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Bear-Crawford, Annette Ellen (1853–1899)

by Cynthia

from Leader (Melbourne)

To those who properly appreciate the extent and importance of Mrs. [Annette] Bear-Crawford's life work it would seem at the present moment that the guiding hand had been removed from one of the greatest, progressive movements in Victoria. Putting aside all such tendency to extravagant praise as the pathetic circumstance of her death might naturally excite, there is no overlooking the fact that what she has done for the women of this colony is a well nigh incalculable quantity. In her person she represeated one of the best types of "woman with a mission." Gentle, conciliating, and invariably just, she was everything the "shrieking sister" is not, and while her spirit was "practically indomitable, the means she adopted to attain her ends were always in accordance with the highest traditions of womanliness. Added to this, she was blessed with an amount of personal magnetism that rarely failed to evoke enthusiasm in her co-workers, so that in every sense of the word she was eminently fitted to stand at the head of a movement especially affecting the members of her own sex.

A few details of her career will not be without interest at this juncture. Born in Victoria, her father was the Mr. J. P. Bear, one time a member of the Legislative Council. Here she also spent her childhood; but to her education at Cheltenham College, in England, may be traced the greater number of influences that actuated her in after life. France and Germany also bore part in her training; but it was not till she returned from those countries to England that she took up philanthropic work in earnest. As a very young woman we find her a prominent figure in the "woman movement" and, in co-operation with Mrs. Sheldon Amos, Mrs. Percy Buntine and Mrs. Henry Fawcett, doing much in the service of the cause she had elected to serve.

In 1880 she was appointed delegate from the suffrage societies of London to the Paris Exhibition, and about four years later she returned to Australia.

Strong in the conviction that many reforms were needed to ameliorate the lot of "unrepresented" women, she threw herself with the calm and forceful energy that characterised her into the suffrage movement. This, however, was not before months of work on behalf of outcast women, together with a vast amount of earnest thought, had convinced her that woman's franchise would be the means to a noble end. Recognising at the outstart the necessity for forming a common basis of action, she set about the formation of the United Council for Women's Suffrage – a representative organisation consisting of delegates from all women's suffrage leagues in existence at the time. Of this body Mrs. Bear-Crawford was honorary secretary till her departure for England last October, when she was elected president and requested to represent the council as delegate to the International Congress of Women being held in England within the next few weeks. To many readers this congress is little more than a name. Others, however, recognise in it one of the most important affairs of the century – possibly the most important as regards the sex. At it the representative women of the world will be present to discuss questions of vital importance, not only to the present generation, but to posterity; and when one considers the powers of many of these women, from the fact that on her arrival in England the congress elected her as a vice-president an estimate of Mrs. Bear-Crawford's capabilities may be gathered. Though the forwarding of the franchise movement was the main object of the united council. Mrs. Bear-Crawford, during her secretaryship, was the means of carrying out a great many small, though by no means unimportant, reforms. She enormously increased the interest taken in the movement, and when in 1894 the Franchise Bill was thrown out, she returned to the charge with undiminished energy. House to house canvassing was organised, the result amply justifying the action. The increase of interest as proved by the enormous number of signatures procured was distinctly gratifying to the workers, and though the bill once more failed, it was with more hope of ultimate success than she had ever entertained before that Mrs. Bear-Crawford and her associates once more took up the struggle. This time in addition to canvassing in the ordinary manner, every newspaper, in the colony was written to with a view to influencing public opinion in the country districts. These letters were all written by hand and were so effective as to lead one prominent opponent of the extension of the franchise to women make a most unfair and bitter personal attack on Mrs. Bear-Crawford. Although his statements received emphatic contradiction both to and outside the House, only those intimately associated with her and recognising the innate sensitiveness of the woman, can appreciate what this attack cost its victims. Simultaneously with it came much domestic trouble, and for the first time it seemed as if a most disinterested and noble woman must lose heart utterly. Last year, however, saw Mrs. Bear-Crawford once more beside her guns. This time she set about the organisation of a Parliamentary committee for women's suffrage. This committee, consisting of representatives of every woman's society in the Metropolis, as well as delegates from the Trades Hall Council, was successfully formed in October of last year, and is expected to exercise considerable influence when the Woman's Suffrage Bill is again before Parliament.

In addition to the actual women's suffrage work done by the united council during Mrs. Bear-Crawford's secretaryship, the interests of women in other directions were by no means overlooked; and in August of last year the candidature of four women for seats on the committee of the Benevolent Asylum was arranged for, and it was largely due to Mrs. Bear-Crawford's labours that three of these – Dr. Constance Stone, Mrs. Bevan and Dr. Lilian Alexander – were elected. Besides taking an active part in the Prahran Women's Progressive League and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Mrs. Bear-Crawford, in conjunction with Dr. Constance Stone, started the movement to obtain for the poor women of Victoria the means of being treated by doctors of their own sex, and it was under her able leadership that the Queen Victoria Hospital was founded, her idea of the Queen's Shilling Fund and her eloquent appeals during Jubilee year bringing in much support both moral and actual.

Mrs. Bear-Crawford, was the first woman in Victoria to urge the appointment of woman inspectors of factories; the appointment of woman warders in our gaols, and of woman officers, to visit the homes where infants are boarded out under the Infant Life Protection Act – work at present done by the police.

Her marked ability as a public speaker was no small factor in the success of much that she inaugurated. Her manner, while earnest and convincing, was invariably gentle and tolerant. She took up her work at a time when to be a "suffragist" was to argue yourself something of a "crank" and a butt for as much ridicule as the ignorant and misinformed chose to level. Those times are passing into ancient history, but the sufferings of the pioneers in a great movement should not be too lightly disregarded. Mrs Bear-Crawford, against great odds, did work for which thousands will yet arise and call her blessed. Like her favorite poet she was -

Once who never turned her back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed though right were worsted wrong would triumph,
Held we fall, to rise, and baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

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Citation details

Cynthia, 'Bear-Crawford, Annette Ellen (1853–1899)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bear-crawford-annette-ellen-5168/text35501, accessed 17 September 2019.

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