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Spence was small and full of energy, and had a direct way of speaking.

Image title:
Catherine Helen Spence

State Library of South Australia

Image ID:
SLSA: B 11192

Maude Gordon, artist

Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910)

Social reformer

Spence came with her family to South Australia after her father’s business in Scotland failed. She remained unmarried and lived with her family. She was the first woman in Australia to break many barriers: to write novels, to lecture in public, to preach in church, to be a member of government boards, to run for office. Her great work was to organise the better care of orphans and neglected children.

In politics she advocated a proportional representation voting system. By this scheme, parties would get a number of members in parliament in proportion to the number of their supporters in the whole community. This would help small parties.

Spence was slow to back votes for women. She said women's suffrage was not worth much until her scheme was adopted. In 1891, though, she took a major role in the Women's Suffrage League of South Australia.

South Australian women gained the vote and the right to sit in parliament in 1894. This enabled Spence to stand for election to
the Federal Convention in 1897. In her campaign she concentrated on getting proportional representation adopted in the new Commonwealth. She did not get elected but she had done well as the first woman candidate: she came twenty-second in a field of thirty-three.