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Catherine Helen Spence: Home

A guide to Catherine Helen Spence featuring writings about her and a chronological bibliography of her works.

Catherine Helen Spence

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Personal life

Catherine Helen Spence was born in 1825 in Scotland and migrated to South Australia with her family in 1839.

She was a strong literary figure, and was Australia's first truly professional woman journalist. She was Australia's first female political candidate and a lifelong campaigner for electoral reform. Spence's influence on suffrage culminated in South Australia being the first Australian colony to grant the vote to women, and the first in the world to give women the right to stand for Parliament.

She was also a teacher, lecturer, preacher and dedicated social reformer.  In her later years she was known as the 'Grand Old Woman of Australia' and died in 1910.

For more information, see her entry in the Australian dictionary of biography.

About Catherine Helen Spence

This chronological bibliography of over 2,130 items was compiled by South Australian historian and writer Dr Barbara Wall, and provides comprehensive access to the vast published output of Spence between 1845 and 1910, and beyond this date, to the tributes and biographical material about Spence which extend into the 1990s.

Catherine Helen Spence was Australia's first truly professional woman journalist and first female political candidate, as well as a fearless social and political reformer in South Australia. Her influence on suffrage, culminating in South Australia being the first state in the world to give women the right to stand for Parliament, extended beyond Australia.

As an indication of her continuing influence, Adelaide's daily newspaper The Advertiser on 20 December 1999 included Catherine Helen Spence in its list of the ten greatest South Australians of the 20th century, and this despite the fact that most of her work was done in the 19th century.

Catherine Helen Spence as depicted on an Australian five dollar note commemorating the Centenary of Federation in 2001.Spence's role in Federation was recognised nationally by her placement on one side of Australia's 2001 Federation five dollar note, with Sir Henry Parkes 'the father of federation' on the other. The five dollar note is reproduced here with kind permission of the Reserve Bank of Australia.

If you have any original items by Spence, you may wish to consider donating a copy to the State Library, or the original being donated as a Cultural Gift Bequest with taxation benefits.

If you would like to make an enquiry or request information about Spence please use the Library's Ask Us research service.

Spence and the State Library

The State Library of South Australia has close associations with Catherine Helen Spence

  • She was a popular and successful public speaker, lecturing in the Institute Building for the Mechanics Institute, an early adult education program, and was the first woman to do so
  • With other women from the Unitarian Church she established a longstanding juvenile library which is now housed in the State Library's Children's Literature Research Collection
  • She visited the newly named Public Library of South Australia in the building now known as the Mortlock Wing and deposited a book there under the legal deposit provision of the Copyright Act 1878
  • The new State Library building was named the Catherine Helen Spence Wing on 14 July 2003
  • The State Government's Catherine Helen Spence Scholarship for 2006, awarded every four years since 1911 to a South Australian woman to study social problems, was presented in the Spence Wing
  • Many of the items the State Library has about Catherine Helen Spence were generously donated by the community. The Library would be delighted to hear from anyone who has any original items associated with her, with a view to a donation or a copy being made for the Library. Significant items may be eligible for taxation benefits under the Commonwealth's Cultural Gifts Program. To discuss a possible donation, please contact the State Library's Archival Field Officer on (08) 8207 7260.