Louisa Lawson was ‘the mother of womanhood suffrage in Australia’, an inventor, a poet, journalist, newspaper proprietor and editor, as well as the mother of Henry Lawson and four other children.
Henry owed much of his early success to his mother who encouraged him, bolstered his confidence and found publishing opportunities for him. As his reputation grew she became known as the mother of Henry Lawson but was determined to be more than someone’s mother.
Louisa Lawson’s determination to realise her potential had been a driving force from an early age. Born in 1848, Louisa Albury, as she was then, grew up dreaming of making her own way in the world at a time when very few opportunities existed for women. For girls in poor families opportunities and options were virtually non-existent. Although Louisa demonstrated an eagerness to learn and a passion for writing, she was often kept home from school to take care of her younger siblings. Her mother ridiculed her writing and constantly reminded Louisa of a woman’s place in the world. At the age of eighteen, Louisa bowed to the inevitable and became a housewife when she married Niels (Peter) Larsen, later Lawson. Louisa committed herself to being a good wife and mother but her restless intelligence demanded expression.
After seventeen years of marriage Louisa and her children moved to Sydney while her husband Peter remained on the goldfields. In 1888 Louisa began The Dawn, Australia’s first magazine for women and the only paper printed and published by women. Despite aggressive opposition from the unions and male prejudice, The Dawn enthusiastically continued its mission to help women lead a better life without dependencies and to fight for women’s rights and women’s suffrage. Its commercial success surprised many men. Louisa later established The Dawn Club for women; a suffrage society. On her journey to emancipate Australian women Louisa was joined by other feminists of the time. Together, they eventually achieved their goals with the passing of the Commonwealth Franchise Act on June 12th 1902.
Despite Louisa’s hard work and commitment to the cause she was not invited to be an official guest at the celebratory ‘joy meeting’ held by The Womanhood Suffrage League in September, 1902. This cruel oversight, belatedly addressed at the end of the meeting, is explored in my story The Woman at the Back of the Room which was awarded third place in The Stringybark Australian History Short Story Award 2011.
Here is how The Woman at the Back of the Room starts:
In an auditorium packed with women eager to celebrate the historic occasion one woman in a high-collared dress, her dark hair swept up in a style more functional than fashionable, sat unnoticed in the back row.
It is September 1902. Golden wattles hint at a bright new dawn, spring rains generate hope that the drought might soon be over and the world’s greatest opera singer, Australia’s Dame Nellie Melba, has returned home for a triumphant concert season. The women who pack the hall of the School of Arts in Sydney are there to celebrate something more important than the start of a new season, more significant than the breaking of the drought, more momentous even than the world-wide success of their compatriot. They are there to rejoice the blossoming of a new world for women.