Investigation 5

Who were some South Australian women that made important contributions to social and political change in the late 1800s?

The women of South Australia and Western Australia were able to have a say in referendums on Federation, but women in other colonies were not. Women in South Australia won the right to vote in 1894. Some women became lobbyists and played a significant role in bringing social and political change to the colony. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was an organisation that campaigned for women’s rights and family values. They believed that the consumption of alcohol was disruptive to family life and sought to restrict its sale. The WCTU supported women having the right to vote, and to enter government so that they could participate in decisions on education, health and other matters that affected family wellbeing. Many men, however, considered women’s participation in politics as a ‘modern fad’ or ‘crank’ – ludicrous, ridiculous, fanciful and at odds with community beliefs.

Some of the South Australian women who brought about social and political change are still well-known today. This is testament to their commitment to democratic values, and their work to improve people’s lives and build a better future for their respective colonies.

Your Task

Explore the lives and work of prominent women of the late 1880s and investigate how they worked to bring about change.


  1. As a class, read the biography of Mary Lee. List some of the issues that she was concerned about. Then, list the actions that she took to make a difference to society and the values and leadership qualities that she displayed by her decisions and actions.
  2. Research either Catherine Helen Spence, Elizabeth Webb Nicholls or Louise (Lucy) Morice. These women made a difference to society in South Australia in the late 1880s, and eventually the nation as a whole. Consider the following questions in relation to the woman you have chosen.
    • Were her concerns the same as Mary Lee’s? If not, how were they different?
    • What actions did she take to make a difference to society?
    • What values and leadership qualities did she display through her decisions and actions?
  3. Join with a partner who has researched the same woman as you. Imagine that you are journalists working in South Australia in the late 1880s. Work individually to prepare a series of questions that you would like to ask the woman you have chosen. Combine your questions so that you have a final list of 10.
  4. Decide which of you will play the woman and which will play the journalist. Conduct an interview as a role-play for the rest of the class. Try to imagine how the woman would look, sound, and how she would speak. Think of what would make her happy, sad, proud or angry. Ensure that the interview includes opportunities for her to express her hopes for the future of the nation and her opinion of Federation.
  5. Working in pairs, examine the The Whisper of a 'Shriek' cartoon. It shows WCTU members speaking into the ear of Premier Charles Cameron Kingston. As you examine the cartoon, caption and quote from Hon. JH Howe, consider the following questions.
    • What impression does the cartoonist create of the WCTU members? Does the title of the cartoon help to create a positive or negative impression of them?
    • The cartoonist shows the WCTU as having the ‘ear of government’. What does this phrase mean? Why is it important? What might ‘Mrs WCTU’ be whispering about?
    • The cartoonist refers to ‘Mrs WCTU’ as having ‘crank fads’. What might the cartoonist be referring to? Were the WCTU’s desires ‘crank fads’?
    • Did Hon. JH Howe support or reject the views of the WCTU?
  6. Work together to write speech bubbles for ‘Mrs WCTU’ and the two women waiting in line behind her, to express what they would want to communicate to the Premier. Share your speech bubbles with the rest of the class.