Sarsha Crawley is currently studying a Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts at Monash University, Australia. She is an avid reader, baker and photographer who enjoys researching the legacy of great women worldwide.
The most radical change that could be given to women during colonial time in Australia was a platform from which her voice could be both acknowledged and recognised. Yet what made this platform even more dangerous was that it was established by a woman. In 1888, against a backdrop of waning gold discoveries and self-governing colonies, uneducated, penniless, single-mother Louisa Lawson began Australia’s first feminist newspaper, The Dawn, championing the rights of women and creating momentum for the way women connected and inspired one another.
At a time when Louisa was forced into domestic labour as a young child, grudgingly caring for her younger siblings before being unwillingly married to a drunkard at eighteen, there were few alternatives for the daughter of a station-hand. Louisa encountered the toil, disaster, abuse and financial dependency that life on the Goldfields with young children indentured for women, and it was from these experiences she wrote, connecting to the untapped, heart-rending soul of women cast into domestic life with no options or alternatives but to keep struggling.
Beginning her very first editorial, Louisa declared that The Dawn was “the Australian Woman’s journal and mouthpiece — a phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood,” and it was with this spirit The Dawn continued. The newspaper represented “finger-posts” out of the dark labyrinths to which women were confined; providing women the skills and resources to examine social constructs for themselves, as well as the knowledge and framework for which one could begin to challenge the paradigms binding her to domestic life. Spanning suffrage, divorce laws, equal workplace treatment and an upheaval of deep-seated social conventions, Louisa’s Dawn continues to represent more than the monthly newspaper it was. Instead, it embodies a movement of women, through acts great and small, dangerously challenging late nineteenth century social norms.
Boldly supporting women, The Dawn was staffed solely by women, from the writers to the typesetters, at the risk of disrupting the male-dominated publishing industry. This defiance lead to the Typographical Union boycotting the newspaper, as they refused membership to women, and also threatened advertising revenue because the Union canvassed advertisers to withdraw their support. The Union noted that at the centre of their concerns was the ability for male typesetters to compete alongside women, as well as the physical danger associated with operating a printing press. Despite the unions’ concern for the wellbeing of the staff of The Dawn, the newspaper prospered. Astute and dangerous business-woman Louisa used this opportunity to appeal to and expand her subscriber-base, which now reached beyond Sydney to rural areas, the Australian colonies as well as internationally. The culmination of the distribution and content led to The Dawn becoming the longest-running women’s publication of the time; a testament to Louisa’s ability to realise and articulate her opinions regarding the rights of women in a way which resonated with the masses, emphasising the importance for women to create platforms to address issues and to create communities that are responsive to change.
As a means to help women progress in their campaign for the vote, Louisa began The Dawn Club, a fortnightly meeting at which women had the opportunity to discuss pertinent issues, as well as practice and hone their public speaking abilities, skills Louisa identified as inherently underdeveloped in women, yet vital for their entrance to politics and more broadly, the public sphere. In a progressive editorial entitled “The Woman of Tomorrow,” published in August 1893, Louisa wrote:
Public speaking is seldom attempted by women unless they have something worthy to be said, and know well how to say it. But man, though he offend the taste of his audience both in matter and manner, still considers it his prerogative to speak.
Such passages connote voices and images which we still confront today; with constant displays of condescension and dismissal of women in politics, as well as uneven representation, drowned out by incessant male politicians. This reformatory image Louisa conjured is thus even more radical and dangerous, because it is a battle we still face as women are silenced and spoken over within the political arena.
Louisa’s dangerous presentation of information refuting societal expectations was a defining feature of The Dawn with her writing filled with questions and propositions challenging the expectation that women be subdued and subservient, constrained to the private sphere. Probing her readers “why not the mental powers of women have full scope?” and “why should one half of the world govern the other?” Louisa’s voice joins the many influential leaders of the Australian Suffrage movement. Yet, what makes her work so pivotal when we reflect on it today, is how widely the newspaper was distributed and how readily it was available to influence women locally and abroad. Through the culmination of these two factors, Louisa was able to draw women, who would otherwise be isolated from the reformatory rumblings for women’s rights centred throughout cities worldwide, into a campaign that threatened patriarchal reign.
In the June 1890 editorial, Louisa counters the claim that it is “nonsensical” for women to have the vote by citing the plethora of legal implications to women – to whom the law applies equally, yet of which they have no ability to contest:
Laws are made upon divorce, the sale of liquor, factory regulations, the employment of children, gambling, education, hours of labour, and scores of subjects upon which women do think, and respecting which they ought to have the power of giving effect to their wishes by the selection of men representing their shade of opinion.
As Louisa herself identified, men represented the law makers and law enforcers, they were the head of communities and the head of families, they were bequeathed power and rooted into a system that had no space for the voices or requests of women. To these men and the society they represented, Louisa was a fierce and emboldened symbol of danger, threatening upheaval to the societal constructs they necessitated to continue their unopposed authority. Following the instatement of equal voting rights for white women in Australia in 1902, Louisa’s campaigning was ceaseless.
We have secured the strength and the right to fight! Our great work is only beginning. The redemption of the world is in the hands of women.
With this momentum, Louisa was unapologetic in her examination of issues that continued to affect women’s lives, and one of the most prevalently discussed was that of the treatment of women within marriages, where women were forced into the role of submissive and obedient wife, oftentimes – and in her own experience – within turbulent relationships. One instance of the uneven application of the law for women was divorce. In and of itself the divorce law embodied a society that protected its men from being dishonoured, whilst simultaneously legitimising abhorrent conditions for women and condoning violent acts toward them. Reflecting her own experiences, Louisa defined marriage as “a position full of work, restricted by many grievous limitations, and implying an abandonment of individuality.” Her message remained cautionary throughout, telling women of the dangers of marriage which required utter dependency and legal absolution of wives to their husbands, planting seeds of uncertainty and doubt in one of the cornerstones of nineteenth century society.
At its heart, The Dawn stood for the fulfilment of women, liberating them from dependence of all means. Economically, there was advice on how to create a steady income for one’s family as well as domestic tips to reduce the monotonous labour that went into running a household. She criticised corsets for the way they not only inhibited their wearers from ease of movement, but for their conformity with man’s idea of women. Louisa wrote that “bound, padded, compressed and laced, the modern woman is a highly artificial product,” unable to breathe on her own and seemingly dependent on a corset to keep herself upright. Yet again breaking convention, Louisa entreated her readers to stop wearing corsets to prevent them from the danger of not breathing. What Louisa received was a dangerous response from a reader who discovered the joy of free movement, coming to the realisation that “women are not the fools they appear to be: they only need their thought awakened.” In October 1896, an informative article provided instructions to ride a bicycle, a vital skill that would allow women an independent means of transport. Much of the emphasis of equality and opportunity, even in the most menial of aspects, reiterates Louisa’s unfaltering belief that women should have the same opportunities as men and it was through her newspaper that she encouraged other women to be dangerous in pursuits they had previously been unable to engage in. In one of her most emotive editorials, Louisa mobilises “Wanted; – Women” declaring that:
We do not believe the energies of a woman are intended to be spent only in making beds and dusting furniture … [women] must have time and encouragement for intellectual efforts too, and they must have outlets for their opinions and their activities, for these are quite necessary and important to a world that contains at least as many women as men!
Alongside this encouragement was the recognition of incredible women worldwide. The admission of New South Wales’ first female physician is the opening sentence to the February 1892 edition, and a regular feature of each instalment was a page of ‘News and Notes’ celebrating the successes of women everywhere, from the first Doctor of Philosophy recipient in Denmark, Anna Hude, to endowments of fellowships for girls at Michigan University. This combination of encouragement, with the celebration of other women’s success, meant that Louisa’s Dawn was a dangerous force.
What stood The Dawn apart from other similar publications was its ability to intersperse an overwhelming and intimidating topic into the daily life of its readers. As modern scholarship too suggests, The Dawn appealed to everything women had to confront and showed them alternatives. Yet, perhaps more importantly, it recognised and celebrated the success of women internationally (Pearce 1992). As a platform, it was created by women and specifically tailored for women’s needs. It was dangerous; because it created a community, a network and an arena from which greater issues – legal and political – could be tackled, and it needs to be remembered for the incredible legacy it helped foster.
Reflecting on her editorial topics, there is a familiarity to the content: the pay gap, working mums and the incessant pressure of the fashion industry are all features and her writing continues to be relevant today. Following a campaign for International Women’s Day in 2011, the National Library of Australia digitised The Dawn, allowing everyone to marvel at Louisa’s incredibly dangerous creation: a platform from which women could address and engage in women’s rights. Louisa Lawson achieved a great deal in her life, in addition to creating and editing The Dawn, she wrote fiction and poetry, was an inventor and savvy business woman and wholeheartedly believed in and fought for the rights of women.
In August 1892, Louisa wrote: “In a hundred years [women’s] economic dependence will have given way to a recognition and accordance of her proper place in the monetary and social relations of the community.” One hundred and twenty-five years later, I hope she would be proud of the multitude of platforms we now use to connect and discuss and the communities we have created, just as dangerously as she did in The Dawn all those years ago.
Lawson, Olive, and Louisa Lawson, eds. The First Voice of Australian Feminism: Excerpts from Louisa Lawson’s The Dawn 1888-1895. Simon & Schuster in assoc. with New Endeavour Press, 1990.
Pearce, Sharyn. The Shameless Scribbler: Louisa Lawson. Vol. 75. Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, 1992.
The Dawn can be found online here.