Maybanke Anderson: suffragist and social reformer

Change in a culture often occurs in fits and starts, in confusing whirls of ideas and protest followed by quiet periods where old orthodoxies percolate through society again but in a different guise. Reform digs in its heels. New form orthodoxies flex their muscles and then we find the times of protest, ideas and reform are upon us again. As we cycle through complacency, protest and reform injustices are gradually addressed.

This has been the life of the quest for equality of women and men. Undoubtedly enormous progress has been made over the last two hundred years. Yet despite hard-won gains, there is still so much that can be improved. An important aspect of the movement to equality is reviewing the history of human achievement and telling the stories of women’s achievements which have been forgotten over the passage of time or never properly recognised and told in the first place.

Book Cover of Maybanke Anderson bio

Maybanke Anderson 1845-1927: Sex, suffrage & social reform by Jan Roberts, published by Ruskin Rowe Press. This review is of the second edition published in 1997.

In writing the biography of Maybanke Anderson, Jan Roberts has ensured that the contributions of a leading educationist and prominent leader of social reform in New South Wales continue to be recognised. Maybanke Anderson was a leading public figure in the debates about the problems women and children faced in New South Wales during the 1890s and the early twentieth century. She established a school known for its high standard of education, was a leading light in the campaign for women’s suffrage, spent years working to establish free, high-quality kindergarten education and was the founder and editor of a feminist magazine.  She was one of a small group of women and men who pushed the issue of a better life for women to the front of public debate time again.

Jan Roberts has written an illuminating biography about Maybanke Anderson but Roberts faced a struggle to cover the early years before Maybanke became a public figure. A biography ideally covers the entire life of a person and accounts for the time before the subject became well known. Yet the documentary record before a person comes to prominence is often sparce 

Roberts covers the paucity of information about Maybanke during her first marriage, with discussion of the historical context. Yet at times the first two chapters descended into a list of genealogical facts and speculation. But the reader should persist. From chapter three Jan Roberts successfully engages the reader in the life of a fascinating subject.

After she was abandoned by her first husband, Maybanke fran a boarding house to support herself and her children, then she established a school. This school became Maybanke College, a thriving private school for girls in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill. Her experience as a teacher and successful business woman enabled her to work in social reform at the turn of the twentieth century.

Maybanke Anderson was a keen reader and writer. She joined the Women’s Literary Society in the early 1890s and at the meetings discussed books and social issues with women who also became prominent feminists such as Rose Scott and Louisa Lawson.

Maybanke Anderson helped to form the Womanhood Suffrage League in 1891. The League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were prominent in the campaign for women’s suffrage in New South Wales. Maybanke became known as a public speaker at public meetings on the issue and she was quoted widely in newspapers.

Roberts notes the importance of Maybanke’s network of prominent and not so prominent women friends. While Maybanke undoubtedly played a prominent role in the campaign for suffrage, Roberts does not ignore the significance of the collective nature of the campaign.

The importance of the links of friendship between these strong individuals and families is hard to over estimate. They met and wrote to each other regularly, exchanged confidences and were constantly and openly searching for new ways of acting and thinking. They were aware of the past and unafraid of the future – it was the present that often appalled them.

Maybanke worked on many social issues. She became known around Australia in the 1890s for her work promoting adult education through the Australasian Home Reading Union. Her work was noticed internationally and she wrote for the French publication, Revue Politique et Parlementaire in 1898.

Maybanke Anderson is an important figure in the history of education in New South Wales. She was at the forefront of kindergarten education and employed a teacher trained teaching methods espoused by the German educator, Friedrich Froebel, which were then little known.  She was concerned about the lack of childcare for working class women who were forced to leave their children unsupervised at home while their mothers worked. She was the first president of the Kindergarten Union, and through this organisation, Maybanke helped to establish Sydney’s first free Kindergarten.

Maybanke married again in 1898. Her husband was Francis Anderson, professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney. It was Francis Anderson who awakened New South Wales to some home truths about their schools in a major speech in 1901. After the initial upheaval of the new education systems established by the free, compulsory and secular education laws in the Australasian colonies from the 1860s to the 1880s, complacency gradually seeped into the education departments and general population of the colonies. The laws and the changes they wrought were momentous but the educational methods and resources provided to the schools were far from adequate.

As I wrote in my previous post, ‘Thankyou to my wife’, Anderson noted his wife’s contribution to the published form of the speech. Jan Roberts demonstrates that Maybanke’s second marriage to Francis Anderson in 1899 was a professional partnership as well as a marital union. She argues that Maybanke Anderson should also be recognised as a significant contributor to the movement for education reform in New South Wales.

Maybanke Anderson devoted much time to writing after she remarried. Many of her poems and articles were published in newspapers. She wrote histories of a number of localities around Sydney, books and pamphlets on education and the raising of children.

Logo for Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2017

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2017.

Maybanke died in France in 1927 but it is not known where she is buried. Her death was marked in Australia though, with tributes in newspapers.

Maybanke Anderson was a prodigious worker and achieved much. As Roberts comments in her preface about Maybanke, “[t]here were so many threads to her life that at time chronology has been forced to give way to a thematic treatment; I beg the reader’s understanding when this happens.” There was no need to apologise for this. The material was organised well and easy to follow.

Jan Roberts chose a good subject for her biography. Maybanke contributed a great deal both as an educator and in her work for social reform. Her life stays with the reader long after they have turned the last page.

Further Reading

3 thoughts on “Maybanke Anderson: suffragist and social reformer

  1. An interesting and informative review, thank you. I’ve been thinking about re-reading and reviewing Brian Mathews’ Louisa (Lawson), I’ll have to make a note to see if he mentions Anderson/Wolstenhome


  2. Pingback: April 2017 Round Up: History, Memoir and Biography | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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