Woman Spence, Catherine Helen

Preacher, Social reformer, Suffragist and Writer

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Catherine Helen Spence was born in Scotland in 1825, the fifth of eight children of lawyer and banker, David Spence, and his wife Helen. She was educated in Scotland and migrated to Adelaide with her parents in 1839 and took employment as a governess. In nineteenth century Adelaide she became a published author, a Unitarian preacher and an advocate of electoral reform. With her friend Caroline Emily Clark she persuaded the South Australian government to introduce boarding-out for state children and was a member of the State Children's Council and the colony's Destitute Board. She was also a leader in the campaign that saw the enfranchisement of South Australian women in 1894. Susan Magarey credits Spence with pioneering 'a place for herself - hence for other women - outside the domestic sphere to which custom and convention confined' them (Magarey 2009, p.196).

Spence consolidated her reputation as one of Australia's leading women in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1901 she established a women's collective clothing factory and was appointed the chair of its board (Hammond, pp. 14-15). She continued her work for electoral reform and moved the resolution that brought the South Australian National Council of Women into existence, although she found the organisation too cautious and resigned from the executive in 1906. The NCW in Australia, she argued, had not engaged 'the working women' who would both benefit from and contribute to their campaigns to improve women's lot (Clarence and Richmond Examiner, 13 November 1906). She was more satisfied with her continuing work with the State Children's Council, 'this splendid work for the benefit of humanity' (Autobiography, ch XXIII). An admirer of Vida Goldstein, she also supported the establishment of a South Australian branch of her Women's Non-Party Political Association (Autobiography, ch XXIV).

Spence had travelled widely and maintained an extensive correspondence with like-minded reformers interstate and overseas. The press struggled to comprehend such a forthright, intelligent woman. A 1909 account described her of displaying 'the kind of intellectual strength which everybody calls masculine' and of being 'manlike' in her absorption in her work (Register, 10 June 1909), but she understood herself as a precursor of things to come. She urged women to 'learn as much as they could and not be such nervous and timid individuals (Advertiser, 9 July 1906). The state, she argued, 'was losing much through not enlisting the aid of women to a greater extent in the working of its institutions' (Advertiser, 4 April 1910).

On her eightieth birthday in 1905, Spence was acclaimed as the 'most distinguished woman in Australia'. In response she declared 'I am a new woman ... awakened to a sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to the family and the household, but to the State' (Register, 31 October 1905). Reluctant to claim individual credit for her many achievements, she argued that change came through 'association with a band of cultured and earnest women interested in social, political and other public questions' (Autobiography, ch XXIII). She described herself as 'a clear-brained commonsense woman of the world' who was entitled to have her views heard and proud to live in a state in which women had made such progress during her lifetime (Autobiography, ch XXIV).

When Spence died in 1910 one obituarist concluded that if she 'had been a man, that man might have commanded the most important position among Australian statesman. As it was she greatly elevated the status of her sex in public life' (Register, 4 April 1910). Spence is commemorated in a statue in Adelaide's Light Square and her image appeared on Australia's five dollar note.

Published Resources


  • Margarey, Susan, Unbridling the Tongues of Women: a Biography of Catherine Helen Spence, University of Adelaide Press, Adelaide, South Australia, 1985. Details
  • Spence, Catherine Helen, Autobiography, The University of Sydney Library, Sydney, New South Wales, 1997. http://adc.library.usyd.edu.au/data-2/p00014.pdf. Details

Book Sections

  • 'The Private Life of Catherine Helen Spence, 1825-1910', in Davison, Graeme; Prest, Wilfrid; Smith, FB and Jalland, Patricia (eds), Body and Mind: Historical Essays in Honour of F. B. Smith, 2003, pp. 5-17. Details

Journal Articles

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources