Lawson, Louisa

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Lawson, Louisa

Louisa Albury Lawson arrived in Sydney in 1883. Aged 35, wife of Peter Larsen (anglicised to Lawson) who was often away seeking gold, mother of three sons and a daughter, she came from the rural working class. She had been born in the country, near Gulgong in New South Wales, the second of 12 children of a station hand and a needlewoman. [1] She was educated in the country, at the Mudgee National School, a star pupil when she was not kept at home to help with the other children. When she married, her first home was in the country, 'a tent pitched over a frame of stringybark poles', site of a new gold-rush at Weddin Mountain (later known as Emu Creek, then Grenfell). [2] All of her children – Henry, Charlie, Peter, and Gertrude, whose twin sister died as a baby – were born in the country; when Henry and Charlie reached school age, Louisa Lawson had to campaign among the other settlers in her district, New Pipeclay (later called Eurunderee), to petition the education authorities for a local school. [3]

Tall and strong, she was a fine horse-woman and an expert four-in-hand driver. [4] Much of the work that she did, besides housework and childcare, was farm labour: ploughing the hard dusty paddocks, keeping a small dairy herd, fattening 'store' cattle for the Mudgee market. She added to these sources of income from time to time: from having become an accomplished needlewoman, she went on to learn tailoring and established a quietly prosperous dressmaking business. When there was a goldrush almost on their doorstep, she and Peter converted part of their house into a store, and Louisa became its proprietor. When Peter took on the position of postmaster of New Pipeclay, Louisa did that work as well. [5]

But 1883 was the third year of a drought. Louisa wrote to Peter: she was giving up on the countryside and its desperate toil, and going to the city. [6]

City life

The Sydney in which she set about making a new life was undergoing challenges to its traditions in the name of modernity, challenges in which Louisa Lawson played an important and influential part. Urbanisation coupled with industrialisation was opening up new opportunities for wage-earning work for women in factories and workshops, rather than – as previously – exclusively in domestic service; in Sydney, the percentage of women employed in domestic service declined from 55 per cent in 1861 to 44 per cent in 1891. [7] At about the same time, some women were choosing not to marry; across Australia between 1891 and 1901 the proportion of women aged between 25 and 29 who did not marry almost doubled, rising to more than ten per cent in all colonies except Tasmania. And among those who did marry, an increasing proportion restricted the number of children that they bore; the fertility rate of married women plummeted by 8 per cent during the 1880s, and then by a further 18 per cent during the 1890s. In Sydney, such statistics prompted serious alarm and the Royal Commission into the Decline in the Birthrate. [8]

Socialist-feminist poet Marie Pitt described the tumbling birthrate as 'The Greatest Strike in World History'. [9] Her perception depicted women's reduced fertility as a political effect of changing power relations between women and men, and linked it to the concurrent campaign for women's rights to full citizenship, specifically the right to vote in elections (just as men did). For this was also the period when Australian women campaigned for, and won, female suffrage. [10] Louisa Lawson became one of the leaders of suffrage-era feminism in Australia

She drew inspiration from the boarders she took in, who worked in the Government Printing Office; from them Lawson learned of a world of writing and publishing, a world she had yearned to know better when, as an imaginative school student, she had had to hide her poems from her mother. She was also inspired by the community of progressive thinkers that she met in the Progressive Spiritualist Lyceum at Leigh House where she also encountered leading Sydney feminists. [11] With such inspiration, Lawson became a radical publisher.

Printer, publisher and employer

First, she joined a few like-minded men in buying a small printing press on which they published a journal, the Republican, providing a voice for a brief moment of aggressive nationalism, combined with labourism, and – remarkably for the time – anti-racism in Sydney. The editorial for January 1888 pointed out that the Jubilee and Centennial celebrations marked a century since 'the colony of New South Wales was stolen from the blacks'. [12] The Republican did not last a year. But Lawson had a new enterprise in her sights.

In May 1888 she published the first issue of The Dawn, a journal, usually of 32 pages, selling for threepence an issue. It probably had about a thousand subscribers a year, their addresses ranging throughout Australia to New Zealand; in the 1890s, it had readers in Fiji, England, Scotland, Europe and the United States as well. This journal appeared every month for the next 17 years, making it the longest-running women's paper, indeed, one of the longest-running papers, of the period. [13]

Lawson announced its feminist principles in its first issue:

'Woman is not uncompleted man, but diverse,' says Tennyson, and being diverse why should she not have her journal in which her divergent hopes, aims and opinions may have representation … Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labor, and many other questions intimately affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned …

She went on to make an early, and graphic, claim to a specifically modern protest against the traditional condition of womanhood:

There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voices of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions … Here then is The Dawn, the Australian Woman's Journal and mouthpiece – a phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings, and demands of the sisterhood. [14]

Traditions were changing, she would assert: 'In every department of life old methods are being replaced by new', announced the leader for April 1894. [15] The press was crucial to such transitions, as it was 'the most powerful agency of our times'. Lawson urged women to use the press to write to each other; by this means 'can women all over the world hold out helping hands to one another'. [16]

The Dawn depicted women's principal grievances as the current condition of marriage, women's disadvantage in the labour market, discriminatory laws, and, above all, the double standard of sexual morality. In November 1890, its leader announced

THE STRIKE QUESTION/10,000 WIVES TO BE CALLED OUT!!/MASS MEETING OF THE AMALGAMATED WIVES' ASSOCIATION!! DEMANDS OF THE WOMEN!! DOMESTIC LIFE PARALYSED!!

The article drew an extended analogy between wives and workers:

just as under the wealthy there is the less powerful class of labour, so, subject to the social predominance of men, there are the women, weak, unorganised, and isolated. [17]

Women needed economic independence, whether as wives or as unmarried girls needing to earn their livelihoods, but current conditions rendered this impossible. [18] The Dawn inveighed against the current condition of marriage and 'our unequal sex code': the double standard of sexual morality both before and within marriage, and what Lawson, like other feminists of the time, characterised as 'compulsory' maternity. [19] The strength of The Dawn's feminism, concluded literary historian Susan Sheridan, 'lay in its dual focus on public and domestic concerns'. [20]

To overcome such disadvantages, Lawson urged women to organise their domestic work more efficiently; urged the world to value women's lives and work as 'just as essential to the good of the community as that of every man'; urged legal change, including votes for women; above all, urged solidarity among women in the struggle for the elimination of 'the masculine dominance of the mind and person of woman' so that she may 'take her rightful place in the world as man's recognised equal'. [21] Evolution, she argued, determined that the forces of history were on the side of women:

A few more turns of the great wheel of evolution and woman will more universally recognise inherent power to uplift, the power of purity and uprightness, developing more perfectly first within her own person and thence extending into her every relation to society … [22]

Lawson wrote most of the copy for each issue of her paper – a prodigious output that is also distinguished journalism. Literary critics Elaine Zinkhan and John Docker both praise her style as 'arresting, rhetorically striking', 'variously confident, ironic, sarcastic, witty and clear'. [23] It is also sometimes very funny. Lawson offered practical help to her readers: posting paper patterns for dresses and providing guides for country visitors to the city. But on one occasion, she replied to a correspondent, surely with her tongue in her cheek:

We regret that we cannot supply you with a false moustache to match enclosed sample of hair, and return remittance; we are quite out of the orange-marmalade shade. [24]

She extended her practicality to her own practice. Louisa Lawson employed women as compositors on the press which printed The Dawn, thereby earning aggressive hostility and attempts at sabotage from the colonial typographical associations, traditional craft unions that refused membership to women. She not only weathered this opposition successfully, but also took occasion to declare her support for unionism at a meeting held in support of a new, more modern, kind of union, the London Dock Labourers, who were on strike at the time. [25]

Suffragist and writer

In 1889, she launched Sydney's campaign for votes for women by establishing The Dawn Club, a social reform club for women, 'for mutual development, mutual aid and for consideration of various questions of importance to the sex'. It attracted attendances of around 50 women to its fortnightly meetings. But it did not last long, its purposes overtaken by the Womanhood Suffrage League, formed in 1891. Lawson was invited to join the socially élite ranks of the Womanhood Suffrage League, and elected to its council. But by the end of 1893, she had resigned from the council and 'no longer found it convenient' for them to meet in her offices; she was quick to join the Women's Progressive Association – a rival to the Womanhood Suffrage League with a stronger commitment to the labour movement – when it formed in 1901, on the brink of the suffrage campaign's success, in 1902. [26]

Lawson wrote poems and stories which found print in other publications besides The Dawn. They range in quality from the banal or formulaic to works prompting comparison with those of Emily Brontë and Christina Rossetti; literary biographer Brian Matthews also compares some of her poems with those of her Australian contemporaries Henry Kendall and Barcroft Boake, and those of her son Henry. [27]

Louisa Lawson's last 20 years were difficult. This former postmistress invented and patented a mailbag buckle, but the New South Wales Postal Department refused her payment and attempted to pirate her invention. In 1900, this promoter of the modern was injured in a fall from the new modern electrified tram at Circular Quay, damaging her spine and her knee, and making it impossible for her to work on The Dawn for a year. Her daughter, Gertrude, carried it on until Lawson could resume the editorial chair in 1901. But The Dawn closed in 1905. [28] Lawson continued to write, and to provide entrancing entertainment for her grandchildren, the children of her son Peter. [29] But relations with her own children were difficult: Henry had become severely alcoholic, Charlie had episodes of violent derangement, Peter suffered episodes of depression and delusion, and Gertrude, by then married to a New Zealander, was never close to her mother after a bitter fight over The Dawn. Louisa herself was losing her memory and becoming more eccentric. [30] Finally, in January 1920 – after securing her signature to a will that made him sole inheritor of all her property, including her papers – Peter had her committed to Gladesville Hospital for the Insane, where she died in August that year. [31] By then women in New South Wales had been voting for almost 18 years.

Louisa Lawson was acclaimed 'the mother of womanhood suffrage in New South Wales'. Her journal, The Dawn, introduced its readers to a wider understanding of the conditions of women's lives, their discontents and their aspirations, winning favour for legislation giving votes to women. With its breadth of vision, its vigour and its humour, The Dawn won her that title and hence a central place in the history of those times.

References

Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 18881895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, 1990

Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2001

Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987

Notes

[1] Heather Radi, 'Lawson, Louisa (1848–1920), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 10 Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp 23–25, online at http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100019b.htm. accessed 5 February 2010

[2] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, p 73

[3] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 128, 111–112

[4] Heather Radi, 'Lawson, Louisa (1848–1920), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 10 Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp 23–25, online at http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/biogs/A100019b.htm. accessed 5 February 2010

[5] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 99, 113–114, 93–5, 100–101, 116

[6] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 130–131

[7] Shirley Fisher, 'Sydney Women and the Workforce 1870–90', in Max Kelly (ed), Nineteenth-Century Sydney: Essays in Urban History, Sydney University Press in association with the Sydney History Group, Sydney, 1978, p 97; Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2001, pp 119–123

[8] Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2001, pp 111–113; Royal Commission on the Decline in the Birthrate and on the Mortality of Infants in New South Wales, Report, 3 vols, Government Printer, Sydney, 1904

[9] Marie Pitt, 'The Greatest Strike in World History', Socialist, 1 December 1906, quoted in Colleen Burke, Doherty's Corner: The Life and Work of Poet Marie EJ Pitt, Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1985, p 37

[10] Audrey Oldfield, Woman Suffrage in Australia: A Gift or a Struggle?, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1992.

[11] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 158–159

[12] Elaine Zinkhan, 'Louisa Albury Lawson: Feminist and Patriot', in Debra Adelaide (ed), A Bright and Fiery Troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1988, p 219

[13] Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2001, p 58

[14] The Dawn, May 1888, also in Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 1888–1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, 1990, p 23

[15] The Dawn, April 1894, also in Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 1888–1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, 1990, p 143

[16] The Dawn, May 1894, also in Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 1888–1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, 1990, pp 147–148

[17] The Dawn, November 1890, also in Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 1888–1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, 1990, pp 71–73

[18] The Dawn, March 1893, also in Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 1888–1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, 1990, pp 130–132

[19] Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2001, pp 72, 69

[20] Susan Sheridan, 'Louisa Lawson, Miles Franklin and Feminist Writing, 1888–1901', Australian Feminist Studies, nos 7 & 8, summer 1988, p 39

[21] The Dawn: June 1890, July 1892, also in Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 1888–1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, 1990, pp 59–63, p 119

[22] The Dawn, July 1892, also in Olive Lawson (ed), The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson's The Dawn 1888–1895, Simon & Schuster in association with New Endeavour Press, Brookvale, New South Wales, p 120; see also Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2001, pp 74–80

[23] Elaine Zinkhan, 'Louisa Albury Lawson: Feminist and Patriot', in Debra Adelaide (ed), A Bright and Fiery Troop: Australian Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1988, p 221; John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian cultural life in the 1890s, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p 21

[24] Louisa Lawson to Mr AW, Junee, quoted in Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2001, p 65

[25] The Dawn, November 1889, also in Kay Daniels and Mary Murnane (comps), Uphill All the Way: A Documentary History of Women in Australia, University of Queensland Press, 1980, pp 274–275; see also J Hagan, 'Incident at The Dawn', Labour History, vol 8, 1965, pp 19–21

[26] Susan Magarey, 'Louisa Albury Lawson (1848–August 1920)' in Selina Samuels (ed), Australian Literature, 1788–1914, The Gale Group, Farmington Hills, MI, USA, 2001, vol 230 in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, p 237

[27] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, chapter 12 'Poetess', pp 336–341; see also Susan Magarey, 'Louisa Albury Lawson' (1848–August 1920)' in Selina Samuels (ed), Australian Literature, 1788–1914 (The Gale Group), Farmington Hills, MI, USA, 2001, vol 230 in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, pp 241–243

[28] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 263–302

[29] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 335–8

[30] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 305–331, 342–343, 345–349, 362–365

[31] Brian Matthews, Louisa, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1987, pp 368–369, 397

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