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Mary Booth (1869 – 1956)

Date Posted: 30 October 2012

Mary Booth was born in Sydney in 1869, the eldest of three daughters of schoolmaster, William Booth and his wife Ruth. After graduating in Arts from the University of Sydney, she worked briefly as a governess before an inheritance from her grandfather gave her sufficient income to travel to Britain where she graduated in medicine in 1899. Although, on her return to Sydney in 1900, she established a medical practice she faced considerable opposition from the conservative profession and it was for her public activity in relation to feminist and health education causes that she came to be recognised as a leader.

Booth founded the Women’s Club in 1901, and was later vice-president of the National Council of Women. She was also employed in health education by the NSW government, and in 1904-9, and in 1910-12 was involved in establishing Victoria’s School Medical Service. Confronting accusations that such responsible positions should not be given to a woman, she argued that she had demonstrated that ‘professional and administrative capacity’ could be found in the one person and that hygiene education should be understood as a branch of ‘mothercraft’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 1913). She was also involved in the campaign for equal pay for equal work for women in the public service (Albany Advertiser, 31 July 1920).

Active in patriotic causes during World War I, founding a club for soldiers and running centres for their wives and children around Sydney, she applauded the increasing recognition the war was bringing to women (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 September 1918). In the post-war period Booth dedicated herself to maintaining the Anzac legacy, and the imperial links which it had reinforced through the Anzac Fellowship of Women, which she founded in 1921, and its Empire Service Club which provided a haven for immigrants, particularly the boys brought to Australia through the Dreadnought Scheme (Sherington, 15-16). Later her interests expanded into town planning and cultural activities, taking a lead in organisations dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings and the protection of public space. Over time, her vision for women became increasingly conservative, advancing a form of domestic feminism which had little resonance in her own career. As chairman of the Memorial College of Household Arts and Sciences, she emphasised the importance of girls being educated ‘for their natural sphere’ – homemaking (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1937). ‘The ultimate aim of most women is to become good wives and mothers’, she argued. ‘If she is a good wife, she will make a very good husband … and hundreds of such happy men will make a happy community’ (Sunday Herald , 4 September 1949). Despite such views, she continued to be incensed when women were not included on important public committees (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 1943).

In 1920 Booth stood for state Parliament as an independent, arguing that as the state had now taken over many of the roles traditionally performed by women, they needed to have their views represented where the decisions were being made. However, she staked her claim as much on her professional status as her gender, arguing for better facilities for returning soldiers, and firmer control of ‘mentally deficient girls’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 1920). When her candidature was unsuccessful, she took this as evidence that her vocation lay elsewhere. Acclaimed as an unselfish, self-sacrificial leader, she took a personal interest in those her organisations were set up to help and was duly celebrated as a result (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 1929). An office-bearer in numerous organisations, she used such positions to participate enthusiastically in public debate. She was a prominent public speaker within and beyond New South Wales and wrote frequent letters to the press in support of her various causes throughout her life.

Awarded the OBE in 1918 for her wartime activities, Booth, who had never married, died in Sydney in 1956. A reserve in North Sydney and a scholarship at the University of Sydney are named in her honour.

Shurlee Swain
Australian Catholic University