Mary Lee

Mary Lee nee Walsh, who was born 14 February 1821 at Kilknock in County Monaghan, arrived as a widow in South Australia in 1879 at the age of 58. In 1888 she helped found the Women's Suffrage League. One of the most famous of South Australia's suffragists, Mary Lee was the chief organiser of the 1894 petition of 11 600 signatures presented to the South Australian Parliament in August 1894, requesting that women in the Colony be granted the right to vote. The petition is now displayed in Parliament House, Adelaide.
The South Australian Parliament in 1894 granted women the right to vote and stand for election in the Colony's Parliament, and a letter from the Attorney-General dated 21 December 1894 advised Governor Kintore that Royal Assent would be required to enact the Bill. The Bill was enacted when Queen Victoria signed her Assent on 2 February 1895. At that time only New Zealand women enjoyed this right although women property owners were granted the vote in local government elections in 1861.

In 1844 Mary Walsh married George Lee and they had seven children. In 1879 she sailed with her daughter, Evelyn, to Adelaide to nurse her sick son, John, who had previously migrated to SA and who later died. In 1883 she became the first secretary of the ladies’ division of the Social Purity Society. This organisation worked to improve conditions for women in the colony and it soon recognised that women’s suffrage was essential to their aims.

Subsequently the Women’s Suffrage League was inaugurated in 1888 with Mary as its secretary. It was mainly due to the combined efforts of Lee and Mary Colton, who was President of the League from 1892 onwards, that suffrage was won in South Australia in 1894.

In 1889 Mary Lee proposed the formation of a trade union for women and became secretary of the Working Women’s Trades Union when it was inaugurated the following year.

In 1896 she was appointed by the government as first female official visitor to the lunatic asylums, a position that she held for twelve years.

Mary was a very outspoken person and sometimes her language (she was not afraid of calling it as she saw it and did not suffer fools lightly) upset people.

Mary Lee died in poverty at home in North Adelaide on 18 September 1909 and was buried with her son at Wakerville.

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