Brettena Smyth (1840-1898)

Brettena was born in Kyneton to John Riordan and Bridgetena nee Cavanagh.  Brettena was largely self- taught and had wanted to study medicine but a lack of money prohibited that. She wrote and published several publications;   ‘Love, Courtship and Marriage’ in 1892, ‘Limitation of Offspring’ in 1893 and ‘The Social Evil’ in 1894 and a book ‘What Every Woman Should Know: Diseases Incidental to Women’ in 1895. The latter provide information to woman that they would otherwise not have been able to gain.

On her marriage she and her husband owned and ran a greengrocers shop. On his death she converted it to a drapery and druggist store.

By the early 1880’s Brettena was active in feminist causes and was a member of the “first Australian suffrage organisation, the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society”. Later she established a break -away group the Australian Women’s Suffrage Society. Brettena was a “freethinker, opposed to orthodox religion and disposed to question other institution and forms of authority”.

Brettena became a well- known figure in Melbourne particularly in labour circles, engaging in public speaking and at six foot tall, commanded a presence. During the depression of the 1890’s unemployment, homelessness and poverty soared. The response of the state Government was to cut back expenditure making the situation worse.  In 1894at a meeting in the North Melbourne Town Hall Brettena spoke reminding those present that “working women felt the depression as much as working men”.

She continued to run her store and understanding the need for birth control she imported what were called the ‘French pessaire preventif” and sold them at her shop. At the same time she conducted lectures for women only telling them of this contraceptive method as   “only article of the kind that can be used without the knowledge of the husband”.

Despite that radical, for the time, position Brettena did not advocate free sex but rather a new role for women within the family. Her view of womens’ emancipation was that motherhood was an important role for women but they must know about their physiology, they must understand their own bodies and how it worked as a matter for their health.

Brettena continued to speak at public meetings on one occasion to a “large audience assembled for her lecture on Love, Courtship and Marriage.. gave..  some straight advice to the youth of both sexes”

At the same time she was active in campaigning for women who found themselves charged with killing illegitimate children and for women who were forced into prostitution. Largely she was promoting planned families to reduce the burden on women.

Brettena was active in the suffrage campaign which was gathering activity in Victoria by the mid 1890’s and she spoke often at public meetings around Melbourne and Victoria.

At one meeting she said:

“Women should be placed on the same footing as men. Socially, politically. For it was to the advantage of men that women should advance side by side with them with the progress of age. Many women paid taxes and still had no representation on the Legislature and this was not fair”.

Brettena then moved a resolution which was carried:

“That in the opinion of this meeting the women of this colony are justly entitled to the franchise and that it is a gross injustice to women to withhold it from them; and that the ballot box in their hands would tend to further the best interests of the State”. After yet another rejection of womens’ suffrage in 1896 Brettena again addressed a public meeting demanding that:

“ Were the people of Victoria going to submit to the dictates of the Upper House?. That august body might trample on men, but they were not going to do it with women. There was no true democracy where women were not represented. The Upper House should either be mended or ended. Taxation without representation was tyranny; and from the extension of the franchise to women would also arise social, political and general benefits. War. Drink, the food question and other complex problems would have additional palliative influences, and clearer solutions brought to bear on them. If a woman was fit to be Queen of the Empire, surely her sisters were fit to vote”.

Brettena indicated that she would go on speaking about this matter until suffrage for women was achieved. Sadly she died before it could be.

Sources: Farley Kelly. Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 12 (MUP) 1990

Farley Kelly. “Feminism and the Family: Brettena Smyth’ in Eric Fry (ed) Rebels and Radicals. George Allen & Unwin. Nth Sydney 1983 pp134-37

Postscript: It is believed that as a result of her promotion of birth control, Brettena was ex-communicated from the Catholic Church. She is however buried in the catholic section at Melbourne General Cemetery. It is said that her grave was by Nuns.