Skip Navigation
Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Mary Lee

b. 1821, Kilknock, County Monaghan, Ireland; d. 1909, North Adelaide, South Australia

“If I die before it is achieved … ‘Women’s enfranchisement’ shall be found engraved upon my heart.”

—Mary Lee

Mary Lee, who described herself as “once the slip of an old red-hot Tory stem,” became the leader of South Australia’s suffrage movement and a labor activist when she was well into her sixties. Before her arrival in Adelaide in 1879, to care for an invalid son, Irish-born Lee had led a conventional life as the wife of a church organist. Widowhood had a liberating effect. She plunged into reform work in her adopted country, beginning with an anti–child labor campaign as a member of the Social Purity Society in 1883. Suffrage work soon followed, and Mary Lee moved from the rather conservative goals of the League to a broader agenda encompassing women’s political and economic advancement in an industrialized society. Her personal style evolved in tandem with her more radical goals; at first rather timid, she developed into a formidable organizer and fiery speaker. In 1888, she co-founded the Women’s Suffrage League of South Australia; Lee and her colleagues lobbied tirelessly and within six years South Australian women were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections and to stand for Parliament. Crucial to this success was the forging of a link between the suffrage and labor movements; Lee was that link. At a public meeting on sweating in 1889, she had proposed the formation of women’s trade unions; the next year, the Working Women’s Trade Union was established and she served as its secretary for two years. In 1895, she was nominated by two unions to stand for Parliament, but she declined. Mary Lee’s energies never flagged; now well into her seventies, in 1896 she accepted a nonpaying government appointment as the first female official visitor to the mental asylums, a job which she performed admirably for the next twelve years.