Portrait of Catherine Helen Spence in the 1890s

Catherine Spence

Writer and Politician


Catherine Helen Spence was a Scottish-born Australian author, teacher, journalist, politician and leading suffragist. In 1897 she became Australia's first female political candidate after standing (unsuccessfully) for the Federal Convention held in Adelaide.

Born in Melrose, Catherine was the fifth child in a family of eight. At the age of 13, following sudden financial difficulties, she moved with her family to Adelaide, South Australia. Her talent for writing and reading pulled Catherine towards journalism and had short works and poetry published in The South Australian as a teenager.

Her life's work and writings were devoted to raising the awareness of, and improving the lives of, women and children. Catherine also successively raised three families of orphaned children.

Catherine was one of the prime movers, with C. Emily Clark, of the "Boarding-out Society" whose aim was to remove all destitute children from asylums and into approved families so that asylums only dealt with delinquent children. Catherine was at first treated with scorn by the South Australian Government but the scheme was esteemed and encouraged when the institutions devoted to the handling of troublesome boys became overcrowded.  Catherine and C. Emily Clark were appointed to the State Children's Council, which controlled the Magill Reformatory.  Catherine was also the only female member of the Destitute Board.

She was an advocate of Thomas Hare's scheme for the representation of minorities (the concept in voting systems that means that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes). Catherine travelled and lectured both at home and abroad on Proportional Representation and lived to see it adopted in Tasmania.

Her first novel Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever was published in 1854. Her second novel Tender and True was published in 1856, and went through a second and third printing, though she never received a penny more than the initial writer’s fee of twenty pounds. Catherine published a third novel Mr Hogarth's Willin 1865 and several more including An Agnostic's Progress from the Known to the Unknown (1884), A Week in the Future (1889) and Handfasted (1984). 


Interesting fact
Catherine received a forty pounds writer’s fee for her first novel but was then charged ten pounds by the publisher to have it abridged to fit their standard format.


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