Woman Dobson, Emily
Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University
Emily Dobson was born in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in 1842, the youngest child of public official, Thomas Lempriere and his wife Charlotte. Educated at home, she married lawyer, and later Tasmanian premier, Henry Dobson, in 1868. There were five children of the marriage. Henry's election to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1891 gave Emily an entree into Hobart charitable circles, and his wealth enabled her to employ staff to both manage her household and organise her social calendar.
During the 1890s she had taken a prominent role in several local associations and unemployment relief schemes. In the early years of the twentieth century Dobson was at the head of a multiplicity of Tasmania organisations concerned with the welfare of women and children and wealthy enough to represent them at national and international meetings, reputedly making 67 overseas trips on their behalf during the course of her life (Advocate, 6 June 1934). She was the vice-president and, from 1904, the president of the National Council of Women in Tasmania, national president from 1906-21, and later honorary vice-president of the International Council. She was also the founder of the Tasmanian Lyceum Club and established the girl guide movement in the state rising to the rank of Australian Chief Commissioner. Her omnipresence on the philanthropic scene meant that she was known to many of the leaders in the national and international women's movement. Reputedly, Rose Scott once ranked her alongside Aeneas Gunn and Nellie Melba as one of Australia's three greatest women (Examiner, 28 September 1928).
Until Henry Dobson's death in 1918, the couple operated as a team, he using his political skills while she mobilised the philanthropic forces necessary to bring their ideas to fulfilment. Politically conservative, she believed that women's suffrage would come to be seen as 'a curse rather than a blessing' if it were allowed to be exercised by a 'demoralised people' (Mercury, 17 February 1920) and opposed moves to have women stand for political office (Mercury, 10 November 1905). Dobson frequently opened her home for fund-raising events and committee meetings. Within Tasmania she had a high public profile; significant milestones in her life were publicly celebrated and her frequent travels widely reported on. Central to such reports were accounts of the meetings and social functions to which she had been invited and the important people she had met (Mercury, 20 December 1930).
Dobson was a energetic and forceful leader, strongly opinionated and unwilling to accept criticism (Mercury, 28 February 1922). 'As long as I keep my health', she declared, 'I hope to keep up an active interest in the things that matter' (Advocate, 29 November 1927). Her approach to charity was essentially an ameliorative one. She socialised in conservative circles and saw poverty as a result of individual failings rather than structural inequality (Department of Premier and Cabinet). As superintendant of the social purity branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union she bemoaned the 'modern tendencies' evident in 'the increasing impatience of control and absorbing love of amusement and sport' as well as the 'immodesty of women's dress' all of which she saw as evidence of 'deterioration of character' (Mercury, 3 March 1921). She believed that 'children are educated in a great deal more than they can assimilate' seeing that as the explanation for 'why domestic help is so difficult to obtain' (Advocate, 18 July 1923).
In 1919, the Tasmanian NCW inaugurated the Emily Dobson Philanthropic Prize in her honour. Awarded the insignia of the Officier d'Instruction Publique by the French Government, for her work with Alliance Francaise (Mercury, 28 August 1931), curiously for someone so prominent, she was not similarly honoured in her own country. On her death in 1934, however, she was acclaimed as one of Tasmania's most 'notable women' (Mercury, 6 June 1934).
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