Maybanke Anderson: Sex, Suffrage & Social Reform

Maybanke Anderson: Sex, suffrage & social reform

Maybanke Anderson: Sex, suffrage & social reform

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Maybanke Anderson, a leading Australian thinker and worker across many fields and a household name for decades, was brought back to life by this book. Now in its second edition, her readable, well-reviewed biography continues to win a place in many hearts.

Maybanke Anderson (1845-1927) social reformer, educator, writer

The news of Maybanke Anderson’s death at the age of 82 at St Germaine-en-Laye near Paris on Good Friday 1927, led to an emotional outpouring of grief in Sydney newspapers and university and kindergarten journals. She was ‘one of Australia’s noble and notable women’, and ‘in this woman Deity would seem to have surpassed Itself’.

Australia’s first professor of psychology, H. Tasman Lovell, wrote,

‘She had a genius for initiating movements for education and social betterment…not many of us are really missed when we go; but the passing of Maybanke Anderson will be deplored.’

What had this now little-known person done to attract such a seemingly excessive response?

The then well-known woman who died near Paris was born near London, but her long tumultuous life was lived in Sydney. Maybanke Susannah Selfe was nine years old when her family left the quiet English village of Kingston-on-Thames. Influenced by Caroline Chisholm, her ambitious middle class migrant parents believed that even if Australia was only partially civilized, it offered their children opportunities not available in mid-Victorian England. And so it proved to be.

In 1855 the Selfes settled in Sydney’s notorious waterfront Rocks district, in Mary Reiby’s historic house, so Maybanke grew up seeing first-hand the extremes of wealth and poverty. Her two brothers were apprenticed as engineers and she became a teacher, fortuitously following her mother and grandmother’s then- unusual belief that women should be able to support themselves. A first hand description of Maybanke when she was 17 was in a newspaper written years later, after news of her death:

“She seemed to me …simply grand, stately as a queen, and gracious to a degree. In after years all these qualities developed fully and hence her commanding influence throughout the whole of the remaining 65 years of her life. One great feature I remember was her voice, bordering on the masculine, but so modulated and sweet that once heard you could never forget.” (‘WS’ Manly, SMH 21 May

In 1867 at St Philips Church on Church Hill, May Selfe, as she was known in the family, married a Maitland timber merchant Edmund Kay Wolstenholme. Their first child Harry was born in Maitland soon after, and then the young Wolstenholmes joined her family, all moving to Balmain after her brother Norman Selfe was made chief engineer at Morts Dock. Over the next eleven years of the Wolstenholme marriage six more babies were born; only Harry and his brothers Arthur and Edmund reached adulthood, the other four dying in infancy of TB- related diseases.

The marriage suffered. Edmund was often unemployed so Maybanke became the breadwinner, firstly by keeping a boarding house then a successful fee-paying girls school called Maybanke College, at Frazer Street Marrickville. Edmund’s desertion and alcoholism are mentioned in their divorce papers. However, it was the failure of her marriage which propelled young Mrs Wolstenholme into the arena of law reform and was the catalyst for the rest of her life.

Today it is hard to imagine a married woman’s life in the colony of NSW in the 1880s. For example, divorce was only on the grounds of adultery, which was hard to prove; she had no rights to her children or to her earnings within the marriage and could not leave her property to her children; she could not attend university, send her children to a care centre if she was forced to work, or vote even if she owned property and paid taxes; and rich or poor, single or married, she had no control over how many children she had.

Gradually, through the 1890s with the help of a small group of like-minded Sydney female and male, single and married reformers, Mrs Wolstenholme changed all that. She trained herself to become ‘a platform woman’ who was informed about the legal injustices to women and children, who strategically planned her assault on that rigid legal system, and who trained herself to debate in public. As she wrote to her ally Rose Scott on 27 October 1891, at the beginning of their long campaign:

“When I stand up all the old wild horse spirit surges up in me and though I tremble I feel as if I were ready to fight like a lioness. But we shall win more by being soft so I am going to be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.”

From the nucleus of the Women’s Literary Society – the first group of Sydney women to meet in the evenings – Dora Montefiore, Lady Mary Windeyer and her daughter Margaret, Maybanke Anderson and Rose Scott, and others such as Louisa Lawson, Frank Cotton, Professor MacCallum and artist Julian Ashton and his journalist wife Lizzie, founded the Womanhood Suffrage League (WSL) of NSW.

Its motto was ‘Equality is Equity’ and Tennyson’s lines from ‘The Princess’: ‘The woman’s cause is man’s; they rise or sink together, dwarfed or God-like, bond or free’. Maybanke was first Vice President, then President during the vital years from 1893 until 1897. Always for Maybanke the vote was ‘the kernel of all reform’.

Maybanke’s stamina was prodigious. In 1893, for example, while living and working from Maybanke College at Marrickville, in addition to family and school duties and the suffrage struggle, her activities were as follows: foundation Vice President of Sydney University Women’s Society ( later Sydney University Settlement); council member of the Teachers Association of NSW; founder and Secretary-General of the Australasian Home Reading Union and Vice President of the International Women’s Union; she became a Theosophist and obtained a divorce under Sir Alfred Stephen’s radical Divorce Extension and Amendment Act of 1892.

The following year she started her own radical feminist paper The Woman’s Voice to spread her reforming ideas still further, and in 1895 helped found the Kindergarten Union of NSW, beginning her lifelong commitment to helping the youngest and most vulnerable in our society. Her joy in this was shattered when her second son Arthur, aged 24, was drowned in the Catterthun off Seal Rocks, in a storm. Maybanke broke down, The Woman’s Voice ceased publication, but eventually the work went on.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, federation of the Australian colonies was looming. NSW politicians had repeatedly shown they could not be trusted to deliver the vote to women; then in 1897 Maybanke saw an opportunity at the forthcoming Federal Convention meeting to be held in Adelaide.

Using the precedent that women in South Australia already had the vote and couldn’t have it removed in the proposed Federal Constitution, as President of the WSL of NSW she drew up a cleverly worded petition. After considerable wrangling it passed into law by a narrow majority. This meant that, in the interests of national unity, recalcitrant states like NSW – and their leader Emund Barton – would eventually have to follow suit. Maybanke resigned from the WSL and formed the Women’s Federal League of NSW to lobby for a Yes vote for Federation.

Then in 1899, aged 54, Maybanke scandalised Sydney gossips by marrying Francis Anderson, professor of philosophy at Sydney University and a bachelor 13 years her junior. Together the Andersons achieved a great deal of education reform in NSW, from the kindergarten to tertiary level and including teacher training, adult education at the WEA, and assisting with the establishment of children’s playgrounds in inner city areas where they were needed.

They travelled, and moved to a new home Maybanke at Bayview. Free from the need to earn her living for the first time, and with adult offspring, Maybanke wrote tirelessly: Australian songs for Australian children to sing in the new Free Kindergartens, reports, pamphlets on sex education and venereal diseases, the first local history of Pittwater, academic works and the first child care manual, Motherlore.

For the last seven years of her life the Andersons lived at The Haven in Hunters Hill, and she wrote its first local history. They were on a retirement trip overseas, Maybanke writing travel journalism, when she died unexpectedly ‘after
an operation’. Where she is buried remains a mystery.

‘No doubt this lady is about the most intellectual woman in Australia. Her radical notions shocked the staid old maidens of Sydney (SMH 11 August 1900), and ‘one of the ideal women of her age’, were typical newspaper descriptions of Maybanke Anderson during her life; and this entry opened with a few of the statements made when she died.

It is appropriate to close with the sound her ‘woman’s voice’, because without the power of her words this woman who was so integral to the formation of democracy in Australia would not have been able to achieve her goals.

“Those who believed that a woman’s best work was to be a wife and mother ought to agree that that of a man was to be a husband and father.” (1 May 1893)

“It can be no more right or expedient for one half of our population to make laws for the other half than it would be right for the people north of the 34th parallel to legislate for those south of it.” (15 June 1891)

“Indifference was a much more difficult enemy than open opposition.” (undated newspaper interview)

“The English suffragettes mistakenly look upon the vote as a great weapon, whereas it is merely a useful tool.” (10 July 1925)

“Religion is doing what you can for the welfare of humanity and developing your own spiritual life.” (10 July 1925)

Jan Roberts, Sydney 2009


  • Jan Roberts, Maybanke Anderson, sex, suffrage and social reform, Ruskin Rowe Press, 1997
    Edited by Jan Roberts and Beverley Kingston,
  • Maybanke, a Woman’s Voice: the Collected Work of Maybanke Selfe-Wolstenholme-Anderson 1845-1927, Ruskin Rowe Press, 2000 Edited by Suzy Baldwin, Unsung Heroes and Heroines of Australia , Greenhouse Publications, 1988
  • The Maybanke Anderson Collection of letters, photographs etc is held at the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Sydney

Maybanke Anderson’s name is remembered throughout Sydney at the following locations where she lived and worked:

  • Maybanke Kindergarten, Harris Street Ultimo;
  • Maybank (sic) terrace flats, 23 Wharf Street Birchgrove, where she and her husband and family lived adjacent to Normanton, the home of her brother Norman Selfe and their mother Bessie;
  • at Frazer Street MarrickvilleMaybanke’s name is incorporated in what was her home and school and is now a Salvation Army home for elderly women – there is a heritage order on the site;
  • at Maybanke Street in Bayview and Maybanke Cove in Pittwater at Bayview – there was a bronze plaque to her at Maybanke Cove but vandals removed it;
  • the sandstone Maybanke house above the site is fairly intact though the grounds are subdivided. The terrace houses she lived in before her two marriages, 22 Lower Fort Street Millers Point and Eversley in Rose Street Birchgrove, are remarkably intact.

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