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History repeats for powerful Australian women

  • 21 June 2013

The first day of the Federal Parliament's second last week before the election was Monday 17 June, an anniversary of some significance, depending on your literary, political or sporting interests.

It was, for example, the birthday of Venus Williams (1980) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (1954) and of Igor Stravinsky (1882), a brilliant, controversial composer. And Shane Watson (1981), a sometimes brilliant, recently controversial cricketer. And Henry Lawson (1867), whose mother, Louisa, not born in June but commanding our attention by a few degrees of separation, would have found Australian political life during the past few weeks utterly fascinating and somewhat familiar.

Founder and editor of The Dawn, easily the most successful women's journal of its time, Louisa Lawson was a courageous, dynamic and indomitable supporter of women in all their aspirations. These included the vote, equal opportunity in the workplace, marriage law reform, independent as distinct from husband-governed access to medical treatment, and, as a prerequisite of all these, respect.

'Women must learn,' she wrote in The Dawn, 'that if they bear wrongs, other women must bear the same, if they do not claim personal respect neither can their sisters. If they are weak or oppressed how can their children be strong or noble? This habitual self-effacement leads to all manner of weakness.'

Louisa entered the world of men respectfully but firmly and, eventually, paid a personal price for having done so. But for a couple of decades she gave various entrenched male monopolies such a run-around as to establish her name as a pioneer of women's rights in Australia.

'Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labour, and many another question affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned,' announced the inaugural Dawn on 15 May 1888. 'Here then is Dawn, the Australian Woman's journal and mouthpiece.'

As her influence grew and as The Dawn's reach stretched far beyond Sydney, various forces and organisations turned their attention to silencing this mouthpiece.

To produce The Dawn, for example, she employed only women, 11 of them. To her surprise this brought her into head-on conflict with the New South Wales Typographical Association which banned The Dawn, mounted a scare campaign against its sponsors and argued 'it is not in the interests of humanity that young girls or young women should be employed at an occupation 50 per cent of whose followers die of chest and lung disease'.