The People on Australia’s Banknotes

Australian banknotes contain portraits of Australians and others, from royalty to poets and preachers, who have played a significant role in the life of the nation.

The people on the banknotes have made defining contributions to Australian society in many fields of endeavour, and their mark on our national story is honoured through their representation on the banknotes.

The Federation $5 banknote.

This was issued in 2001 to commemorate Australia’s Centenary of Federation.  It features Sir Henry Parkes, a prominent politician often referred to as the “Father of Federation” and Catherine Helen Spence, who led the way for women’s rights in Australia.   It is her story we now tell.

There is a stern-looking woman on Australia’s five-dollar note, and it is unlikely many know who she is or why she is there.  Her name is Catherine Helen Spence and she was a very progressive lady.

Born in Scotland in 1825, she was one of eight children. Before she could complete her education her father went bankrupt. He decided the best prospects for their future lay in South Australia, so he borrowed money, uprooted his family and headed for the colony in 1839.

From an early age, Catherine decided she would become a teacher and author. With the determination that always remained with her she achieved the first of these ambitions in 1845 when, with her mother and sister’s help, Catherine opened her own school.

In 1854 her second ambition was realised with the publication of her first novel.  This, along with her second book, was published under a man’s name, but her next six were written under her own. Her manuscript Handfasted caused much controversy because it argued for changes to laws and customs governing marriage.  Laws and customs that kept women financially dependent and subordinate to men. Her writing went against the thinking of that time. It was not published until 1984 over a century after it was written.

When Catherine became a journalist she again had to write under a man’s name, her early articles bore her brother’s byline.  Catherine was the first woman in Australia to become a professional journalist.  Despite the barriers erected, she persisted and her journalistic career spanned 60 years.

Catherine used her articles and columns as a forum to campaign for the vote and equal opportunity for women, and for social reform. She was also concerned about the plight of destitute women and children and set out to address this. She helped found the Boarding Out Society in 1872. The agenda was to place children into suitable homes that fostered a stable family life, instead of condemning them to institutions. Catherine herself raised three families of orphaned children.

She knew to escape poverty women needed an education, to this end she was involved in the establishment of kindergartens and the Advanced School for Girls. The first government secondary school for girls in Australia eventually led to women being admitted to teacher’s colleges and universities.

Catherine believed effective voting (proportional representation) was the only fair system of parliamentary election and spent many years pursuing this even to the extent of mentioning it in two of her novels. In 1892 she took up public speaking, in that year alone she gave about forty addresses throughout the state and made effective voting a much talked about topic.

The best opportunity for Catherine to achieve effective voting came in 1897 with the election of candidates for the Federal Convention.

Women in South Australia gained the vote three years earlier, which meant Catherine could nominate as a candidate.  She grabbed the opportunity only to be told that even if she did win her seat she would not be allowed to sit in the house.  Catherine was excluded from the lists of the main parties, but made it onto a liberal organisation’s list of “10 best men”.

She wrote in her autobiography:- When the list was taken to the printer – who, I think, happened to be the late Federal member, Mr. James Hutchinson – he objected to the heading of “10 best men”, as one of them was a woman.  He suggested that my name should be dropped, and a man’s put in its place. ‘You can’t say Miss Spence is one of the “10 best men”. Take her name out.’ ‘Not say she is one of the “10 best men”?’ the liberal organiser objected, ‘Why she’s the best man of the lot.’

Despite having such encouraging endorsement when votes were counted Catherine was placed 22 of 33 candidates. She received 7383, not enough to win one of the seats allocated to South Australia. This was the only time Catherine ever stood for a political position, running an election campaign was an expensive enterprise, and at 71 Catherine’s yearly income was less than 300 pounds.

Never one to be inactive she continued to work for the advancement of women in a male-dominated society. She felt this could be achieved through means other than the political arena and encouraged women to become involved in public affairs. She herself sat on the boards of many organisations and continued to campaign for effective voting until her death in 1910 at the age of 85.

This was written by Annie Smith and appeared on the Facebook page of “Australian Early History.   It is part of “Australian Women in History”.


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