Henrietta Dugdale – Humanistic Suffragist

Henrietta Dugdale as a single woman c1845The following piece was submitted in June 2017 by the HSV Education sub-committee to the Victorian Government’s working group on teaching worldviews as part of the new Victorian Curriculum.
Henrietta Dugdale was an early humanistic feminist who made a significant contribution to the advance­ment of women in Australia.

She was born Henrietta Worrell in London on 14 May 1827. In 1852, she sailed to Melbourne with her merchant navy husband, J. A. Davies, who soon died. She then married William Dugdale and moved to Queenscliff. They had three sons. She became active in social causes.

An early example was her letter, written under a pen name, to the Melbourne newspaper Argus [1869]. In it she objected to the Married Women’s Property Bill, which still left many women poor after their husbands’ desertion. Henrietta campaigned for dress reform, such as abandoning restrictive corsets. She campaigned for women’s civil rights. She fought for the admission of women to university and for the education of the working class. She joined the Eclectic Society and the Australasian Secular Association, which worked to counterbalance the privilege that members of religious organisations enjoyed. Overall she wanted women to have the same social, legal and political privileges that men enjoyed.

In 1883, Henrietta published her manifesto, A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age. In it, she covered the history of male/female relationships and imagined a future in which women are granted equal rights. She saw marriage as based on ‘mutual respect of one equal for another in that life-long bond’ [1883: 66]. She regarded religious ideas as part of a primitive time in human evolution, for which civilized people should have no use. On morality, she believed in ‘true ethics’ [1883: 26], free of religious restrictions, based instead on equality, justice and universal good will. Scientific knowledge was important to Henrietta, both for the advancement of humankind and to end the oppression of women and the poor. Also key to her outlook was the role that reason played. She looked back on the time when humans began to claim the right to think for themselves, and she noted ‘how long it took before they succeeded in quite disentangling themselves from the chains of superstition’ [1883: 99].

During the late nineteenth century, the right of women to vote was the key goal of the suffragists. On 7 May 1884, she founded the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society with Annie Lowe and became the society’s first president. This was the first women’s suffrage society in Australasia. Henrietta and her fellow suffragists campaigned for political represent-ation by organizing public meetings, publishing leaflets, writing letters and lobbying members of parliament.

Henrietta Dugdale, a pioneer in the women’s suffrage movement, applied her humanistic values of inclusion and equality. She helped change the lives of others through social action. ‘Show them good, and awaken reverence for good by your own acts’ [1883: 54] was her motto.

Note. Source material is not included here. It  can be obtained by contacting the HSV Secretary.