Women’s History Month guest, Adeline Teoh

Adeline and I share both a love for science fiction and a love of tea. Her knowledge of tea is amazing and my secret ambition is to lure her to my place with food every time she visits Canberra, so that we can talk tea and history and fiction. This piece first appeared in the Australian Tea Cultural Seminar newsletter, earlier this month, just in time for people to drink tea in honour of Louisa Lawson. I’m going to have a cup right now. Gillian

How tea fuelled suffragette Louisa Lawson, by Adeline Teoh

Cast your mind back to the 19th century. In the Victorian era, rail travel, circuses and novels were big. Britain fought against China over opium and tea. And a woman’s place was in the home.

Louisa Lawson was born in Mudgee, NSW, to a station hand and needlewoman. She married a Norwegian gold digger who, by his continual absence, allowed her to become self-sufficient, working as a seamstress and running their dairy and cattle farm at Eurunderee. It was clear she was the model for the iconic hard-working and resourceful bushwoman figure in the work of her most famous son, writer Henry Lawson.

In 1883, Louisa moved to Sydney. While she had always written poems and short stories, it was not until this period that she was able to engage her literary side in a more formal manner. By 1887 she had bought Republican, a floundering newspaper, which she co-edited with Henry under the joint pseudonym Archie Lawson.

A year later she started Dawn, a newspaper devoted to women’s suffrage that also featured household advice, fashion, poetry, a short story and reportage of women’s activities in Australia and abroad. She ran her own press and hired female printers.

During this time, women’s activities outside the home were rather limited. Coffeehouses and pubs were out of the question as too rowdy and improper for ladies, but the emergence of tearooms presented a socially acceptable meeting place for women to gather. The success of Dawn prompted Louisa to launch a campaign for female suffrage that she called The Dawn Club. They met at Loong Shan, Australia’s first teahouse run by Sydney ‘mandarin’ Mei Quong Tart. This doubly suited her, as she was also a teetotaller.

It is not an overstatement to say tea fuelled suffrage around the world in this manner. In the UK and USA at least, tearooms brought women together and, in many cases, feminist groups met regularly at these establishments. Apparently British suffragettes would sometimes use tearooms to store stones they would then use to break windows during demonstrations.

Thanks to Louisa’s tireless efforts and her influence through her press – as well as printing and distributing Dawn, she would print others’ feminist pamphlets for free – Australian women were given the vote in 1902.

Unfortunately, Louisa’s story has a less-than-feminist end. Her name and achievements were eclipsed by the fame of her son Henry (doubly annoying to her, as he was a drunkard) in the Australian consciousness, though she has landmarks named after her and also appeared on an Australian postage stamp in 1975. This International Women’s Day (8 March), do remember her with a cup of tea.

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