Lady Jane Franklin – early social activist

Lady Jane Franklin 1791 – 1875

Lady Jane Franklin was the wife of the Governor of Tasmania.

In 1841, she attempted to establish a ladies committee to visit and help convict women in Tasmania.   Her proposal was so denigrated in the press that her committee was forced to disband. She was however permitted to continue her individual efforts in visiting women convicts and trying to improve their living conditions and education.

Jane is best known today as an adventurer.  She was the first woman to climb Mount Wellington and to travel overland from Melbourne to Sydney and from Hobart to Macquarie Harbour.  For seven years she coordinated a search for her husband Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition.

In the mid 1800s, for the most part, any attempt by women to be vocal and public advocates for a cause – even a worthy one – was problematic.  For example, in Tasmania, after independence in 1856:

Tasmania’s citizens were determined to leave the bad old convict days behind. One method of demonstrating this was by good behaviour. Domestic virtues spread, and Tasmanian society became less ‘masculine’ – with drinking, swearing, violence, petty crime – and more ‘feminine’ – law-abiding, non-violent, ‘decent’. But men still dominated public affairs, and women had no public role. On the rare occasions when women’s place was discussed, it was described as housekeeping, family training, personal piety and good works. Any public activity by women could result in masculine criticism; in 1857 the suggestion of a female public speaker brought the response that this would mean destruction of ‘the whole fabric of social life’. There are examples of women acting independently: some girls in 1857 who refused to allow a clergyman to dictate to them, prostitutes who refused to be saved, a woman who wrote in 1860 in defense of spinsters. But generally, the primacy of women’s domestic role was unquestioned, as was men’s dominance of public life.(Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies. 2006)

The very few women with education who accompanied men of position to Australia were effectively the only women in the colonies who had the ability to take individual action on issues of concern to them.  Invariably the issues were those concerned with the plight of children and the poor.    The women we now see as leaders in these social justice areas – Lady Jane Franklin for example – were able to be publicly active because they couched their activities in the language that was acceptable to the desired model of individual female activity.  Attempts to undertake group efforts (what we might now see as embryonic “movements”) were quickly quashed.

Comments welcome.  I’m very happy to be corrected on anything above.

I’d be very interested in any information or stories about Jane Franklin which contribute to our thoughts on women and leadership.

References and further reading

Picture from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Anne Summers. 1975. Damned Whores and God’s Police. Ringwood Victoria: Penguin Books Australia, pp 282-283

Australian National University. 2006. Australian Dictionary of Biography Online edition.

Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies. 2006. The Companion to Tasmanian history – Gender. Accessed 5 February 2011 citing

See also Australian Women’s Register

About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this
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1 Response to Lady Jane Franklin – early social activist

  1. Jane Elix says:

    A reader has drawn attention to Olive Pink (b 1884) – a fiery activist for Aboriginal rights in Central Australia, an anthropologist and gardener. See Australian Women’s Register for more info.
    Sounds like she was the trailblazing type of leader, rather than a leader of people.

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