Feature: Pioneering Female Journalists of Australia

Date posted: 27 May 2019Author: STC Production: The Torrents

Celia Paquola as Jenny Milford in The Torrents. (Photo: Rene Vaile)

Just before the turn of the twentieth century, the women's suffrage movement in Australia was gaining momentum. Many women were heavily politically engaged: marching the streets, picketing parliament and – increasingly – publishing written work that highlighted their struggles. The dominance of men in journalism meant that most women could only publish under pseudonyms.

By the 1890s, though more female journalists had obtained full-time positions at publications, their work was largely confined to social editorial, a reality compounded by the creation of a women's page in most high-profile papers, like the Sydney Morning Herald. These pages focused on social news and household guides, written by women for women. Their creation was both a victory for, and a blow to, equality: while women's pages gave female journalists a platform to publish under their own names, it also restricted them to superficial topics.

But female journalists would not be so limited. They shook off their restrictions by publishing women-centric editorials like Louisa Lawson's Dawn, or challenged male conservatives in their own political newsletters, as feminist trailblazer Leontine Cooper did. Columnists like Alexina Wildman wrote biting satires of the women's pages, while women such as Stella Allan, a foundation member of the Australian Journalists' Association, took up key positions of journalistic power once only held by men.

As we move closer to the premiere of The Torrents, and aspiring journalist Jenny Milford's struggle for professional respect in a Western Australian newsroom rife with the sexism of the 1890s, we put a spotlight on four real-life Jennys. Brave, pioneering female journalists who refused to be held back by the status quo. ​


ALEXINA WILDMAN (1867 – 1896)

       Phil May cartoon used in the Sappo Smith columns. Extract
       from The Bulletin, June 30 1894. NX 252. Courtesy of the 
       National Library of Australia. 

Alexina Wildman was a celebrated poet, journalist and gossip columnist. A precocious, gifted writer, Wildman had poetry and prose published in the Bulletin regularly from a young age. In 1888, at just 19, she began what would become Sydney's first gossip column; a series of letters from her author surrogate Sappho Smith to her dear friend Moorabinda, published in the Bulletin.

The column was Wildman's weekly takedown of society, and a satire on the women's pages that most female journalists were confined to. She served up gossip about the wealthiest families in Sydney, and mocked exclusive society galas and current events. Her particular biting, sassy tone resonated with readers: the Sappho Smith column appeared weekly, without failure, for eight years. It was only Wildman's untimely death from nephritis at 29 that brought it to a halt.

Though she bore many feminist characteristics, the targets of Wildman's writing were (most often) women – not unlike modern gossip columns. She took particular issue with women who posed for risqué photographs, and suffragettes who she felt flaunted social mores. Wildman scorned women who smothered their appetites to appear dainty to men, and was prone to dictating how she believed women should behave, writing in one column: "I would warn those girls who think to captivate men by the display of an appetite the size of a sickly butterfly's, that the average man doesn't approve of a girl who takes a spoonful of jelly and a sip of liquid and is ready to be taken back to the ball-room again." (The Australian Women's Register, 27 November 2018)

While her targets were mostly women, Wildman would, on occasion, set her sights on men – usually those who poorly performed traditional 'masculine' activities like hunting.

Though she died young, Wildman left an indelible mark on Australian journalism. Known as 'the incomparable Ina Wildman' to her admiring colleagues, she was a whip-smart columnist who inspired many future female journalists.


STELLA ALLAN (1871 – 1962) 

Profile of Stella Allan, source unknown.

Stella Allan was a highly influential journalist, lawyer, women's rights activist and the first female parliamentary reporter in Australasia. Though born in New Zealand, she became one of the most important figures in the Australian women's rights movement of the very early 1900s.

At university, she was renowned as an active feminist and socialist, campaigning for women's rights across all areas of life. Allan was vocal as a member of the Christchurch Socialist Club, and made history as the first female soapbox orator. This was the start of a life dedicated to the fight for gender equality.

After graduating from university in New Zealand with a law degree, Allan was offered a position as a parliamentary reporter for the Lyttelton Times. The all-male press gallery denied her admission, but Allan would not be deterred: she took notes from the ladies gallery, wrote her editorial pieces in the ladies tea room and, in so doing, became the first female parliamentary reporter in Australasia.

In 1903, after her husband was brought on as a staff writer at The Argus, they immigrated to Melbourne. A few short years later, Allan was commissioned by The Argus to write a series on the first Australian Women's Work Exhibition, which was hugely popular. The interest led The Argus to bring her on as the full-time staff writer of a new weekly section that focused solely on women's issues.

Allan named herself 'Veta' and the column Women to Women. In her pages, she covered every aspect of a woman's life: from children and household, to community and activism, her pen name becoming synonymous with insightful and wise advice on all these issues. It was, however, noticeably devoid of the more radical views she'd expressed in her youth – no doubt Allan was attempting to make her writing more palatable, to reach a broader audience. Women to Women grew to hold a unique place in the Australian journalistic landscape over its three decade in print.

This success made her prominent in women's organisations: she became the president of the Women Writers' Club, foundation member and later president of the Lyceum Club, and was a member of the National Council of Women. In 1910, she was one of only three women foundation members of the Australian Journalists' Association.


LEOTINE COOPER (1837 – 1903)

Leontine Cooper was a prominent journalist, teacher, short-story writer and suffragette, considered Queensland's most significant writer and campaigner for women's voting rights. Born to a French father and English mother, Cooper grew up on the outskirts of London and then Brighton. In 1886, she married Edward Cooper and together they moved to Brisbane in 1871.

After a brief spell teaching at schools in Albany Creek and Brisbane, she began publishing short stories for the Boomerang. In the 1890s, as the push for women's suffrage strengthened, Cooper edited Queensland's only newspaper dedicated to the cause: the Star. During this time, she also wrote the 'Queensland Notes' section of renowned publisher Louisa Lawson's feminist editorial The Dawn.

As Cooper gained prominence in the Brisbane literary scene, she began taking influential positions on arts and women's committees. Of her many roles, she most notably served on the Brisbane School of Arts committee, was a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, and was part of Brisbane's first women's suffrage body, the Women's Suffrage League. While vice-president of the Women's Equal Franchise Association, Cooper expressed concern that if the suffrage movement was tied to any one party it would be the victim of party politics. Her concern saw Cooper leave the Association to form the Queensland Women's Suffrage League in 1894 – a women's rights-focused organisation free of political alliances. In 1899, Cooper founded the Brisbane Pioneer Club, a club dedicated, like its London counterpart, to advancing women in society.

Her whole life, Cooper campaigned to win women the right to vote, fiercely challenging those who opposed the movement. In 1900, in response to continued resistance to women's suffrage, Cooper said, "In supporting as you are doing the contention that all women of Queensland should be kept disenfranchised because all are not asking for a privilege of which they know neither the value nor the need, you are aiding in the infliction of a cruel injustice and one of which it seems impossible you can have fully represented to yourself the issues."

Cooper died in 1903. Two years later, Queensland women got the vote.


LOUISA LAWSON (1848 – 1920)

      Portrait of Louisa Lawson, ca. 1880. PIC/12302.
      Courtesy of the National Library of Australia. 

Louisa Lawson was a groundbreaking publisher, newspaper proprietor, journalist and activist. A star pupil at Mudgee National School, she was invited by the school to teach but was instead forced to stay home and care for her ten younger siblings. In 1866, she married Norwegian Niels Hertzberg Larson (who went by Peter), and bought sixteen hectares of land in Eurunderee, just outside of Mudgee. Their last name was anglicised to Lawson soon after.

Lawson spent the next ten years raising their five children alone – Peter was away for work, and their relationship was deteriorating. In 1883, her marriage over, she moved with her children to Sydney, and a few short years later bought the Republican, a flailing publication, and the associated print house. Though she had only been published a few times in the Mudgee Independant, she was a gifted storyteller and poet. She and her son Henry (who would later go on to be the acclaimed Australian writer), wrote and edited all the copy. Bolstered by her success with the Republican, Lawson started The Dawn, a journal for advice, poetry and editorial, underpinned by a pledge to highlight women's issues and the fight for suffrage. It was a fantastic financial success. In 1888, Peter died and she inherited his estate, using the money to expand both her publications and the print house.

By the following year, Lawson had ten female employees – both printers and journalists – much to the chagrin of the conservative New South Wales Typographical Association, which did not allow women. They bullied Lawson to fire her female staff, harassing them at work and attempting to garner support for a commercial boycott of The Dawn, but she refused. Instead, she became more outspoken, urging women to be politically and socially involved.

In 1889 Lawson created the Dawn Club, a place for women to discuss social reform and gain public speaking confidence. She talked her way into the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, and would become the first woman elected to their board. Lawson devoted herself to enfranchising women: she educated them about the law and where it favoured men over women and children, pushed for women to be allowed to practice as lawyers, doctors and judges, and published articles encouraging women to educate their young daughters and free them from forced domestic labour. As The Dawn grew, it became more international, reaching global audiences and bringing in ideas from English and US feminists.

Lawson would go on to print and disseminate publications on suffrage for free, including, in 1891, the literature of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. When New South Wales women were finally given the vote in 1902, she was celebrated as the original suffrage campaigner. Devastatingly, later that year, she suffered a spinal injury in a tram accident. Though she continued to run The Dawn, her ailing health impacted her creatively and, by all accounts, she lost the magic that made the publication so beloved.

The last issue of The Dawn was printed in 1905. Lawson continued to write poetry up until 1918, when her increasingly poor memory saw her committed to a mental health ward, where she died two years later. She was celebrated for her many incredible contributions to the suffrage movement, and for her lifelong, fervent belief that “there is no power in the world like that of women”.



The Torrents, 18 Jul — 24 Aug 2019, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

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