate of electoral reform, and towards the end of the nineteenth century she was one of Australia’s most influential suffragettes, fighting for the rights of women to participate in the political process. Spence even stood for federal parliament – making her the first female political candidate – and although she was ultimately unsuccessful, she demonstrated to Australian women what they could achieve with a little bit of vision and confidence. Spence was 67 when she began her campaign – a white-haired, stout, energetic, little women with a warm Scottish ‘burr’ and a homely appearance. She aroused much enthusiasm, especially as a woman breaking the rules and conventions of society.
One hundred years on from her death in April 1910, Catherine Helen Spence remains as an excellent example in Australia’s history of the goods one can attain for society, and is a wonderful role model for young women to this day. Her achievements are also excellent reminders of the contribution that socially conscious Scots have made to the Australian nation.