Theme Case Study: Louisa Lawson - Printer, Journalist
Non-Traditional Trade Employment
Written by Susan Magarey, The University of Adelaide
Louisa Lawson was one of the most prominent and influential figures of suffrage-era feminism in Australia. She spent the first thirty-five years of her life in countryside New South Wales, wife and mother of three sons and a daughter, developing a tailoring business, raising 'store' cattle, and taking on her husband's position as postmaster. Desertion and drought drove her into Sydney in 1883. There, in 1887, she joined with a few like-minded men in buying a small printing press on which they published a journal, the Republican. Here Louisa Lawson learned a new set of skills and, within a year, she had embarked on a new project.
This was the Dawn, a paper that appeared every month from May 1888 for the next seventeen years, making it the longest-running women's paper, indeed, one of the longest-running papers of the period. Lawson wrote most of the content, her signature style being arrestingly clear, direct and sometimes very funny. She announced the Dawn's feminist principles in its first issue, a statement that simultaneously proclaimed its technological modernity.
'There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voices of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions … Here then is The Dawn, the Australian Woman's Journal and mouthpiece-a phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings, and demands of the sisterhood.'
In juxtaposing the trumpet and the phonograph, she declared her rejection of the traditional and embrace of the modern. Lawson was being both feminist and modern in another dimension of this enterprise, too, for the compositors she employed were all women. In hiring a female workforce, she was participating in the process that saw urbanisation and industrialisation opening up new opportunities for wage-earning work for women in factories and workshops, rather than consigning them, as previously, exclusively to domestic service. In Sydney, the numbers employed in domestic service declined from 55 per cent of all women workers in 1861 to 44 per cent in 1891.
Lawson's decision to employ women earned her the wrath of the colonial typographical associations, long-established craft unions that refused membership to women. They set about trying to drive her out of business. On one occasion, a young journalist from the Christian World wandered into the office of the Dawn and asked if he could borrow a print block. When he was told that Mrs Lawson could not afford to buy blocks for other papers to use, he refused to leave and stood about the workroom getting in the way and sneering at the girls locking up the forms. Lawson described the event in the Bulletin:
'We were just going to press, and you know how locking up isn't always an easy matter-particularly for new chums like we were.
Well he stood there and said nasty things, and poor Miss Grieg-she's my forewoman-and the girls, they got as white as chalk; the tears were in their eyes. I asked him three times to go, and he wouldn't, so I took a watering pot full of water that we had for sweeping the floor, and I let him have it.'
The year 1889 witnessed a protracted struggle. In October, the New South Wales Typographical Association declared a boycott of the Dawn, not because its wages were lower than those the union had bargained for, as would have been traditional-Lawson claimed to pay her compositors the highest wages in Sydney-but, rather, as the Dawn reported, because they objected to the employment of women altogether. Their action consisted of visiting those who advertised in the journal and threatening a union boycott of their businesses unless they withdrew their advertising. Lawson countered with an appeal to her subscribers to tell their tradespeople that the subscribers dealt with those businesses because they advertised in the Dawn. The typographers accused Lawson of anti-unionism, too; Lawson refuted their assertions at a mass meeting in the Domain to express support for the London dock labourers, then on strike, winning cheers of support from the crowd. Ultimately, Lawson won this battle. It was 1905 before the Dawn ceased publication, and only then because Louisa Lawson, in her late fifties, had grown too frail to continue with it.
- Matthews, Brian, Louisa, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Fitzroy, Victoria, 1988. Details
- Ollif, Lorna, Louisa Lawson, Henry Lawson's Crusading Mother, Rigby, Adelaide, South Australia, 1978. Details
- Francis, Rosemary, 'Lawson, Louisa (1848 - 1920)', in The Australian Women's Register, Australian Women's Archives Project, 17 April 2009. Details
- Radi, Heather, 'Lawson, Louisa (1848-1920)', in Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University (ANU), c.2006, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawson-louisa-7121/text12285. Details