Ode to a Superwoman

Louisa Lawson portrait by John Herbert Newman, 1898-99. Image: State Library of NSW/Australian Media Hall of Fame/Melbourne Press Club.

Louisa Lawson was an Australian hero. Though she’s largely forgotten, the legacy of the activist, inventor, journalist, mother, poet, publisher and suffragette is enormous, writes Sunny Grace.

If I ask you, “Who is Louisa Lawson?” you may be able to answer that she was the mother of Australian poet, Henry Lawson and the inspiration behind his famous poem, The Drover’s Wife. Or you may not know who she was at all. She was much more than Henry’s mother. And much more than a drover’s wife. I would say she is one of the first Superwomen in colonised Australia, juggling many of the roles women still struggle with today. 

Activist, inventor, journalist, mother, poet, publisher and suffragette, Louisa Lawson fought for women’s rights during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Her own poem, The Squatter’s Wife preceded Henry’s more famous poem. She started the first newspaper, The Dawn, for women by women where she also wrote under the pen name, Dora Falconer. In fact, it was her newspaper that first published Henry’s poem, The Drover’s Wife

I first discovered Louisa Lawson when I was at university in 1992 and we studied her biography, Louisa, by Brian Matthews. It was a study of the deconstructed biography, a new way of writing where the author inserted himself and his process of research into the text. I was astounded I had never heard of her before. I am still astounded not many people know who she is. 

A setting of Louisa Lawson’s poems A Child’s Question and A Mother’s Answer by Josie Gibson (soprano) and Andrew Howes (piano). Video: MrAndrewHowes/YouTube.

In her lifetime, she juggled rearing five children, often on her own, whilst working and teaching them at home. After her marriage broke down, she moved to Sydney and worked to support her family until she received a small inheritance with which she bought the press to publish her newspaper. 

The paper and her skills as a storyteller were significant in the success of the suffragettes in winning the right to vote. She advocated through the paper for women to learn ways to support themselves and not be beholden to men. She also fought against domestic violence and recognised the part alcohol played in violence against women. She also established the first only women’s club, a counterpart to the men’s clubs where politicians and businessmen gathered to discuss ways to wield their power and wealth. She called it The Dawn Club, where she and other feminists and suffragettes planned their campaigns for women’s rights. 

There is a small reserve named after her in Renwick Street, Marrickville, where she once lived, featuring a mosaic paying tribute to The Dawn, by ceramic artist Cynthia Turner. I visit sometimes and sit in the quiet, small park with its playground and houses butting right onto it, and contemplate her life and her subsequent death in a mental institution for what may have been dementia. Such an unceremonious end for such a large, important life. 

The mosaic by Cynthia Turner in Louisa Lawson Reserve, Marrickville. Photo: Weekend Notes.

Compare her to Julia Gillard and the treatment she received during her time as Prime Minister of Australia and I wonder when this country will treat its Superwomen with the respect they deserve? Often, they work twice as hard, carrying the mental load as well as the domestic load. During Covid, women have been burdened with teaching and more of the cleaning while working from home, thereby leaving less time to devote to their own intellectual and creative endeavours. 

With our federal government recently unveiling a budget that benefits men and young people, I wonder about the many women who have contributed so much wisdom and courage to this society, now to be left behind. It’s been calculated that 0.038 per cent of the budget is specifically allocated to women

Women over 50 are the fastest growing group to be represented in the newly homeless. Often left with nothing after divorce, little superannuation and too embarrassed to have to rely on friends and children, they end up living in their cars or on the streets while waiting for public housing. Women over 50 talk about feeling invisible, and to this government it would seem they are invisible. Perhaps these men in power have no experience of single independent women and still hold the belief that a household consists of a man and a woman who marry for life and where the man is in charge of the household. 

As Josh Frydenberg said on ABC-TV’s Insiders about the budget, “You see, the Morrison Government sees the government itself as a catalyst for the economic recovery, not the solution. The solution lies around every kitchen table in every Australian household. The solution lies in every factory floor, in every farm, in every shopfront. They are the people who have to take the decisions to employ more people.” 

That’s great, Josh, but what if you don’t have a table, a seat at the table or hold any power in the household?

I will turn 50 next year and I feel more comfortable in my own skin ever before. Now my sons are able to look after themselves I can look forward to some freedom. I believe I deserve recognition by our politicians for my years of labour as a wife, mother, businesswoman, writer, feminist and now filmmaker. To be left unceremoniously on the street or without a home or job security is not what we deserve. 

Let’s put Louisa Lawson on the curriculum instead of her son, or as well as her son, and learn from the past about the ongoing repetition of struggle for equality by women. Louisa wrote after women won the right to vote: 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.

I would add the redemption of the world is now in the hands of its first peoples and women to undo the great damage of the colonisers and the patriarchy to the environment, and minority groups, and the less powerful across the world. 

To Superwomen everywhere, I salute you. Let’s not forget the legacy of Louisa Lawson as we continue to fight for equality. 

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