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Catherine Helen Spence

Catherine Helen Spence (31 October 18253 April 1910) was an Australian author, teacher, journalist, politician and leading suffragette. In 1897 she became Australia's first female political candidate after standing (unsuccessfully) for the Federal Convention held in Adelaide. Known as the "Greatest Australian Woman" and given the epitaph "Grand Old Woman of Australasia", Spence is commemorated on the Australian 5 dollar note issued for the Centenary of Federation of Australia

Early life

Spence was born in Melrose, Scotland, as the fifth child in a family of eight. In 1839, following sudden financial difficulties, the family emigrated to South Australia, arriving in November 1839 at a time when the colony had experienced several years of drought and the contrast to her native Scotland made her "inclined to go and cut my throat". Nevertheless, the family endured seven months "encampment" growing wheat on an eighty acre (32 ha) selection before moving to Adelaide.

Journalism and literature

Catherine had a talent for writing and an urge to read, so it was natural that in her teens she became attracted to journalism through family connections, beginning at first with short pieces and poetry published in The South Australian. She also worked as a governess for some of the leading families in Adelaide at the rate of sixpence an hour.

Her first major work was the novel Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, submitted to and rejected by the same publishers who had initially rejected first novel some years previously, but published by J W Parker and Son in 1854. She received forty pounds for it, but was charged ten pounds for abridging it to fit in the publisher's standard format. Her second novel Tender and True was published in 1856 and to her delight went through a second and third printing, though she never received a penny more than the initial twenty pounds.

In 1888, she published A Week In the Future a tour-tract of the utopia she imagined a century in the future might bring, one of the precursors of Edward Bellamy's 1889 Looking Backward.

Social Work and Issues

Although Catherine never married, receiving two proposals during her life, both of which she rejected, she had a keen interest in family life and marriage, as applied to other people, and both her life's work and writing were devoted to raising awareness and improving the lot of women and children


There are several memorials to Catherine Helen Spence, including:



  • Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever (1854)
  • Tender and True: A Colonial Tale (1856)
  • Mr. Hogarth's Will (1865)
  • The Author's Daughter (1868)
  • An Agnostic's Progress from the Known to the Unknown (1884)
  • A Week in the Future (1889)

Non fiction

  • The laws we live under (1880)
  • State children in Australia: A history of boarding out and its developments (1909)
  • Catherine Helen Spence: An autobiography (1910) (unfinished, but completed posthumously by Spence's friend Jeanne Young, working from diaries.)

External links


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