After the suffrage was won

By the time the suffrage was won Mary Lee was 73 years old and could have left the public arena for a well-earned rest. Instead, she began the work of educating women in the best use of their votes, and this included encouraging them to register to vote. By the time of the Testimonial ceremony on her 75th birthday in February 1896 "60,000 women had already registered to vote and might be expected to exercise their judgement."

In 1895 Mary Lee was nominated by two unions to stand for Parliament for the United Labor Party but she declined, preferring, she said, "to work on the side of right unfettered by pledge or obligation to any party whatever." We can only wonder if the face of Australian politics would have changed if Mary Lee had been elected to Parliament in that year, would others then have followed her, much sooner than actually occurred. It was 1959 before the first South Australian women, Joyce Steele and Jessie Cooper, took their seats in Parliament.

It was in July of 1895 that a fund was established to collect donations from the public in recognition of all the work that she had done during the Women's Suffrage campaign. The subscription raised fifty pounds and these were presented to her by Premier Kingston at a Testimonial Ceremony in February 1896. Among the many details of his speech reported in the papers of the day he said,

Mrs. Lee was closely connected with the one of the most important constitutional reforms in South Australia

He went on to read the Testimonial address which included the wish to place on permanent record our sense of the obligation which you have so long bestowed on behalf of this great reform

On receiving the purse of sovereigns and an illuminated scroll Mary responded-

she could only say that she had neither words nor voice to express to those present how deeply she felt this approval of her poor efforts and of their affectionate regard for herself. She had only to add that if not the happiest this was proudest birthday of her life, and its memories would be amongst her most precious momentos.

The satirist, in Quiz and the Lantern recalled hearing the first speech that Mary Lee made on the formation of the Women's Suffrage League, "eight or nine years ago" and commented on the insults and public censure that she had had to endure and felt that the fifty pounds that had been raised was small compensation indeed :-

50 is a very poor solatium . If I had been so suspiciously regarded by my own sex for a term of years I should require to be pensioned off for life, and a good stiff pension too.

Later in 1896 the Government appointed Mary Lee as the first and only female official visitor to the Lunatic Asylums. This, it seems, was the only official government post to which Mary was appointed It was of course an honorary position. During the next twelve years "she carried out those duties loyally and well until advancing years compelled her . . .to lead a retired life." In the visitors' book Mary regularly recorded her comments and impressions of the care of the inmates of both the asylum on North Terrace and the larger one in Parkside. The following series of comments shows that she remained a fighter for the rights of others.

April 26 Visited male departments find 5 bedside carpets necessary about 20 yds in H ward, cold hard floors not comforting to step upon in the early frosty mornings just turning out of bed. Kindly send clean carpets.

June 27 Visited stores - fairly satisfactory, no notice taken of my requests for bedside carpets - again I repeat this is inhumane and injudicious. Shall I have to beg for them of the public! - If I must I will.

July 27 Visited male and female departments glad to see bedside carpets supplied. Find the air thick with the smell and smoke from the burning rubbish in the adjacent Botanic Gardens. These people should be reminded that our officials cannot run away from this nuisance, it is the third time I have found it so.

During this latter part of her life Mary Lee would have cause perhaps to remember Quiz's words for she struggled financially and eventually had to sell her library. She wrote to Rose Scott, a suffragist from New South Wales that "her public work had all been at her own expense and that she was threatened with homelessness." In 1902 a public fund was launched to raise money for her support. The subscriptions to it were meagre.

She continued her correspondence with the organisers of Suffrage Leagues in other colonies and would have surely welcomed the changes that followed the granting of suffrage for women. Western Australia gained votes for women in 1899, New South Wales in 1902, Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905 and Victoria in 1908.

The other significant effect of the South Australian and Western Australian changes was that when the national conventions on Federation were held the delegates were able to ensure that citizens who had been granted the right to vote would retain that right under the Australian Commonwealth Constitution. "And since Federal parliament wanted to establish a common federal franchise, it had no option but to extend the vote to all women in Australia. It did so in the Electoral Act of 1902." (Christine Finnimore, South Australia and Federal Votes for Women, IT HAPPENED HERE, Old Parliament House, 1990)

Mary Lee died in her eighty-ninth year at her home in Gover Street in the afternoon of Saturday, 18 September, 1909. Her death was caused by pleurisy following influenza. In all the papers of the day there were obituary notices, some of which included photographs and all gave details of her amazing life in the thirty years since her arrival in South Australia. Her remarkable public life during the years of the battle for Women's Suffrage was recalled and tribute paid to her memory.

It is to be hoped that letters and papers relating to the life of Mary Lee will surface so that during the centenary of Women's Suffrage we will all know more about this splendid hero of South Australia and that in knowing we will all remember and cherish this hard won right to a say in the way we are governed.

Let all women honour her name whenever they cast their votes.

A bust of Mary Lee was unveiled in the North Terrace Gardens Adelaide, on Sunday 18 December 1994 to commorate her work.