‘A woman of rare talents and lofty character’

One of Sydney’s most interesting and important reformers was Maybanke Anderson, also known as Mrs Wolstenholme, and born Maybanke Selfe in England in 1845.  She was to become one of the best known women in Sydney, giving ‘freely her time, strength, and sympathy, to every movement to ameliorate conditions for women and children‘, and above all, for women’s rights.

Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson) around 1890

Maybanke in the early 1890s, on the brink of changing Sydney. From the collection of the State Library of NSW, SPF P1/A Mitchell Library

She knew the hardships of being without rights from personal experience. Her first marriage, to  Edmund Wolstenholme in 1867, was not a success — four of their children died as babies of TB, and Edmund took to drink. Maybanke kept a boarding hourse and later a girls’ school, to support the family, but Edmund’s desertion and alcoholism made this doubly difficult — as a married woman she had no rights to her earnings or her children, and the only ground of divorce was adultery, which was difficult (and shameful) to prove. An absent, drunken husband could turn up periodically and demand all the household money as his own under the law. It was not until Sir Alfred Stephen‘s long deferred Divorce Extension and Amendment Act finally passed in 1892 that women could initiate divorce on grounds of desertion, habitual drunkenness, imprisonment for at least seven years or assault. Maybanke immediately instituted proceedings.

From the early 1890s she had become interested in and active in the suffrage question, working with Louisa Lawson, Rose Scott, Dora Montefiore and many others in the Womanhood Suffrage League, and training herself as a public speaker. In 1893 she founded The Woman’s Voice, a newspaper that advocated feminist causes, and helped found the Kindergarten Union of NSW, designed to help the youngest of the poor.

She came from a remarkable family — her brother was Norman Selfe, visionary engineer and inventor, whose energetic advocacy of technical education in Sydney, led to the foundation of the Sydney Technical College, among other things.

Some years after her divorce, she married Francis Anderson, professor of Logic and Philosophy at  the University of Sydney and a reformer in his own right. They worked together on educational issues, and Maybanke became a prolific writer, producing reports, pamphlets, local histories, childcare manuals, and even songs.

The author of our article on Maybanke Anderson is Jan Roberts, author of a full biography of Maybanke and an expert on her life and times. She is speaking about Maybanke’s remarkable career at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts on Tuesday 17 May at 12.30. Find out more here, and come along!

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About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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