Henrietta Dugdale, Australian women’s rights and suffrage pioneer

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It should always be the aim of woman to rise from the degrading position assigned her in the age of bestial ignorance and brute power. Henrietta Dugdale

Henrietta Dugdale (1827–1918) was a passionate, confident, and assertive feminist who was one of the pioneers of Victoria, Australia’s feminist movement. She founded the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society, the first of its kind in Australasia, and lived to see Australian women attain the vote in 1902, due in part to her relentless campaigning.

Henrietta was born Henrietta Augusta Worrell on May 14, 1827 in London, and named after her mother, Henrietta Ann. She sewed her own clothes and was a skilled chess player, and early on became interested in public affairs.

In 1852, she moved to Australia with her husband, a merchant navy officer named J. A. Davies. He died soon after, and she remarried the ship’s captain William Dugdale in 1853. They had three children after settling in Queenscliff, a small town in southern Victoria. After over 15 years of marriage, Henrietta separated from William Dugdale and moved to Camberwell (a suburb of Melbourne), where she was to live for the rest of her long life.

Henrietta’s involvement in campaigning for women’s rights began in earnest when she wrote a letter to Melbourne’s Argus Newspaper that was published in April 1869. Using the psuedonym of Ada, she wrote about the Married Women’s Property Bill and spoke out in favor of equal justice for all women:

Some there are who say “If we permit woman to go beyond her sphere, domestic duties will be neglected.” In plainer language, “If we acknowledge woman is human, we shall not get so much work out of her”. Henrietta Dugdale

A passionate and assertive person, Henrietta has been regarded by some as melodramatic or too emotional in her writing. She believed that many of the inequalities that women faced were due to ignorance and vanity and the evils of alcohol, and that women and men had to cooperate to fight against them. In her writings she pleaded with her fellow women to wake up and stop accepting the world as it was, and to educate themselves and learn self-respect. Along with suffrage for women, she campaigned for women’s dress reform, admission of women to the universities, education of the working class and more equal wealth distribution, and an eight-hour work day. Henrietta also spoke out against Christianity, which she considered despotic and hypocritical.

Along with Annie Lowe, Henrietta founded the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society in 1884 with the goal of obtaining “the same political privileges for women as now possessed my male voters”. By the following year, the Society had 195 members, both women and men, and was up to almost 300 members by 1886. It was the first group of its kind in Australia and New Zealand.

In 1883, she published a utopian novel called A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age in which she was able to outline her then-radical ideas about marriage, Christianity, education, and women’s dress:

You will see—provided you have a grain of common sense—that I attack principles, not individuals. I have no desire to hurt quadruped or biped; not even those who have injured me past world-healing. Henrietta Dugdale

Henrietta was 75 years old when women obtained the right to vote in Australia in 1902. She died at age 91 in 1918 at Point Lonsdale, Victoria.

I write not for myself. Man’s tyrannical laws are powerless to wound me more. My suffering has been borne. No alteration of laws could now benefit me; but there are thousands enduring the pain I have experienced through man’s injustice, and thousands to follow, until there be just legislation. For those—for the progress of all human kind—I strive, and will continue to do so while power be left me to speak or hold my pen. Henrietta Dugdale


Featured image of Henrietta Dugdale courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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About KeriLynn Engel

KeriLynn Engel is a Connecticut freelance writer, professional blogger for hire, and author of Amazing Women In History: 20 inspiring stories of women the history books left out.

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