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Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910)

from Worker

Catherine Helen Spence, 1865

Catherine Helen Spence, 1865

State Library of New South Wales, 897875

As the echoes of the election tumult were dying away in Adelaide streets on Saturday, April 2, there calmly passed away Miss Catherine Helen Spence, one of the most remarkable figures in South Australian history. The news flew through the city shortly after three o'clock on Sunday morning, and even the careless roysterers in the highways reverently uncovered when they heard.

Miss Spence was born at Melrose, Scotland, on October 31, 1825, and was thus in her 85th year. Emigrating with her parents in 1839 to South Australia, she studied and qualified as a governess, and earned her own living in that capacity until she was 25. She then became a journalist, contributing to the 'South Australian' and other papers of the time. She wrote several novels; among others, 'Clara Morrison,' 'Tender and True,' 'Gathered In,' 'Mr. Hogarth's Will,' and 'The Author's Daughte.,' The latter dealt with effective voting, and was really a plea for proportional representation as today embodied in the present Hare Spence-Clark system of conducting elections in Tasmania. The ideas of William Hare appealed strongly to Miss Spence, and she was fired with his belief that if the democracy could fairly and accurately express itself at the polls, many of the ills of the world would be cured. But the Hare-Spence voting system was declared to be impracticable: to the politicians of the day it seemed too cumbersome. Miss Spence set to work to make it practicable, and eventually, after speaking and writing on the subject for over 30 years, she secured the assistance of many eminent men and women in all countries. Largely by the aid of the late Justice Clark, of Tasmania, whose name became associated with that of Miss Spence and William Hare as one of the authors of the system, a practical test of the new system was made in the Tasmanian general elections of 1896, in Hobart and Launceston. The plan worked satisfactorily enough; but mainly because a large number of the Island's politicians were unable or unwilling to master the complexities of the system, it created no enthusiasm, and the Hare clause in the Electoral Act was permitted to expire by effluxion of time after the Federal elections of 1900. But it was re-enacted nine years later, and now applies to all State Parliamentary elections in the Island State. At last election (April, 1909) it proved a great success; there was no difficulty experienced in counting the votes, comparatively few informalities occurred, and it is generally recognised that the system gives representation in proportion to the actual voting strength of every considerable section of political thought. It was a source of much gratification to Miss Spence in her later days to know that the reform to which she had devoted so many years of her life was in active operation and was proving so satisfactory in at least one State of her beloved Australia. Her 80th birthday was celebrated by a large gathering in 1905. South Australia's Chief Justice Way then described her as the 'most distinguished woman in Australia,' and referred to her world-wide fame as novelist, critic, journalist, preacher, lecturer, and philanthropist and social and moral reformer. In acknowledging the tributes paid to her Miss Spence said: — 'I am a new woman and I know it. I mean an awakened woman, to use the phrase of Miss Lilian Mead, awakened to a sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to the family and the household, but to the State; to be used not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she was both. As a child my desire was to write a great book. I have not done that, but I have done what I did not dream of in newspapers. I have joined men and women in social work which had no existence in 1825, when I was born. I have watched the growth and development of South Australia from very early days, and I have witnessed the growth in the power and influence of my sex. I am a member of a church, the Unitarian, which allows women to speak in the pulpit; a citizen of a State which gives to womanhood a vote for the Assembly; a citizen of a Commonwealth which fully enfranchises me for both Senate and Representatives.' A brilliant speech was brought to a close with a poem, she wrote in the same year. The concluding stanza —
Our manhood and our womanhood
May help the world along.
Give quickened sense of common good
To shatter ancient wrong.
So light and liberty may spread
From this dear land I sing;
With eighty winters o'er my head,
Within my heart there's Spring.

Whether pioneering the Women's Franchise movement in South Australia; writing and lecturing on the merits of preferential voting; clamoring for improved public education; interesting herself as a member of the State Children's Council and Destitute Board, attending the International Charities Conference in Chicago, Miss Spence was always thorough, always enthusiastic, always courageous. Australian democracy owes much to her fine intellect and splendid persistence. That she might devote her life to reforms that she considered affected the welfare of the race, she remained unmarried. While she was a woman of strong maternal instincts and full of sympathy, and affection, she lavished her care on unresponsive books, so that the flesh and blood children of other women might share a fairer world of love.

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'Spence, Catherine Helen (1825–1910)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

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