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The fact that Louisa Lawson is collectively known as Henry Lawson’s mum is an insult to the lasting many achievements of this great woman, as she started the path we proudly strut today.
When Louisa Lawson died in 1920, most newspapers described her as Henry Lawson’s mother. But it would have been far more accurate to say that Henry was Louisa’s son. Without Louisa’s steely determination, her example and continued support, Henry would probably have been just another drunk, and not the poet we still know and love. But that is not the reason why I would like to nominate Louisa Lawson as Australian Maverick number 13. Louisa Lawson doesn’t need a comparative male to seem important. On the contrary, for most of her life, she fought to show the world that women were at least men’s equals and often their betters. She was instrumental in making certain that women got the vote, battled the scourge of domestic violence at a time when women and children were men’s property and was an inspired writer and poet. She also made a name for herself as Australia’s first female newspaper owner and editor. One of the obituaries called her ‘a rebel against the laws of convention’, ‘a force in the cause of downtrodden womanhood’.
Surely that comes close to the definition of maverickdom, if that is even a word.
It didn’t start out like this. Louisa Albury was born in 1848, on a property near Gulgong, where her father was a station-hand and her mother a needlewoman, if she wasn’t having another of her twelve babies. Louisa was the second child and oldest girl and so smart that the teachers at her primary school wanted to appoint her pupil-teacher, but her mother was having none of it. She preferred Louisa to help raise her younger siblings, even if that meant having to burn her daughter’s books and stopping her from writing poetry. When Louisa was still young, the family moved to Mudgee, where her father Henry set himself up as a building contractor. When that failed, he was forced to take up a bush selection. He was lucky, though, because not long after gold was found nearby. Henry decided to partition off part of the family home as a pub where prospectors would come and drink, and that is where Louisa met Niels Herzberg Larsen, a Norwegian sailor trying his luck on the goldfields. They married, but Niels was away a lot, working as a handy man, a miner or an odd-jobs man. Louisa was left at their selection at Eurunderee, where her first home, she remembered later, was ‘a tent pitched over a frame of stringybark poles’.
She invented and patented a new mailbag fastener, that was quickly adopted by the NSW Postal Department. Because she was a woman, they refused to pay her for it and attempted to pirate her invention, which forced her to sue.
She was by then the mother of four living and one dead child. To keep them fed and watered she did all the ploughing and taking care of the cattle, as well as taking on needlework and running a store from part of her house. She was even briefly the local postmaster (and agitator), when she petitioned the authorities for a local school. In 1883 she had enough. Niels, who had Anglicized his name to Peter Lawson, was hardly ever home and a severe drought had taken out most of her cattle. Louisa took her children and left for Sydney, where she bought a little house and took in boarders to make ends meet. Sydney was a city in flux, especially for women. Industrialisation had meant that women had more choice in jobs and as a consequence were more able to become economically independent. As a result, less of them married and had children. This worried the government so much that it appointed the Royal Commission into the Decline in the Birthrate.
Louisa found herself in the right place at the right time. Not just because Sydney was changing, but also because some of her boarders worked at the Government Printing Office and introduced her to the publishing business. In her spare time, she went to meetings of the Spiritualists and listened to them speak, some of them putting forward feminist and progressive ideas. In 1887 she bought The Republican, a nationalist paper that called for Australia to become a republic, free from Britain. Louisa and Henry wrote most of the stories and did all the editing, Louisa under the pseudonym ‘Archie’, just in case. A year later, the publication made way for something even closer to Louisa’s heart, The Dawn, a paper that would, she vowed, try to change ‘women’s wrongs, fight their battles and sue for their suffrage’.6 What she wanted was ‘a journal in which her hopes, aims and opinions may have representation’, ‘a trumpet through which the concentrated voices of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions’, ‘a phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood’.
The Dawn was usually 32 pages, cost threepence and came out monthly. It contained political pieces, short stories, poetry, household advice, fashion and a run-down of women’s activities and was an immediate commercial success. It was sold throughout the world, with issues sent to Fiji, Europe and America. In it, Louisa not only advocated the vote for women. In 1888, she also did her bit for anti-racism, by writing that the centennial celebrations of that year marked ‘a century since the colony of NSW was stolen from the blacks’, not particularly a sentiment that was widespread at the time.A few years later she called for a ‘mass meeting of the amalgamated wives’ association’, advocating a domestic strike as long as women were not allowed ‘to take their rightful place in the world as man’s recognized equal’. With her tongue firmly in cheek she wrote that ‘among the things which we women have to be thankful for stands the unhappy married life…if the promise solemnly given ‘to love and to cherish’ were kept, then women would probably have settled down contentedly in their nests for another century or two, and never have evolved’.
Also on The Big Smoke
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- Aussie mavericks: Juanita Nielsen – The martyred heiress of justice
In 1888, her wayward husband died and left Louisa 1103 pounds, which she immediately invested in a better press and larger premises. She also hired female journalists and female printers. This put her on a collision course with the NSW Typographical Association, the printers union that did not allow women members. First, it tried to force her to sack her employees, then appealed to advertisers to boycott the paper. When that didn’t work, male members started harassing the women on their way to and from work, and even sabotaged the equipment. Louisa responded by setting up the Dawn Club, an association where women could come to discuss political and other issues and ‘every question of life, work and reform’, as well as gain experience in public speaking. Throughout the rest of the century, she kept putting out influential articles about failing laws, the need for female doctors, lawyers and factory inspectors and the horrors of prostitution and a lack of education for girls. She added advice on health, childcare, diet, rest and exercise. She was also a prominent member of the Council of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW and instrumental in gaining the vote for women in 1902. Even the then NSW Premier called her the ‘Mother of Suffrage in NSW’ and praised her efforts in Parliament.
But 1900 was a difficult year for Louisa. First, she invented and patented a new mailbag fastener, that was quickly adopted by the NSW Postal Department. Because she was a woman, they refused to pay her for it and attempted to pirate her invention, which forced her to sue. Not long after she won that case, she had to fight another. On a trip from her office to Circular Quay, she was thrown out of a tram and suffered a fractured knee and injured spine. She had to go to court again to fight for compensation, which helped her out a little during the year it took her to get back on her feet. The fall had shaken her, though, and in 1905 The Dawn closed. Louisa became a freelance writer, finally dying in 1920 in the Gladesville Hospital for the Insane, where she had been sent when poverty and dementia overcame her.
But the newspapers hadn’t forgotten her. A week after her death, the Northern Champion described her as ‘a tall and powerful woman of striking personality’, although with a ‘swarthy complexion’ due to ‘the strain of gipsy blood which ran through her veins’. The Capricornia praised her as a ‘remarkable woman’, who ‘suffered all her life from that craving for knowledge and culture which one sees in so many bush girls, sometimes fighting hopelessly against the round of trivialities in which custom circumscribes a woman’. She had spoken, the writer said, ‘many brave and true words’ and given the world ‘great imaginative work’. The papers especially commemorated Louisa’s actions in bringing about the vote for women. She herself had explained her reasons for fighting for that cause a few years before: ‘I should be proud indeed if my native country were the first to publicly profess its belief in the capacity and sound judgment of its women, by establishing womanhood suffrage. Strangers might begin to know our place upon the map if it could be said that ‘there civilization has got so far that even the women are free’, instead of having to live in a world where whenever ‘the word wife, woman, widow or mother occurred in the law it was sure to be surrounded with some disability’.
Louisa Lawson: patriot in the best sense of the word, a maverick and a rebel in all others.