August 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Louisa Lawson, our first public feminist

By Lesley Hughes
The pioneer of publishing and women’s rights has been unjustly overshadowed by regard for her famous son, Henry

“All histories are against you,” Captain Harville famously observed to Anne Elliot, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. “But they were all written by men,” replies Anne. 

Austen would have been sadly unsurprised that one of Australia’s most extraordinary social reformers, hailed as our first public feminist, is virtually unknown outside academic circles except as the mother of iconic poet Henry Lawson. This lonely and impoverished woman passed away in the Gladesville Mental Hospital 100 years ago this month. 

Louisa Lawson (née Albury) was born in 1848 near Mudgee, a goldrush town on the Central Tablelands of New South Wales. One of 12 children, she was bright and headstrong with a thirst for learning that was thwarted by domestic duties including caring for her younger siblings. As was common for many girls at the time, she left school at 13, and at 18 years old escaped one life of domestic servitude for another, marrying Niels “Peter” Larsen, an itinerant gold prospector 16 years her senior. The family anglicised their name to Lawson and by the time she was 30, Louisa had borne five children: Henry, Charles, Peter, and twin girls Gertrude and Annette (Nettie). Nettie’s death the following year haunted Louisa for the rest of her life. 

Life was hard and her marriage to the oft-absent Peter was strained. Louisa struggled to support the family on their small bush block at Eurunderee, running cattle as well as a general store and post office. By 1883, she had had enough, moving to Sydney with son Peter and daughter Gertrude, to be joined later by Henry (Charles had run away from home at the age of 10). Once settled, she supported the family by taking in boarders, sewing and washing.

Louisa’s contemporaries and later biographers have variously described her as mercurial, forthright, tireless, strong, respected and honest, but also imperious, self-opinionated, self-righteous and confrontational, a woman admired and even feared, but not universally liked. A personality like this was not going to stay anonymous for long. Within a few months of arriving in Sydney, her longstanding interest in spiritualism led to regular visits to the Progressive Spiritualist Lyceum, a gathering place of reformers and progressive thinkers. Louisa had finally found her people. 

In 1887 Louisa and a group of like-minded anti-monarchists set up a small pro-Federation newspaper, The Republican. Louisa and Henry edited the paper from their family cottage, writing most of the copy under the name “Archie Lawson”. The Republican lasted only nine months, but it provided inspiration for Louisa’s developing determination to revolutionise the lives of women. In May 1888, Louisa founded The Dawn, Australia’s first journal that was solely edited and printed by women. 

The first editorial of The Dawn described the paper as “the Australian Woman’s journal and mouthpiece – a phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood” and “the printing ink champion of mankind’s better half”. The breadth of the publication was ambitious: “nothing concerning women’s life and interest lies outside our scope”. The Dawn was an immediate commercial success, with subscriptions sold around the world. 

Over the The Dawn’s 17-year lifespan, Louisa wrote more than 200 articles, using the pseudonym Dora Falconer in the first few years. Her words ranged from the stirring – “There is no power in the world like that of women … this most potent constituency we seek to represent, and for their suffrage we sue” – to the downright cranky – “Half of Australia’s women are unhappy”. 

The Dawn campaigned not only for equality of women in the public sphere, but also for rights within their homes and marriages, seeking nothing less than to transform the lives of half the populace. Through its editorial pages, Louisa lobbied for suffrage, access to higher education, temperance, support for widows, and reform of the marriage and divorce laws, while railing against the evils of prostitution, smoking, drunkenness and corsets. Many issues still resonate today: the need for women’s shelters, childcare for working women, awareness of child abuse, the scourge of domestic violence and the cult of beauty.

Louisa urged parents to equip their daughters to earn a living and not keep them at home as unpaid domestic labour, presenting arguments that women should be doctors, lawyers, magistrates, prison warders and factory inspectors. The Dawn was also highly literary, its presses publishing Henry’s first book Short Stories in Prose and Verse in 1894, and had a lighter side, with recipes and health advice, and instructions on dressmaking, home decorating, piano playing and how to ride a bicycle. 

Louisa’s battles were many. She earned the early wrath of the male-only printers’ union, which threatened to organise an advertisers’ boycott unless she stopped employing women as typesetters. Louisa won that skirmish but faced long-term denigration from journalists at the anti-suffrage Bulletin. To be fair, Louisa and her writers gave as good as they got, variously portraying men as neglectful, mean-spirited, boorish, selfish, self-indulgent, idle, morally weak… the list went on. Marriage was depicted, at least for some women, as “a lifetime of hardship”. A poem called “The Perfect Husband” concluded that such a creature was mythical, and a 1904 editorial titled “Woman Versus Man Question” declared to men, “you are the cause of all the bother and you always were”.

Alongside the paper, Louisa started the Dawn Club in May 1889. For a weekly subscription of sixpence, women could attend a reading room to borrow books and discuss literature, politics and social issues. The club was later replaced by the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, with Louisa elected to its council in 1891, speaking frequently at meetings and declaring that women needed to “redeem the world from bad laws passed by wicked men”. When non-Indigenous women won the right to vote in NSW in 1902, Louisa was acknowledged by the League as “the Mother of Suffrage in New South Wales”. (Indigenous women were to wait another six decades for the same rights.)

Louisa endured personal troubles during this period. In 1900 she fell from a tram in Sydney, sustaining injuries that took nearly a year to heal. She had also become involved in protracted legal proceedings with the NSW postal service in an attempt to protect a patent she had filed on a mailbag fastener. She won the case but was never appropriately compensated.

In 1905, with failing health, Louisa closed The Dawn and retired to her garden, eking out an increasingly meagre existence by writing, including a book of poetry, The Lonely Crossing and Other Poems. Over time, her relationships with her children had become increasingly fraught, with both Peter and Charles suffering from severe mental illness. Henry, acclaimed as “the poet of the great tribe of the down and out”, had his own troubles. Naturally shy, he had been almost totally deaf from an early age, and eventually became an alcoholic, often destitute and known to have begged on the streets. He had been jailed for unpaid alimony and attempted suicide. In 1903 his wife, Bertha, filed for judicial separation on the grounds that he beat her. While Louisa had supported, educated, and encouraged Henry to write, she had also railed against his increasingly dissolute lifestyle and they became estranged. 

With failing body and fading memory, Louisa was committed, against her will, to the Gladesville Mental Hospital in January 1920, and she died there the same year on August 12, aged 72. A slightly patronising but sadly accurate paragraph in The Bulletin noted her passing, mentioning Henry, The Dawn and her role in the suffrage movement, and that she had since “faded from the public eye”.

Henry died two years later and was the first non-politician to be accorded a state funeral in NSW as a designated “distinguished citizen”, his violent alcoholism and other sins overlooked. Five years later, a larger-than-life-size statue of Henry was erected in Sydney’s Domain, an embodiment of what the great-great-granddaughter of an American suffragist dubbed the “bronze patriarchy”, his magnificently moustachioed visage gazing permanently out across the parkland and city. 

Louisa has never been immortalised in bronze or stone, consistent with the observation that there are more monuments to animals in Australia than non-fictional women. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 1941 that a memorial seat would be installed close to Henry’s statue by the women’s committee of the Labor Party, but if it was ever put in place, it is long gone. Her name has, however, been bestowed on a collection of other memorials, including a 1950s blond-brick apartment block in Bondi, and a pocket of green in Sydney’s Marrickville, complete with a colourful mosaic of The Dawn masthead. Australia Post honoured Louisa with a stamp in 1975 as part of a commemoration of the International Year of Women, and the good folks at Rookwood Cemetery have erected a plaque near her grave, designating her a “Rookwood Notable”. 

The beautiful grounds of the former Gladesville psychiatric facility are a regular haunt of mine. As I walk, I think of Louisa looking out to the placid waters of Bedlam Bay from the narrow, barred windows in the forbidding sandstone buildings. What might she have thought of Australian society today? She would have rejoiced that women formally have equal rights under the law, and that a few, at least, have achieved high office. But Australia is still not a republic, there’s a gender pay gap, a lack of representation on boards and in parliaments, the need for the #MeToo movement, and the statistic that, on average, one woman per week dies at the hands of a current or former domestic partner. Louisa would still be railing. 

After an interview with The Bulletin in 1896 that began with the sentence “Many gifted men have had remarkable mothers,” Louisa countered. “I hope someday to be able to look the public in the face as Louisa Lawson, not as the mother of a man.” It’s about time we remembered her that way. Vale, Louisa. You deserved so much better.

Lesley Hughes

Lesley Hughes is an ecologist and professor of biology at Macquarie University who researches the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems. She is a councillor with the publicly funded Climate Council of Australia.

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