If you ask most people if they know the name Louisa Lawson, they’ll say no. Mother of bush poet, Henry Lawson, Louisa (1848–1920) played a vital part in women gaining the right to in NSW. Louisa Lawson’s struggle to find a voice can give us insight into our own times.
Louisa possessed sharp wits and a gift with words, but poverty and family expectations held her back. She eventually rose to become an influential figure in Australian literature and politics. With ingenuity and business savvy, she created a platform for herself and other, traditionally unheard, voices.
As a teenager, Louisa’s mother denied her the chance to become a student-teach at Mudgee National School. The farm and her eleven siblings took priority in a family struggling with poverty. Louisa never forgot this missed opportunity, and it spurred her on to create success in adulthood.
In 1866, Louisa married Norwegian sailor Niels Hertzberg Larsen at 18-years-old. Niels spent much of his time away from home mining during the Gold Rush and working for his father-in-law. In, 1883, Louisa moved to Sydney with her and Niels’ four children, Henry, Charles, Peter, and Gertrude. She worked as a seamstress and boarding house manager to support her family. In 1887, Louisa used the money she’d saved to buy a journal called The Republican.
The Republican was Louisa’s gateway to realising her ambitions. While the publication only ran for a year, The Republican let Louisa share her poetry for the first. The Reformers created a public storm with its daring challenge to corrupt authority.
“We lead the way, we lead the way …
We turn the sod, we stir the pool,
We point the way to those who rule.
We cheek the rogue, we chide the fool,
We point the way to those who rule.
Louisa started a new journal called The Dawn in 1888. This journal, “led the way” for women to have one of few public voices at a time when they couldn’t vote. In its 17-year run, The Dawn became a popular monthly journal both in Australia and overseas.
In The Dawn’s first article, Louisa Lawson spoke about the need for women to have representation in the political sphere:
“Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labor, and many another question intimately affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned.”
Louisa’s words reflect someone who’d known hopelessness because of circumstances beyond their control. So, she created the first journal ran and produced entirely by women. The Dawn covered subjects considered taboo at the time, like divorce, domestic abuse, and legal rights.
Shortly after the launch of The Dawn, Louisa founded The Dawn Club. Louisa created it as a space for women to gather and discuss issues of the time. Louisa’s group soon became the centre for the New South Wales Women’s Suffrage League.
Thankfully, we no longer live in such restrictive times. Women can vote. Women can be politicians. Although, a lack of representation in parliament probably still sounds familiar to most modern-day Australians.
You can hear echoes of Louisa ’s concerns in recent controversies over a lack of women in parliament. The resulting debate prompted the idea of quotas to be put forward. This was met with protests that women should be hired based on “merit.”
Former Chief of Staff for John Howard, Grahame Morris scoffed at the idea of quotas. He referred to the women in the opposition party, who do have quotas, as “dregs.”
Although, he did apologise for his comments, admitting that they might discourage women from entering politics. However, Grahame Morris’ comments still sting when you consider the International Parliamentary Union’s findings. Australia is ranked 54th in the world for representation of women in parliament.
If Australia is only 54th in the world when representing women, and appointments are based on merit, then that implies Australian women just aren’t suited to politics.
People talk about merit like it’s a hard-and-fast metric system for measuring someone’s worth. This attitude seems odd when you consider there’s a proven connection between height and leadership positions.
Tall men are more likely to gain managerial positions than shorter ones, because of an association with height to dominance and power. Science Direct says, “the current study found a positive relationship between male leaders’ height and their followers’ perceptions of charisma, while no such relationship was found for female leaders.”
In the famous Harvard study, “Heidi vs. Howard,” students were handed the same CV, but with different names. The students had a much harsher opinion of “Heidi” Roizen’s CV than “Howard” Roizen’s. According to students, Heidi was too aggressive to hire.
One thing we can take from Louisa’s story is that change takes time and work. In 1888, Louisa launched the first journal for and by women, speaking out about issues of the time. In 1902, 14 years after the launch of The Dawn, the bill allowing women to vote passed in NSW.
At the “dawn” of the twentieth century, Louisa achieved her goal of giving herself and other women a voice in politics. The Women’s Suffrage League introduced Louisa to members of parliament as, “The Mother of Suffrage in New South Wales.”
Her journey from a poverty-stricken young woman, to an icon of a movement, was long and hard. And overcoming old ideas about who does and doesn’t belong in power will take many generations of work.
Louisa Lawson’s son, Henry, carried on his mother’s legacy of expressing truths through the written word. Henry’s poems and short stories were known for their boldly realistic insights into the everyday struggles of Australians. The Drovers Wife was a short story about a woman’s struggles to care for her four children while isolated in the outback.
Henry Lawson has earned a place in history for his unique take on Australian life in his writing. Louisa’s name isn’t as well recognised. But, from her writing and activism, it seems fair to say that Louisa has earned enough “merit” to be remembered as well as her son.