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Margaret McLean


The years between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War have generally been regarded as the New Dawn of feminism in Australia with women’s clubs, temperance societies and suffrage leagues providing a recruiting ground for advocates of women’s advancement.


These societies exercised considerable political influence, especially as the temperance movement added women’s political interests to their agenda.[1] The first signatory on the 1891 petition for the female franchise, signed by 30,000 Victorian women, was Margaret McLean.


Born at Irvine, in Ayreshire, Scotland in April 1845, the eldest child of Andrew Arnot, a carpenter/builder, and his wife Agnes.[2] When Margaret was four, the family emigrated to the Port Phillip District. In 1862-64 she undertook teacher training at the newly-formed Melbourne Training Institution for teachers and was employed as an assistant to St James Cathedral School until 1869 when she married William McLean.[3] As William’s hardware firm prospered, they moved to Varzin in George Street, while building the landmark property Torloisk, on the corner of Wellington Parade and Vale Street, East Melbourne. Margaret combined her public duties with raising nine children.

Motivated by her enduring evangelical faith, the emphasis throughout Margaret’s life was concern for the welfare of women and children, visiting gaols, courts and hotels, and spending whole nights in slum areas, endeavouring to assist and protect young women.[4] It was her concern for the well-being of women and children which led to her involvement in the 1887 formation of the WCTU. It was an ideal vehicle for this scholarly woman with a teaching background to move from the domestic sphere to the public domain. An organisation run for women, by women, it allowed Margaret to utilise her valuable organisational and speaking skills at a time when opportunities for decision-making were held within predominantly male frameworks. The WCTU brought large numbers of Australian women not only to work for alcohol abuse and domestic violence, but increasingly into the suffrage campaign.


Margaret saw the education of women as a key to social reform. She aimed to enlarge the occupational openings for women by encouraging education and professional training, and by removing those barriers which stopped women from entering particular occupations. She argued that women’s work should be considered equal to men’s in both cultural standing and wage rates when it was of the same type.


Elected President of the Melbourne branch of the WCTU at its formation in November 1887, in 1891 she became Colonial President. She served two terms as State president: in 1892-93 and from 1899 until 1907 when she retired with failing health.[5]


In her capacity as President of the WCTU she moved the motion for the formation of the National Council of Women. She led deputations, such as the 1897 WCTU delegation to the chief commissioner of police urging the appointment of women police matrons at lock-ups, and the successful 1893 deputation to have the age of consent raised from 12 to 16 years. In 1906, she led a suffrage deputation to the premier on behalf of the National Council of Women.[6]


For Margaret, the vote became a weapon of social reform. She saw the franchise for women as a basis for the protection of girls. In May 1892, she signed a letter on behalf of the WCTU, addressed to all the successful parliamentary candidates,


Under the head of People we would respectfully urge the inclusion of women. Women are regarded as people when taxes are levied, when guilty of any breach of law, when the census is taken, and in every case except in the election of lawmakers, or in the formation of laws they are compelled to obey….’. [7]


This letter followed up the presentation to parliament in the previous year, of the petition containing over 30,000 women’s signatures, calling for female franchise. Margaret’s was the first signature on the petition; No 2 was Mrs Monroe – wife of the then Premier of Victoria.


Margaret McLean worked tirelessly to give Victorian women greater autonomy and protection and by the time of her retirement from active leadership as president of the WCTU, the social and political foundations of fundamental change in gender relations had been well and truly established. In the following year, 1908, Victorian women were given the right to vote.

For more on Margaret McLean, see Liz's articles:


Liz Rushen, ‘Margaret McLean and the Monster Petition: ‘We want laws which will make it easy to do right and difficult to do wrong’, Circa, Journal of Professional Historians, Issue 1, 2010,    pp.47-52


Elizabeth Rushen, ‘Margaret McLean: caring power in social reform’, Our Yesterdays, Journal of             the BHSV, Vol. 10, 2002, pp.122-131

[1] Spearritt, Katie, ‘First Wave Feminism 1880-1914’, in Saunders, Kay & Evans, Raymond, Gender Relations in Australia: Domination and Negotiation, 1992, p.326.

[2] The Pioneer Women of Victoria, 1835-1860, 1937. Angus Lucas’ entry for Margaret McLean.

[3] Australian Dictionary of Biography, Anthea Hyslop’s entry for Margaret McLean.

[4] Brown, Basil S., A Cloud of Witnesses: seventy memorable Baptists in Victoria, 1999, p.69.

[5] The White Ribbon Signal, 8 March 1923.

[6] McCorkindale, Isabel (ed.), Pioneer Pathways: Sixty Years of Citizenship, 1887-1947, 1948, p.38.

[7] Fifth Annual Report of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 1892, quoting text of letter sent 12 May 1892.

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