Caroline Chisholm – super-organiser and superb advocate

Picture from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Caroline Chisholm 1808 – 1877

Caroline Chisholm was not an environmental leader.  But she was an extraordinary leader for social change. I thought it might be interesting to look into how she was able to overcome all the obvious barriers to leadership that women would have faced in Australia in the mid-1800s. – JE

[S]tately in her bearing, frank, easy and lady-like in her manners; her mouth expresses the firmness and decision of her character; her eyes are grey, penetrating in their glance; and her countenance beaming with kindness, which at once causes confidence in her intentions; a certain calmness and earnestness rests on her features which is aroused to powerful expression as the subject of her discourse is that of advice, affection or contempt;  her voice is musical, without the slightest provincialism;  she speaks with fluency and appropriateness of phraseology, and as occasion calls forth can be affecting, sarcastic or witty.

 Eneas Mackenzie’s Memoirs of Mrs Caroline Chisholm (1852) cited in Margaret Kiddle. 1950. Caroline Chisholm. Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press.

 Caroline Chisholm’s public advocacy and organising work to find employment for young women immigrants to Australia, was nothing short of extraordinary.  In a very short period of time in the mid 1800s she established a multitude of employment centres throughout NSW, which also acted as respectable marriage brokers for the single men and women of the colony.  During her first year of work (1842), Caroline managed to provide housing and/or employment to “upwards of 2,000 persons”. In 1847, she claimed to have settled 11,000 immigrants in NSW in the preceding 6 years.

Working with the authorities of the day, she helped with the establishment of new programs for family immigration and settlement and was able to trial them in several locations.  She later went to England and actively recruited as immigrants, the families and young women that she believed would contribute to the successful development of the colonies.

Caroline was an enthusiastic advocate for a strong female role within family and society; but not for women’s rights.   But there were obvious contradictions between her public statements on the importance of women’s roles as mothers and helpmeets to their husband, and her own behaviours, which in no way aligned with these pronouncements.

How was Caroline Chisholm able to act in this way, in contravention of the social codes of her time?

Firstly, Caroline’s actions were the result of her compelling religious beliefs – “Her religion was the mainspring of her life”.    She believed without question that ‘More marriages would make the colony more “moral” which meant in part they would create new centres of order and responsibility’. To keep faith with this religious commitment, Chisholm consistently chose her work – her calling – over her family life, including spending time with her children.  When sending her then youngest son away from her to live with the rest of his siblings in Windsor while she remained in Sydney to work, Chisholm justified this extraordinarily difficult decision as a sacrifice to God’s will.  For many years she saw her children only one day a week.

Secondly, Chisholm had easy access to willing (if not necessarily experienced) sources of domestic labour and childcare in Australia.   When she moved to England, her mother moved in and provided domestic support.  At a time when women of her class were usually occupied by childbearing and rearing, Chisholm managed to work outside the home more than full time, and to maintain a life as an absentee parent.

Thirdly, Caroline had financial security throughout her married life.  Her husband provided a regular income throughout his years in the military.  In his retirement he received a reasonably generous military pension and chose to work with his wife, giving her administrative and advocacy support throughout her working life.  At one stage he even moved back to Australia from England by himself for several years to carry out her work.   (Another advantageous side-effect of Captain Chisholm’s military career was presumably his long absences overseas, which gave Caroline a break from unremitting childbearing)

Fourthly, the influence of Caroline’s long, and apparently very successful marriage on her ability to carry out her work cannot be underestimated.  Caroline only consented to marry Captain Archibald Chisholm on the condition that “he should leave her free to do any philanthropic work she wished”, and he apparently kept that agreement in both spirit and action throughout their married lives.

Again, this is inconsistent with the family structure supported in Australia at the time,  the structure which Caroline herself advocated for, in which the husband received support from his wife in his work.

Finally, Caroline would seem to have been a remarkably skilled and effective political lobbyist and advocate.  Her attractive appearance, and charming personality was much admired by those she was trying to convince to give financial and political support to her projects.

She would also seem to have been an outstanding organizer and a logistics genius.  Overcoming the enormous barriers of inadequate transport, few effective communication mechanisms and limited, unreliable financial resources she managed to achieve more than most of the men in positions of power and authority.

Yet today, Caroline Chisholm is rarely remembered except as the woman who used to be on the $5 note.  In Donald Horne’s The Australian People: Biography of a nation, Caroline rates only one mention: ‘The Catholic Mrs Caroline Chisholm was one of the most influential private persons in the colony.’

See also:  Australian Women’s Register

Comments, responses and corrections are very welcome.


About Jane Elix

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3 Responses to Caroline Chisholm – super-organiser and superb advocate

  1. Jann Zintgraff says:

    A nursing friend of mine in the 1960 s was a refugee from Czechoslovakia .She changed her name legally from something entirely unpronounceable to Caroline Chisholm,as she admired her enormously .This led me to reading about her at the time. I also discussed her work with Edna Ryan at the time who was also an admirer. Edna would perhaps be an interesting person to talk about .I have some info here I can lend you Edna was very interested in working conditions for women and was very involved in the equal wage case as well as maternity leave for women. cheers Jann

  2. Fascinating story – thanks Jane for finding and sharing it. Obvious contradictions in Caroline Chisolm’s life, and a strong driving force, produced quite extraordinary results.

  3. joan birks says:

    Wonderful woman of her time. She must have had some amazing support and ubderstandingh from her husband which was very unusual in those times. I guess you would say she was a early career woman. Under the circumstances she could be forgiven for being so driven. It really must have been traumatic to see all the women,in those days, so underprivileged and abused as no doubt they wood have been had she not tried to intervene. Like you said ….She should be honoured more and so should her husband.It became a team effort I think. She had the leadership qualities and he followed.

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