The woman at the back of the room paved the way for Quentin Bryce to become Australia’s Governor-General and Julia Gillard to become Australia’s Prime Minister. Back in those days men scoffed at ‘this nonsensical idea of giving women the vote’. They exposed their own foolishness by objecting to the idea of women having the right to stand for Federal Parliament with the argument that ‘members would not do their work if ladies sat beside them’. However, for Louisa Lawson it was simply ‘a just privilege so long denied’.
The Woman at the Back of the Room
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.
“It has taken years of struggle,” said one speaker from the platform at the front of the hall, “but the Commonwealth Franchise Act has finally granted us what should have been our right from the beginning; the right to vote.”
The crowd cheered and applauded. The speaker continued.
“The Act also gives women the right to stand for election to the Federal Parliament, making Australian women the first in the world to be able to do so.”
More enthusiastic applause and cheering almost drowned out her final words. The exhilaration of the occasion rippled through the hall but the woman sitting at the back of the room seemed detached from the excitement. Her dark eyes reflected signs of disappointment. Her mouth was set in a firm line of dissatisfaction.
She glared at the official podium overcrowded with special guests and politicians, as well as office bearers from the Womanhood Suffrage League. Why hadn’t she been invited to be up there? She had worked harder for this day than any of those people on the podium.
The woman’s disappointment took her back to a time when she had first experienced such profound disenchantment. She was thirteen years old again, standing on the dirt floor of the slab hut in Mudgee that had been home for her, her numerous siblings and her parents.
Mr Allpass, her teacher, had suggested that when she turned fourteen she could train as a pupil teacher. Wanting very much to take up this opportunity she had waited impatiently for her parents to sign the necessary papers but they had not done so. She could not understand why her mother was opposed to the idea.
“It won’t interfere with my schooling, Mother. The training is done after lessons.”
Her mother turned from the old wood stove, waved away a hovering fly and swept back loose strands of hair that had fallen over her eyes before she answered with a stern look.
“You’ll do the training after lessons, will you? And who do you think is going to help me with the children if you are at the school house till all hours.”
“It’s only for a couple of extra hours, Mother. Anyway, what about Emma? She’s the eldest, why can’t she help you when I am not here?”
“Your sister has her hands full looking after the babies, as well you know, young lady.”
“But Mother, after two years I will get paid. I can help you by earning money.”
“Earn money? Earn money, indeed. A woman’s place is in the home. What man will want you if you go around giving yourself airs above your station. Men do not want to marry women who are smarter than they are. Your fanciful ideas will ruin your chances of making a good marriage.”
“But Mother, getting married is not enough for me. I want to do things, I want to achieve things. Mr Allpass says I could be a fine writer one day.”
A sharp look of disapproval crossed her mother’s face. “A fine writer is it? Writing such nonsense as this, I suppose.” She reached into her apron pocket, retrieved a piece of paper and held it aloft between her thumb and forefinger as though she were holding a dead mouse by the tail. She eyed it with the same distaste she might bestow on the rodent. “I’ve told you before; this nonsense you are writing is not fit for respectable people to set eyes on.” Her mother screwed the piece of paper up into a tight ball, enclosing it in her clenched fist.
“What’s wrong with it? It’s just a poem about the bush. Mr Allpass said it was a good poem.”
“Mr Allpass indeed!”
Protecting her hand from the heat with an old cloth set aside for the purpose, her mother turned the handle of the small iron door at the front of the stove and flung the crumpled piece of paper into the fire chamber. The flames devoured her beautiful poem. Her mother closed the chamber door firmly, straightened and turned back to her daughter.
“You need to get your thoughts in order, young lady. This world is for men not women. You will only create misery for yourself with your foolish dreams.”
“Why, Mother? Why? Why can’t women do more than just look after babies?
“Because that’s the way it is and the sooner you accept it the better.”
“Well, that is not the way it’s going to be for me. If a job doesn’t need muscles and brawn a woman can do it just as well as any man. One day I’ll show you. I’ll show everyone. I’m going to do something to make the world a better place for women.”
“That’s enough from you, young lady. There’s work to be done and you can start by peeling the potatoes.”
Loud cheers and applause brought the woman from her reverie. When she realised who the crowd was cheering she sat forward with alert interest. It was Vida Goldstein. By starting a newspaper in Victoria advocating women’s rights, Vida had copied what she herself had already done in NSW. She listened in anticipation of hearing her name mentioned, her thick dark eyebrows coming together in concentration. Vida Goldstein spoke about the history of the women’s suffrage movement and mentioned several people who had contributed to the good fight. Each person’s name was greeted with applause and cheers. However, Goldstein finished her triumphant victory speech without referring to the woman who sat at the back of the hall.
The anguish from her childhood memory was transferred to the present with bitter thoughts. She was the first to start a newspaper for women but Goldstein has conveniently forgotten that. And have they all forgotten she was also the first to publicly call for women to have the vote? That was back in 1888 through her Ladies Column in The Republican. Ever since then she had fought for women’s rights. She had also been one of the founding members of the Womanhood Suffrage League.
Waiting around to endure the indignity of further indifference was something she did not propose to do so while the official speeches continued the woman pulled on her gloves and picked up her bag. With cat-like disdain, she rose from her seat and crossed the room. A strong, tall physique was revealed, the puffed sleeves of her floor length dress accentuating her height and adding to the width of her ample shoulders. Despite her commanding physical presence the women in the audience, who were giving their full attention to those on the front stage, did not see her as she made her way to the door. However, on reaching the exit her departure was stalled by a woman dressed in a lace-collared satin gown with immaculately coiffed hair who stepped in front of her.
“Louisa,” said Margaret Windeyer, gently taking her arm. “Please do not leave yet.”
Someone in the crowd turned and, recognising the woman in the doorway, called out.
“Mrs Lawson! Louisa Lawson is here.”
Others in the crowd called her name.
A startled expression which quickly turned to pleasure crossed the woman’s face. She stepped back into the room. Hands began to clap.
The speeches had ceased. All those on the podium joined in the applause. A wave of enthusiasm brought the whole audience to its feet. Long, voluminous skirts swished as the women rose from their seats and turned toward the back of the room.
Louisa Lawson was swept by a torrent of excitement down the aisle and up to the podium. Miss Rose Scott, a genteel lady and secretary of the Womanhood Suffrage League, applauded her onto the platform. Miss Scott, her fair hair curling out from under a pert hat, raised her hand to silence the audience After following the customary protocol of acknowledging honourable and distinguished guests she then focused on Louisa Lawson.
“This lady is the pioneer who started our journey. She was the first to give public voice to our cause. By the time she joined us as a founding member of the League she had already fought fiercely for womanhood suffrage through her excellent newspaper, The Dawn, and later the Dawn Club. It gives me much pleasure to welcome, Mrs Louisa Lawson, the mother of womanhood suffrage in NSW.”
A storm of applause broke forth and thundered through the room. As she stepped forward, her bearing radiating dignity and pride, Louisa Lawson sent a silent message to a departed one. I told you I would make the world a better place for women, Mother.