The remaining images of Spence – mostly of a small, older woman, stuffed into the dour Victorian garb of the era – don’t give us any clue of the powerhouse that she was.
Catherine Helen Spence was a dynamo.
Just three years after the colony of South Australia was founded, Spence arrived with her family from Melrose, Scotland. The fifth of eight children, her education was cut short when the family experienced financial failure, initiating their move to Australia.
At 14 years old, she’d already set her mind on a career. In a time when women still had very little social and political power or influence, Spence was determined to follow the beat of her own drum. She wanted to be a teacher and a writer.
Fuelled by intellectual ambition, humanitarian principles and a fervour for just societies, Spence was well on her way to making an impact and the tiny corner of the world from which she would launch a career was Adelaide – a new city at the frontier of British colonial settlement.
Spence was striking out in local society at about the same time as UniSA’s antecedent institutions, the South Australian School of Art and the South Australian Teacher’s College were being founded.
And in many ways, she embodied the idealism and the hope for a new kind of society that marked the foundation of South Australia and the changemaking institutions that were established there.
When she died in 1910 aged 85, she had earned the respect and admiration of the nation.
Author Miles Franklin called her the “greatest Australian woman” and others referred to her as the “grand old woman of Australia”.
But we should remember the girl who made a conscious choice not to marry or have children because she wanted a career.
The girl who wrote and published her first poems in The South Australian, who worked as a governess to the wealthy for sixpence an hour and at the same time was a correspondent for The [Melbourne] Argus, writing under her brother’s name. The girl, who in so many of her novels reflected on how difficult it was for women to access equality of opportunity and to triumph on the strength of their intelligence.
By 29, she had published her first novel, the first to be written by any woman about Australia, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever. She would go on to pen another seven books, including the social studies text for Australian school children, The Laws We Live Under.
But her last novel Handfasted, judged at the time to be undermining of important social values and altogether too socialist, wasn’t published until 1984.
The book describes a Scottish feminist Utopia, Columba, where women are equal to men and freed from traditional sexual constraints by the custom of trial marriage (handfasting), which sanctions the changing of sexual partners and makes illegitimacy an irrelevance.
In many ways it is in the form of the novel that Spence did much of her thinking and postulating about social problems and the policies and practices that might solve them.
And while she came late to the Women’s Suffrage movement, it was more because she was concerned with the big picture of political representation, where she advocated for the Thomas Hare system of proportional representation, considering that it gave fairer representation to all minorities.
But by 1891 she was heavily involved in the Women’s Suffrage League where she served as vice president and importantly, devoted attention to bringing political education to more women, ensuring they could cast an informed vote. She also championed women’s suffrage in both the UK and the US.
Spence threw over her Presbyterian Scottish Church upbringing to follow the relatively new Unitarian movement – Christian in origin but having a more liberal and intellectual approach to Christian practice.
For Spence, the Unitarian Church meant that reason, rational thought and science could be held in equipoise with belief in God. She was a preacher in the Adelaide Unitarian Christian Church, a guest preacher in Melbourne and Sydney, and in the United States when she visited in 1894.
It would be easy to imagine Spence as the ultimate career woman, pushing all of her energies into politics and literature.
But that wasn’t the case. Ever conscious of the plight of impoverished and abandoned children, she was a prime mover in the foundation of the Boarding Out Society, a group dedicated to placing children from overcrowded state institutions with foster families.
Over her lifetime, Spence personally raised three families of orphaned children.
She was also the only female member of the Destitute Board and the first woman to sit on an official inquiry when she was appointed to investigate the operations of the Adelaide Hospital.
Although unsuccessful, in 1897 when the elections opened for the Federal Convention, Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate.
Her concern for women’s wellbeing and their capacity to survive in a society where so much stood against an unmarried or unsupported woman, led her to look at women’s employment.
From 1901 until her death, she chaired the management board of the Co-operative Clothing Company, a shirt-making factory owned and run exclusively by women, in which both workers and owners held shares.
And just before she died, Spence chaired the meeting that established the Women’s Non-Party Political Association and was made foundation president. The association would go on to play a leading role in monitoring all policies relating to the welfare of women and children and the rights of women to fair and equal participation in society.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography lists her occupations as autobiographer/memoirist, charity worker, governess, journalist, literary critic, novelist, public lecturer, Unitarian lay leader, women’s activist, and women’s suffragist.
It is the very embodiment of what we describe today as the future of work – one life, many careers.
Spence saw herself as a new kind of woman…
"I am a new woman, and I know it. I mean an awakened woman … awakened to a sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to the family and the household, but to the State; to be wise, not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born.”
History shows she was one of the nation’s most enterprising and remarkable women.
Image above: Portrait of Catherine Helen Spence by Maude Gordon, 1900. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, B 11192
UniSA’s City West Student Lounge is located on the ground floor of the Catherine Helen Spence Building and offers students a space to interact outside of study time. The space’s concept design was driven by ideas from the University’s architecture students.
Gender equity efforts align with Spence’s legacy
When UniSA’s City West campus was planned and built in the mid-1990s, the western end of Adelaide’s CBD was lifeless and down at heel. But naming campus buildings in honour of particular people who had played a role in establishing the city and the colony reflected some key attributes and aspirations of the University and in some ways recreated the spirit of the west end as the lively space it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Characters such as tea merchant and Adelaide community leader Yet Soo War Way Lee, architect Roland Rees and artist Barbara Hanrahan reflected the disciplines the university taught – art, commerce, architecture but also a creative and enterprising spirit.
Catherine Helen Spence’s life and actions are so closely aligned with UniSA’s values it is remarkable – she championed access to education, child protection and systematic reform, the right of all free men and women to vote and run for parliament, and her commitment to the education of women and girls was phenomenal.
Spence realised that system change required great planning, close examination of the issues and a commitment to long term change.
Ever a proponent of equality of access to education and equity, in 2015 UniSA committed to improving its record on gender equity for women in science by signing up for the Science in Australia Gender Equity Initiative (SAGE), a project that encourages change for the short and long term.
This year the University achieved its Bronze Award from the Australian academies of science, technology and engineering.
UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd says the SAGE project has helped to focus the University’s efforts.
“Undertaking the SAGE Athena SWAN accreditation process has given us a chance to look at the whole university environment and find ways through policy and practice to ensure women and men are on a level playing field when it comes to forging a successful career in STEMM,” Prof Lloyd says.
“While SAGE is focused on STEMM, we took a whole of institution approach in our response.
“That meant we looked across the board, not only at policies, but at processes and practices to see how they fit together to either help or hinder the goal of gender equity, giving us a full picture of the kinds of improvements that research shows will have an impact.”
UniSA’s progress in the past five years has been institution-wide – from the launch of a $2 million international female fellowship program in engineering supported by UniSA with University College London and Santos, to the appointment of the University’s first female Chancellor in 2018 and rebalancing its senior management team to ensure gender equity. In the past three years success rates for women in STEMM applying for promotion have consistently been at 75 per cent or more.
The University piloted a scheme to help women to stay in touch with their research while on maternity leave with grants to pay for services that support them to attend conferences, seminars and workshops.
“We are deeply committed to growing a diverse workforce and strengthening a culture where talent thrives, difference is valued, and individuals are respected for their unique contributions,” Prof Lloyd says.
It’s a commitment Spence would be proud of.