Louisa Lawson (1848-1920) was a farmer, poet, writer, and a successful newspaper owner. She established Dawn, Australia’s first journal for women readers and lobbied publicly and successfully for women’s rights – including the right to vote. Yet today she is best known, if at all, for being Henry Lawson’s mother.
Outspoken, uncompromising, opinionated – Louisa Lawson was vilified in her day by contemporary journalists and politicians and maligned after death by historians who blamed her for Henry Lawson’s alcoholic dissolution.
Louisa Lawson was born and married into rural poverty. Her father – bankrupt, belligerent and drinking heavily – insisted she marry at 17 so as to reduce the family’s living expenses.
Her husband, a much older Norwegian called Peter Larsen, was often absent for long periods of unsuccessful gold prospecting, leaving Louisa to raise their five children (three boys and twin girls) while running the family’s 16 hectare (40 acres) smallholding. She fattened cattle, took in sewing, sold milk and cheese and for a time ran the Eurunderee post office.
Her eldest son Henry Lawson’s famous short story, ‘The Drover’s Wife’, was based on his mother, and on his own childhood experiences.
In 1883 and after seventeen years of marriage, Lawson separated from her husband and moved with her children to Sydney. Louisa would subsequently advocate for substantial changes to the way women were treated, legally and socially, within marriage.
In Sydney Louisa lived precariously for several years, taking in washing, sewing and borders, until in 1887 she bought an ailing newspaper, The Republican. Louisa and Henry edited and wrote most of The Republican‘s copy but in 1888 Louisa closed it and established Dawn – Australia’s first journal for women.
In the first edition Louisa Lawson wrote: ‘There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voice of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions … Here then is Dawn, the Australian Woman’s Journal and mouthpiece.’
Dawn offered household advice, fashion, poetry, short stories and extensive reporting of women’s activities both locally and overseas. It was an immediate commercial success and by 1889 Louisa had enlarged her printing plant, employing ten women and accepting job printing. The relevant union, the New South Wales Typographical Association, was horrified. Women were refused union membership as a matter of course, and the union attempted to force Lawson to dismiss her printers. It unsuccessfully appealed to advertisers to boycott Dawn and harassed the women at their work.
At the same time, and perhaps in response, Louisa began to campaign for female suffrage. She announced the formation of the Dawn Club, where women met regularly to discuss ‘every question of life, work and reform’ and to gain experience in public speaking. Lawson persuaded the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts’ debating clubs to admit her, encouraged other women to join and in 1893 she became the first woman elected to its board of management.
In the lead up to Federation, Lawson and her suffragette colleagues successfully lobbied for white Australian women to be able to vote in state and federal elections and to be able to stand for parliament. The pushback against their views was, however, enormous – the frenzied slander of outspoken women has always been a dark thread of Australian public life.
In 1900 Lawson fell from a tram, fracturing her knee and injuring her spine. She ostensibly took a year to recover but the ramifications of the accident would affect the rest of her life. In 1904 she published a book for children, Dert and Do, and in 1905 a collection of her own poems, called The Lonely Crossing and Other Poems. In 1905, and in the face of Lawson’s ongoing health issues, the Dawn was closed.
Lawson died in the Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, on 12 August 1920 and the last 15 years of her life were characterised by increasing poverty and family disagreements. She was witness to, and horrified by, her son Henry’s descent into alcoholism and he died only two years after his mother.
Within Lawson’s lifetime, a great deal of myth-making was attempted, with the emerging women’s movement contributing as much as anyone – their vision was for a new nation where (white) women’s legal and democratic rights matched their agency, but where devotion to house and home remained paramount. Unfortunately, the deep-seated racism of the early women’s movement reflected that of the wider community.
The women weren’t as successful in their mythologising as the unions. Bolstered by journals like The Bulletin, the union movement openly (and I’d argue successfully) fought to establish white working men as the ‘real’ Australians. The Bulletin masthead openly claimed ‘Australia for the white man’.
But Lawson’s own lifetime of activities – as a farmer, a divorcee, a professional printer, a journalist and as a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage and advancement – belie many of the myths and stereotypes about what it meant to be Australian at that point in time.
It’s nearly 40 years since Brian Matthew’s postmodern biography Louisa was published in 1987. Highly readable, it is nonetheless a book more about the process of writing biography than it is about Lawson herself. A subsequent biography, That Mad Louisa (published in 2011 via vanity press Jo Jo Publishing) fictionalises large swathes of Lawson’s early life. It is a shame that Louisa Lawson’s ‘biographies’ have been written by men who foregrounded their own stories and/or projected on to Lawson their own fictionalised responses to her life.
So I’m going to write a new one, a new biography of Louisa Lawson.
And today I can formally announce that the State Library of NSW has kindly offered me a place, in 2024, in their Visiting Scholar program and will assist me with the research (the Louisa Lawson papers are held at the Mitchell Library).
Despite the recent and very welcome rise in histories, biographies and memoirs written by and about men and women from Australia’s diverse multicultural and First Nations populations, women’s stories – even white women’s stories – remain underrepresented on bookshelves and in the Australian historical imagination.
This new biography will present Louisa Lawson in her own light; assessing her strengths, and discussing her shortcomings. It will also examine the lives of rural and urban working-class women more generally. I’ll discuss how class affected the suffragette movement; and how that movement further enshrined Australia’s already virulent racism.
I will also explore how Lawson has been used as a cypher – how contemporaries pilloried her for her political viewpoints (but in doing so at least acknowledged her as a political player), and how later historians blamed her for Henry’s troubles. Then and now, upright women, outspoken women, visible women like Lawson become targets of vilification to an extent that men simply do not; caricatured in such a way as to reflect the fears and prejudices of others.
In Louisa’s own words, taken from an interview she gave The Bulletin in 1896, “And why shouldn’t a woman be tall and strong?”
This piece was first published on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog.