Harriet Clisby’s letters to the editor of ‘The Argus’

  • Abstract:
    During her stay in Melbourne and Richmond, Victoria, Australia's first female homœopathic doctor, Harriet Clisby (using the initials or surname of her married name) wrote several lengthy letters to the editor of 'The Argus' newspaper. These were written in response to various social issues of the day, usually involving the fate of poor women and children.

    It will be noted that Harriet makes strong pleas for a wider field of opportunities for women, thus being an early Victorian advocate of 'women's liberation'.

(Material researched & presented by Barbara Armstrong)


During her stay in Melbourne and Richmond, Victoria, Australia's first female homœopathic doctor, Harriet Clisby (using the initials or surname of her married name, H.C.Walker) wrote several lengthy letters to the editor of 'The Argus' newspaper. These were written in response to various social issues of the day, usually involving the fate of poor women and children.


A selection of Harriet's letters, and some of the responses to her letters, are reproduced below:


Saturday 1 November, 1856




To the Editor of the Argus.


Sir, - Having made the subject of education one of considerable thought, and knowing how much of the future weal [well-being, prosperity or happiness] or woe of a child depends upon it, I am constrained to make an appeal to you, and the public through the medium of your valuable journal. My attention was drawn a few days since to an article in your paper entitled "The Bedouins of the Streets" reading which, the thought suggested itself, why not teach them by the "Phonetic System?" acquiring thereby in three months what otherwise would take twelve months by the ordinary method, for the object is, if I understand aright, to teach these children to read and write in as rapid a manner as possible.


It may be urged that the phonetic reading and writing is opposed to the usual system. I admit it. But a child learning phonetics would gradually, yet quickly, glide from the phonetic to the "romanic" or common printing, without any apparent effort; at all events, the system might be tried, and a class formed from those now attending the school of the "Juvenile Traders' Association". This alone would attest the truth of what I have affirmed, that education can be acquired in a quick and easy way, without any of that toil which adheres to the old system.


I am quite aware that reading and writing are far from constituting education; yet no education can be completed, and scarcely any commenced, without a ready knowledge of reading at the least; but at present, learning to read is so difficult and lengthy a task, that a knowledge of reading and writing has been reckoned the goal of a poor man's education, instead of its starting post. By a paper lately received from Bath, England, I see the subject has been brought before the public at a meeting of the Sunday School Union by the Mayor of the city, who, adverting to the advantage of learning to read by the phonetic alphabet, observes, "that in the Phonetic Journal of the 14th inst, there were no less than six pages of closely-printed matter, consisting of intelligence from various parts of England and America, all tending to prove that the shortest way of learning to read books as now printed was by means of books printed in the phonetic alphabet; and that greater progress could be made by the child, in both kinds of reading, in three months, than could be made in twelve months with the common system. He felt convinced that sooner or later the phonetic system must be adopted by all teachers in place of the old, and it was the duty of every teacher to look into the subject; and whoever would do so would find the phonetic system was a great improvement upon the common system of learning to read." Trusting that the public of Melbourne will take up with interest this new and important work, the better and quicker education of their children,


I am, Sir, yours truly,




During late December 1858 and January 1859, there was a series of letters to the editor recommending the establishment of a penal reformatory for destitute children and women ('the fallen') - a home suitable for all ages - "for the cultivation of domestic affections and industrious habits, where girls could be instructed in various arts and trades, by which women earn a livelihood, as good servants, seamstresses, nurses, etc." Harriet wrote the following letter in response:



Wednesday 26 January, 1859




To the Editor of the Argus.


Sir, - There is a very old saying, and one which applies, I think, to the present subject - "To strike the iron while it is hot." It is pretty clear that society is feeling a little of that fearful picture which has been drawn so ably by "Theta" and other correspondents. It might fairly alarm the supine out of their apathy, and the zealous into greater activity; and we may safely add that, unless a satisfactory solution of the "mystery of iniquity" be arrived at, society itself will become impossible. Providence has made us all responsible for each other. Why our sternness, our vindictiveness, our eagerness to assume guilt, our strictness, our inexorable relentlessness, our utter want of mercy, in defiance of the lesson taught us by the moral government of the universe, and the very religion we profess? Is our responsibility thus shown? We ourselves make an elaborate system for driving mere thoughtlessness into shame and disgrace, doing nothing - literally nothing - by it; for this course does not mould the inward heart, from whence flow the issues of human action. How much have we to answer for!


When once youth is made familiar with the hand of the policeman, then the form crouches beneath the human voice, there is not much to be hoped for then. If respect, that great sustainer of human character, will have lost its balance, never, we fear, to be regained. In speaking thus, we do not cast aside all hope for even such, but we think that the goal resulting from reformatories will be more shown upon those who have never undergone a sentence - those whom the magistrate (and he should have full power) can see in private - can solemnly and kindly reason with. Every magistrate should have this power, for mercy and kindness never increased crime, and may do a great deal in preventing it.


Our city Bedouins, our Arab population, which nobody owns, or cares for - who have no homes, no social or industrial classification - these are they who particularly should be taken care of - kept from the streets.


It is the growing generation we have to deal with - the young and bending sapling - and not so much the firm dried twig of many years, although these are not to be neglected. The whole energies of the colony ought to be directed, in an humble and Christian spirit, to this one great aim - of surrounding the frail, the ignorant, and erring with favorable circumstances and moral motives, of delivering the young from evil, and "leaving them not in temptation", - in fact of being more sedulous in preventing vice than in punishing it; to strike at its root, rather than attack the symptoms.


This might be done if philanthropy and wisdom walked hand in hand. Reformatories such as "Thets" suggests are what we want - self supporting institutions. It is the duty of every individual, whether it be man or woman, to organise themselves into societies to carry out this grand work. Government also should not rest satisfied with such a deplorable state of things, but should take an active part in giving amplest power to authorities to take the young from vicious and criminal parents, making itself the loving parent of all such. It is hobble to think that the head that scarcely reaches up to the bar, standing there for theft or some such offence, is sent to the hulks to be made a jail bird of until it is fit for penal servitude. The murderers of Price once smiled sweetly in a cradle like the rest of us, and had mothers that loved them, and now what are they?


When once a design has assumed a clearly-defined shape in the mind, then, if ever, is the time for action. This time has arrived. These letters that have appeared from time to time indicate a something that the mind wishes to do - a something that is impelling it to work - in very truth, the Lord calling upon us ere it is too late. Believing thus, it is proposed, in connection with myself and a dozen others, to call a public meeting in the course of a few days, when all will have the opportunity, and it is to be hoped that they will not allow it to slip, to strike the iron while hot. In the meantime any letters addressed "Reform, The Argus Office," bearing on the subject will be received with great pleasure.






The issue of female prostitution was again raised during June 1859. As a result, Harriet once again raised the topic of the education of women, and its importance in helping to prevent women falling into crime or prostitution. Note that the letter is signed "A. C. W." but should be "H. C. W."



Tuesday 21 June, 1859




To the Editor of the Argus.


Sir, - Ignore the fact as we may, or put it under any kind of supervision, still will it be found that prostitution can never be utterly repressed, until society itself is healed of the curse that now hangs over it - the curse of ignorance and selfishness. Prostitution itself is the dread effect of a cause; therefore, it is with causes that society has to deal. Resolution after resolution, of the most enlightened character, may be passed by an intellectual community and a wise Legislature, but what will these avail if they have to cope with the dullest sensibility - the inactive brain - the dormant faculty, and the almost dead inertia of this class of humanity? Can one out of a dozen read - do they understand the meaning of the word virtue? Have they any idea of the quality of goodness for itself alone? No! They mock at the very name, and convert it into a solemn farce, sent to enforce obedience from those who are weak enough to bow to it - an obedience that they despise. Some may say, "But, there is such a thing as innate goodness." Granted; but this innate goodness must have soil sufficient to plant its roots in, otherwise all its efforts to germinate are useless, and it dies away.


It was with great satisfaction I read that so numerous and respectable an audience attended at the Mechanics Hall to discuss this question. A great deal might have been done by such a body had each thought over the cause of this great evil; as it was, the surface was only skimmed - there was wanting that deep and close investigation which the subject demanded.


The most practical of the nine resolutions seems to me that one of establishing an Industrial Home; a home that should comprise an arena where all the energies, diverse and varied as they are, might have full and abundant scope for action. Give every woman a trade a calling; let her not be refused. I believe more than one-half of the prostitution we see is brought on and induced by women having no means of earning a livelihood. There is not a human being in the world but should work, and why does not every woman work? Is it not because her individuality has not been acknowledged? She is brought up to consider herself dependent upon others, instead of being made independent by her parents or guardians; she is taught from her infancy to lean upon others, and to wait until her destiny is accomplished - marriage! as if that was the sole end of her being. Under happy conditions, marriage may be, and is undoubtedly, one of the ends of her existence; but that she should fold her hands and wait for a husband, is unworthy and insulting to the very name of woman.


I cannot see that a more liberal disposal of the lands will materially alter the state of things from what they are. It may slightly. What we particularly want is a Government that will better educate woman; that will protect her. There are numbers of women who have no protection, no guide, no help, no home; who are absolutely driven by circumstances and necessity - not so much by impulse or inclination - into the street, the public thoroughfare, there to crush out what little sympathy is left - what little virtue still clings to the feminine within. It is in this country, beyond all countries, that ignorance should be at once smothered. Women who have been so long neglected and absolutely ignored by those who govern them should have appointed and permitted work, so that they should take their share in the natural communion of labor. There is certainly no law which forbids a woman to use her energies, but the very fact of there being no law that she may is at once the surest and most effectual preventive.


The brain, the heart, the limb should have exercise - not drudgery, but work - honest labor. Every profession should be open to woman, the practise of which would not make her unfeminine, but rather the contrary; for what is more sickening to see than a frivolous, ignorant, weak, and empty-minded woman, and to call her feminine? Every woman should feel that, whatever her talents, they could be profitably employed and turned to account; and every true-hearted man should aid in her obtaining this employment, and not try to lead her from that path of honest endeavor - her soul's best and purest gift - chastity and virtue. I, as a woman, ask this from society in the name of hundreds - hundreds who, like myself, wish they had "something to do" - a something to employ their energies, talents, and desires honorably. My unfortunate and erring sisters I would help if I might; but what is one weak arm raised against an overwhelming multitude? But the time is coming (and God hasten it) when justice shall be done, and man himself will do it, and be proud to do it.


I see with pleasure that a number of ladies are about adopting certain measures, which will in some degree meet the outward necessity that so glaringly obtrudes itself. I would desire to unite with them (if pleasing), and would beg to solicit through your journal the names and address of such ladies, for union always is strength.


Yours very respectfully,


A. C. W.



The above letter resulted in the following correspondence from a reader:


Friday 24 June, 1859




To the Editor of the Argus


Sir, - I do not often take up my pen, but stung by the unjust libel on women differing only by misfortune from herself to which "H.C. W." has given publicity in your paper this morning, I now do so.


Had your correspondent dealt less in adjectives, and more in logic, I should have conceived a much higher opinion of her abilities than I have yet done; and had she betrayed more largely the knowledge of her subject, which can be gained only by patient investigation, or sad experience, and less of a disposition to fireside theories, I should have thought her more competent to pronounce ex cathedra [authoritatively, from the chair]. As it is, her actual experience seems to have been limited to a visit to the hulks, or the penitentiary - cesspools of iniquity to which, thank God! the majority of the class of which she speaks have not yet descended, and to which, in all probability, they never will.


Your correspondent pleases to call us "her unfortunate and erring sisters" - "of the dullest sensibility" - "of the inactive brain" - "of the dormant faculty" - "of the almost dead inertia," (so contradistinguished to the vis viva of her own playful faculties). She thinks that not one out of a dozen can read! She doubts whether they can "understand the meaning of the word virtue" ! Whether they have "any idea of the quality of goodness" ! She says, "they mock at the very name." Truly, they may well do so when its self-constituted exponents betray so little of the quality of that Christian "charity" for an exposition of which I take the liberty of referring "H. C. W." to a source with which she does not seem very conversant. If they "mock at the very name", it is not because they disbelieve in the virtue which they have lost, but because they have a large experience, and play their part behind the scenes of which society sees but the front.


But is your correspondent so ignorant of the subject on which she writes as not to be aware that there are in this city women whose birth, parentage, and education would entitle them to move in the best society - nay, who do move in the best society! - who are nevertheless, by the force of circumstances, compelled to depend on questionable means for a livelihood? Probably I have received as good an education as my Lady Superior. She can play, sing, dance! So can I. Does she speak French, German, Italian? So do I. Is she well read? So am I. Where then is the difference? If it is not in intellectual training, it certainly is not in "innate goodness," or "womanly" kindness, for to the last-named quality "H. C. W." can make little pretension.


Your correspondent thinks the most practical of the nine resolutions to be that "for establishing an Industrial Home," - in my opinion the least practical one. In a subsequent part of her letter she complains that there is no scope for women; that society will find them "nothing to do;" and yet she gravely recommends that whilst the myriads of women without are continuously supplying the ranks of prostitution, there should be established a home "wherein all their energies, diverse and varied, might have full and abundant scope for action." As well might she endeavor to extinguish a bush fire with a hand-bucket, to mop up the ocean, or to drain off at a spigot-hole a barrel filled to overflowing from a waterfall. There are causes deep and many for the disease. The remedy must be proportion.


And what is the remedy proposed by "H. C. W."? "Give every woman a trade, a calling." Does she mean that women are to compete with men? Does she think that they can do it? If it is to be in strength of arm, they are acknowledgedly inferior. If it is to be in intellectual capacity (taking your correspondent as a fair specimen), I am afraid that the number who will stand any chance as editors, lawyers, and physicians is very small indeed. Let her try the "drudgery," physical and intellectual, to which the other sex is subjected, and she will become convinced that neither in power nor endurance are women fitted to compete with men. Home is woman's sphere, and although, for more reasons than one, it is desirable that every woman should receive an education that will enable her to maintain herself, - as in olden time every Jew, no matter what his station in life might be, was taught a mechanical calling, - yet it is very far from desirable that one-tenth of the weaker sex should enter into the more active occupations of life. For most of these they are by nature unfitted. The avocations of the digger, the navvie, the laborer, and the herdsman they cannot undertake. Could they do so, every mechanical trade, light or heavy, is already overburdened with men, more able to perform them. The more intellectual pursuits of the merchant, and the professional man, woman is not competent to follow, and will not be (except in very rare circumstances) until education has totally changed the face of society, and with it the "type" of "womanhood" itself to something nearer an equality with that of "manhood." True, your correspondent desires this future state of things, but it is not with the future that we have to deal; it is with the present, with the means by which this future is to be developed. If more than a tenth part of the women in a community (not being a manufacturing one) were to seek for other than domestic situations, their mutual competition for occupations, insufficient to absorb them, would produce just the state of things which we now experience.


Your correspondent scoffs at marriage as only one of the ends of woman's existence. Her philosophy is as imperfect as her sympathies are limited. Woman is a help mate for man, and marriage is, alike for male and female, the highest condition of their existence, in every way compatible with the profoundest devotion to the Creator and the most self-denying regard for others. "That a woman should fold her hands, and wait for a husband is" indeed "unworthy and insulting to the very name of woman." And why? Because it argues "something rotten in the State of Denmark" in a country where there are two men to one woman. It proves unmistakeably two things: - that the men are unable or unwilling to marry; and that the fathers, brothers, and natural protectors of women are unable or unwilling to support their wards until they meet with suitable partners in life.


This brings me to the next point - the remedy. What is to be done with the women in this colony, unable to cope with men in the several occupations of life, and for whom there is no demand in the domestic relations of life? The remedy seems to me sufficiently simple. If there is no demand for their services in a domestic capacity, make one. If every other occupation is overcrowded beyond all reasonable limit, there is one at least that will admit of extension practically illimitable - the cultivation of the land. Although no politician, I can see clearly enough that this subject demands something more than the flippant attention which your correspondent has bestowed on it; that it is, in fact, the point on which the whole question hinges. In the ordinary pursuits of life, every addition to a family is an additional expense, and a dreaded incumbrance in the event of removal. On the farm it is the reverse. Woman (by nature conservative) increases property, and each additional member of the family is an additional assistance, the cost of whose maintenance (and something more at least) is raised on the spot, not purchased. As I have before said, I am not a politician; but I cannot refuse to see that it would be happier, holier, better far - more like Eden, and less like Sodom and Gomorrah - if men and women generally were settled amidst green fields and waving corn, homesteads, schools, and churches, instead of  tossing like a troubled ocean over the face of the country, or revelling in the licentiousness of overcrowded cities. I can see too that this plan (Nature's own) is the only one by which that healthy state of society can be brought about, in which and by which woman may become elevated to be, not only the help-meet, but in some sense both in body and mind (which she certainly is not at present) the peer and rival, of the stronger sex. Let us but have a country filled with "industrial homes," tenanted by virtuous women, who have stepped from the sanctity of a father's roof to the competence of an independent home, and there will no longer be any call for an "Industrial Home" for their reclamation, - a remedy ridiculously disproportional to the evil, which can be cured only by making this favored land itself one great "industrial home."


One word more, and I have done. Does your correspondent for a moment imagine that any number of women would accept her Industrial Reformation Establishment? Before they have submitted to the tempter they will not be eligible (or if eligible not likely) to accept a home in which their reputation must, of necessity, become tainted. After submission, they will find too many temptations to continuance in their course of life, and too little temptation to do so to submit themselves to certain shame, and their independence to the restraints of some lady-matron, as inflated with pride and as devoid of Christianity and common sense as "H. C. W.", who may very well begin reformation in general by reflecting that "Charity begins at home," "is not puffed up," and "thinks no evil of others."


I am, Sir, yours very respectfully,


S. M. (or J. M.)


Melbourne, June 21



Harriet's response was published several days later, as follows:



Tuesday 28 June, 1859




To the Editor of the Argus


Sir, - It is a deep subject of reproach in these enlightened days of ours that the theories of good which we talk and descant upon so largely should be so far in advance of our actual practice. I am not surprised that it provokes the anger of the utilitarian, and almost destroys faith in even the full, ardent, and pure believer. But there is such a thing as hope, for our theories are God's realities, if we work with what human capacity we have, carrying out, as far as we are enabled, the Divine idea that lives within us. A question which is at the very foot of social morals, and that has ever occupied the thoughts of thoughtful men, cannot now be put aside by those who make the whole question a fund of merriment and egotistical assumption - who inquire wittily, "if society would desire to see a female House of Parliament, a female constabulary, militia, navvie, laborer, herdsman, bullock-driver, &c." The treatment of women by such as these, when probed to the full, is an increasing catalogue of brutal arrogance, under the name of humility; selfishness, under the plea of generosity; and a refined tyranny, under the speciousness of equality. These are they who wish to see preserved a silence on the anomalous position of women - who hate to hear of any female soul-striving and uttering a protest against the foul injustice of those framers of the incomplete laws that now govern her, and have done so from time immemorial. I am particularly desirous that I should not be misunderstood with respect to this "question," as it appears I have been by your correspondent "J. M." In writing those letters, the only position I wish to assume is that of a woman among many, who feels that she has a something to do in the world as well as her brother man - who feels that, as God's child equally with man, she owes certain duties to Him. This is no individual cry, but proceeds from the hearts of thousands of women who, with large sympathies and active capabilities, require to be properly trained, and then directed into those useful and flowing channels of industry, according to the peculiar tendencies and individual characteristics of each. To this end public institutions should be established, and industrial homes commenced, as a means for the training of these abilities and powers, combined with a public recognition of woman's privilege to share, by her own free choice, in that communion of labor with man which hitherto has been withheld and denied. These means do not exist, and through this great and sad mistake, society is now bearing the effects of this social want. I know there is a certain class who would sneeringly say, "If you want to work, why don't you? - there's plenty for you to do." To this we answer, "Open up for us, then, more ways of obtaining a livelihood." Do they not now mostly resolve themselves, as a leader in The Times remarks, into - "Marry, stitch, die, or do worse?" This is no overdrawn assertion, but a veritable fact. The paths that are generally open to women are full to overflowing. And then what a miserable pittance is received for the 10, 12, and 14 houred day compared to what men receive for their eight hours. All women don't want to be either needlewomen, governesses, or servants. It is exceedingly easy to say that "home is woman's sphere;" but there are very many who have no home, and what should we do with these - what particular sphere is theirs? The very fact that domestic life forms one of the strongest foundations and bonds of all social communities goes to prove that there should exist between man and woman a communion, and not a division of labor. Woman should share the work with man, not only in the narrow precincts of home, but in that wide world-home the universe as well, for male and female are mutually dependent upon each other, and this extends not alone to one or two relations, but to every possible relation in existence. Viewing society as it is, we see a direct antagonism between the sexes. On the one side man says, "Don't try nor dare to compete with me, your acknowledged superior. Am I not stronger in arm, clearer in intellect, firmer in endurance? You do that which I have appointed you to do - dare not to come out of the sphere in which I have placed you, for your vocation is but to marry, your use to bear children, and your daily work to keep my home comfortable." On the other hand, woman replies, - "Are we never to try and rise from this false position in which you, and not God, have placed us? We were put on earth as mutual helpers; you were not made to be lord and ruler over us; and when you became such, the order of the world was destroyed and paradise became closed. We were born as equals on the first morning of creation, when everything was pronounced 'very good.' We boldly deny that our vocation is but to amuse and serve you. Our vocation is the best way in which we can serve God and his kingdom on earth. We ask you to unite with us and do not say, "That is your work; this mine." We are both portions of the same humanity called to serve God - the one as man, the other as woman - and why should we not do it according to the order intended - unitedly, not separately? This is the felt language of both sexes. Society has created this antagonism; man has made woman what she is from mere animal physical power - the power that gives might over right. What will the opening of the lands do to affect this question - the equal division of labor and the right equally with man to seek that employment which her talents and tastes lead her to adopt? It is not very probably that she will ever be likely to enter the army as a profession, or to mix in political life, or go to sea, or become a barrister; she will rather prefer those nobler works which have in them a something more congenial to her moral nature - the arts, sciences, commerce, and the education of the young in its various branches. These most assuredly will attract her. If she desire to marry, let it be from the attraction of a congenial nature, and not for the "competence of an independent home." Let her step from the "sanctity of a parent's roof" independently, and honorably and equally, not unequally. Let her stand before the altar of God as a dignified rational being, not waiting for the unlocking of the lands to be supported by man. The thought is an insult to woman, and unworthy of the brain that conceived it.


Besides, all women do not wish to marry, whilst others lose their husbands; and what would be done with these? They may have means, and they may not. In either case they need work, whereby they may come out of that state of uncertainty and incompleteness which is at present the state of their minds - the state of their home life. They go about, as it were, in a constant twilight, not knowing what they are nor what they may be, like a field lying fallow, but which would become fruitful by the hand of the cultivator. In a letter like this, the arguments which might be advanced in support of my own convictions would necessarily be of a lengthy character, therefore I have been compelled to concentrate, and that very imperfectly, what I have to say into the smallest possible compass. It is a matter upon which I have felt deeply, and I have been induced to write this second letter through having seen a decidedly unfeminine, and not a very manly letter, adverting to the subject in your columns of Friday, June 24. I still assert, as in a former letter, and believe confidently, that one of the chief causes of prostitution arises from women not receiving a good mental and moral education. and there not being sufficiently varied and trained employment, whereby they might obtain work according to the peculiar tendencies of each.


Craving your indulgence and pardon for this rather lengthy letter,


I remain, most respectfully,


H. C. W.


Richmond, June 25



In response, someone with the initials 'M. S.' (possibly the same person as 'S. M.'?) wrote a lengthy letter, stating that "I cannot resist the temptation to compare the letter of your correspondent "H. C. W." to a serpent." Further disparaging remarks about H. C. W. and her arguments then followed. "What, then, must be the future of that country where the type of woman is an amiable idiot?" Change may occur over time, however, and if certain improvements were made to stimulate women to improve, "woman's conception of future women would become something better than the amiable idiot which occupies so prominent a place in your leader of this morning." The writer also suggested that if H. C. W. had "nothing to do", and the means to do it with, she should establish a school for mixed secular education. "With a generation of women (and of men) so trained, social evils of every kind would rapidly approach the vanishing-point."


Harriet wrote as follows:


Monday 4 July, 1859




To the Editor of the Argus


Sir, - As "S. M." has chosen to attack me I think it becomes my right to defend myself, trusting that justice and truth will ultimately prevail.


I do not pretend to know the secret workings of "S. M.'s" heart, only so far as glaring palpable results show them.


There is no glozing over the evil spirit which pervades his two letters. They stand forth as an unblushing effusion of one of those specimens of humanity, the "college-bred braggadocio," who, possessing more wit than sense, is ever desirous of displaying what little knowledge he has even at the expense of all truth and an utter disregard for the feelings of others. If "S. M." had, for the sake of truth and not from the mere spirit of petty opposition, taken up any points of my letters, and thrown more light upon the subject, then would it have been worthy of him; but to try and overthrow the solid land of truth for the mere marshy, deep, and insidious quagmire, is not what I at all anticipated. The fierce and rude language - the exultant and bombastical tone - plainly show what his inherent nature is - the love of opposing for the sake of opposition alone. I would suggest to your correspondent that he return, if he can with impunity, to his late boyish "forms," where he may vent the acridity of his spirit to the fullest.


The smooth, circumnavigating subtlety of "S. M.'s" spirit is but too evident. He thinks to mask the cloven hoof by the semblance of astute learning and a depth of knowledge which even Socrates might envy; but this does not hide the moral distemper within, for, like a cutaneous disease denoting inner festering humors, it glimmers through every line of his letters. He ascribes to woman herself her present position, and yet we all know how false this is. He again says, "that God with inflexible justice gave man dominion over her, and that this dominion will never be relaxed until she (woman) wins man back to the Eden from which she led him." How weak must have been the man to have been led in the first instance!


Thus, after proceeding for some length, he attempts, in a very dignified manner, to silence us by holding out as a sort of bait what we shall become by a proper and obedient conduct. But all such sophistries are useless. It is something like trying to silence a wilful child such treatment as this. It is a putting aside what is actually due to woman from the hands of man.


There is one other portion of this elaborate communication to which I shall advert, to show how falsely the words of my letter are tortured and misconstrued. In no one part do I state that women were "unfitted," as your correspondent has it, to become barristers, &c.; but that it was not very probably she would choose these professions from choice. Again, I nowhere claim for woman an identity of function with man, but I most positively asserted her equality of position with him. "S. M." seems to think that women are not treated unjustly by men, and yet I could cite instance upon instance if requisite. I cannot say much for "S. M.'s"  civilisation, if its proper function is described as a softening down of the brutish nature within us, and an increasing development of our spiritual nature. Nor is the end for which "S. M.'s" intellect was given him accomplished, when he uses it as he has in the present instance. I do not assume to vie with so much knowledge as "S. M." possesses. I have never been to college, never had the opportunity; so I will hide my diminished head, like one of the lesser starts, nor dare to compete with, perhaps, a D.D., a B.A., or some other significant title. I must walk humbly in the great man's shadow, or else be crushed by the startling anathemas which this awful personage will hurl at my defying head.


Trusting, Sir, you will have the kindness to insert this letter, and will bear with any future communications I may send upon this subject,


I beg to remain, most faithfully,


H. C. W.


Richmond, July 2


Harriet wrote again on the topic of female employment in September 1859. Note that, at the beginning of July, an article had been reproduced from England's Daily Telegraph, headed "Female M.D.'S".  This reported the arrival from America of Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D., England's first female doctor. It also mentioned the New York Women's Hospital.  In later editions of The Argus there appeared advertisements for one of Dr Blackwell's publications. These items must have inspired Harriet to modify her ideas regarding the types of occupations which might be suitable for women, and led her to the path to commence her own medical training in Melbourne.



Tuesday 13 September, 1859




To the Editor of the Argus


Sir, - I am again induced to address you, through a clever and able leading article in your journal of Friday, advocating a much-needed enlarged field of female employment. I am sure this must be a subject of interest to every kind heart, putting aside its incalculable social importance. How to enlarge this field is a problem which the enlightened men of this age and colony should solve. I should like to see the very first acts of our new Parliament begin with such a solution - a recognition that women do exist as a part of the community, that their responsibilities are to be acknowledged, and their capabilities made available, conjointly, not separately, with those of man. This would be going to the root of the thing. If principles can only be established particulars will soon adjust themselves. Let man learn the true destiny of woman, give her legitimate hopes, at the same time assisting her to raise a standard within herself, and we shall soon see that marriage and all other relations by degrees will be in harmony with these. As long as man entertains the belief that woman was made for him, so long will he be unable to take a sufficiently discerning and religious view of her office and destiny, and do her full and ample justice. If it is ever done, it is either through sentiment or accident, and this varies according to the relations in which she is placed. Every barrier should be thrown down before her, both inward and outward freedom acknowledged as a right, and not yielded as a concession, for there is but one law for souls, the divine one of truth and justice, and God alone the dispenser. Man should esteem himself the brother and friend of woman, and in no case as lord and mentor, for her nature is one that needs to grow - that needs to develope, (sic) and unfold all those dormant powers which now lie slumbering, waiting for the touch - the key - that shall open them. Opportunity will call forth all the divine energy of woman. Let her but feel her own responsibility, her own powers, and that mankind is smiling encouragingly upon her, and all the fair buds of her being will quickly struggle into life, despite all difficulty, all obstacle. Most women require this encouragement before they can boldly draw their breath in the free and joyous air of liberty and love. She must feel that all ways are open for her - all professions, all arts, all trades, equally with man; in fact, that she has an interest in everything in life, even in the Legislature of her country. Why shut her out? Perhaps there is no profession which so loudly calls for women as that of medicine. Who more appropriate to attend women than a woman? There is something grossly indelicate in having to call in a medical gentleman, which every true woman must feel, however much long habit and use may now tolerate. Women should attend women, and in order to do this effectually hospitals, founded upon good working principles, should be established for lady students alone. In New York a similar institution has been opened, where not only ladies graduate as regular medical students, but there are departments in which they are properly trained as thorough nurses - a want which is so much felt when sickness is upon us. I should like to see such an institution here, and it might easily be if our men of the new era will but agitate the question. Women want work both for the mind and the body - they want it for all the reasons that men want work. In this country beyond all other countries, if the question is ignored by those who govern us, it will be seen to be the cause of many social evils. The feminine element must have some outlet. If it is denied, woman perishes - and, alas! "no man layeth it to heart."


H. C. W.


Richmond, September 10


                  Premises at 192 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy
            Possibly the location of the 'Ladies' Industrial Home'
                                 Photo courtesty of Peter Torokfalvy


As a result of the many different letters from various people regarding the need to provide assistance for destitute women and children, in 1859 the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society established an 'industrial home' for such people. In July 1860 the Industrial Home published an advertisement stating that washing, mangling, plain needlework and dressmaking would be well and promptly done at the above institution. At that stage the Home was located at 85 Fitzroy Street Collingwood, on the West side between Marion and Palmer Streets. The street numbers have since been altered, and the premises may now be the building currently situated at 192 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy (yet to be positively confirmed).


By 1861 the Home had moved to 139 Moore Street Fitzroy, on the South side between Fitzroy and Nicholson Streets. 


By 1863 the Home had new premises, erected on the corner of Punt and Commercial Roads Windsor, on the North-West corner next to the Wesley Chapel. The Industrial Home, under the management of the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society, was opened "with the view to finding a home and employment for poor but respectable females, with or without children." At its Punt Road location it was called "the Servants' Home" in the Melbourne Directory of the time.


Interestingly, in the Annual Report for 1861, a 'Miss Walker' was listed as a member of the Home's committee.  It is possible that this may have been Harriet.