Susan Magarey (ed)
Wakefield Press, $39.95hc, 392pp, 1 86254 656 8

Over the past couple of years, there has been increasing interest in Catherine Helen Spence, perhaps one of the most remarkable women to have lived in Australia.

Spence was a journalist, social reformer and a novelist. She was in the vanguard of first-wave feminism seeking equality of opportunity for women in this country, and was lauded as the ‘Grand Old Woman of Australia’. From the pulpit to the platform, she championed the rights of women, lobbied for greater child welfare provision, and argued for a more democratic electoral system. Electoral reform was her primary political interest and she campaigned tirelessly for proportional representation (or “effective voting” as she preferred to call it) from 1859 to her death in 1910. In promoting electoral reform, Spence stood for election to the 1897 Federal Convention, becoming the first Australian woman to be a political candidate.

The latest publication is a re-issue of Catherine Helen Spence An Autobiography supplemented with extensive footnotes, together with Spence’s diary for 1894 and some of her correspondence.

Even for those who have previously read Spence’s Autobiography, the additional footnotes add a new dimension particularly on the people, places and issues with which Spence was so intimately involved. The footnotes have been painstakingly prepared by Barbara Wall, who has also compiled the extensive bibliography of Spence (see the website of the State Library of South Australia http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/spence).

Spence kept a diary every year of her long life from her late twenties. It was thought that these had all been destroyed. However, Susan Magarey has miraculously tracked down Spence’s diary for 1894 and for the first time this has been published. This was one of the more momentous years for Spence. She had attended the Chicago World Fair in 1893, and remained in America for eleven months until the end of April 1884, lecturing (and being paid for these lectures) on effective voting. Spence then travelled to Britain and the Continent, still campaigning for effective voting. She returned to South Australia in December, just in time to be involved in the successful passage of the Women’s Suffrage Bill. The publication of this diary gives an intimate insight to Spence’s passion and energy for campaigning for proportional representation, even at the age of 69.

Adding even more to this publication, is the inclusion of Spence’s letters to two of her many correspondents during the last ten years of her life when despite her advancing age, Spence still continued her campaign for effective voting.

While supporters of proportional representation will be keen on this new book, given Spence’s wide range of other interests all readers will find this detailed account on the issues and the people in the nineteenth century fascinating.