Mary Lee - her public life

We know very little of her earliest public work which seems to have begun with an interest in the migration of Jewish people to the colony. It is stated in her obituary that she was encouraged in this by Mrs Searle Sen. Mary Lee was also a member of the Ladies' committee of the Female Refuge.

The Social Purity Society

Then, in 1883, she joined Rev. J. C. Kirby as secretary to the ladies' committee of the Social Purity Society. This group of people worked to change the law relating to the legal and social status of young women. They lobbied for reforms that would stop the exploitation of young girls who at ten or twelve were often sent out to work, as servants, in factories, or selling newspapers in the street. Many of them were cared for by their employers but a significant number were abused. Some ran away to a life of prostitution on the streets or in the brothels. Some too were married at a very early age since this was permitted under common law. Among the reforms that were passed in 1885 in the Criminal Law Consolidation Amendment Act the raising of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen years gave girls protection.

The Working Women's Trades Union

After the passing of the Bill the Ladies' Social Purity League members still met and continued their work in support of women and children. Mary Lee was also involved in moves to stop the exploitation of women workers and to improve the conditions and wages they were often forced to accept. For many women the only work possible was work at home, usually sewing. The pay per piece was so low that the worker could earn the merest sustenance only by working intolerable hours. The lobbying for the workers' rights began in earnest. At a public meeting in December 1889 Mary Lee proposed the formation of a women's trades union. She visited factories and sweat shops. These were often small working places, mainly connected with sewing or tailoring where conditions were cramped, often dirty , with no washrooms and little light and air. In 1890 the Working Women's Trades Union was founded and Mary worked as the secretary for the next two years, then in 1893, as vice-president, which gave her the opportunity to attend the Trades and Labor Council meetings, serve on a sub-committee which examined conditions in the clothing industry, and on the Distressed Women and Children's Committee which distributed clothes and food to the families hit by the economic depression of the '90s.