This International Women’s Day (8 March), read about educator Maybanke Anderson, who would meet her suffrage sisters in a Sydney teahouse known as the unofficial birthplace of Australian feminism.
It was in Mei Quong Tart’s Sydney tearooms that Maybanke Anderson met comrade Rose Scott – founder of the Women’s Literary Society and later the Women's Political Education League – and “first spoke a few words on the subject of women’s suffrage”. The year was 1891 and the location was the Loong Shan Tea House on King Street in the CBD, where the Glasshouse Shopping Centre now stands.
As tearooms were one of the few venues outside the home safe for women, Loong Shan was a popular meeting place for them. Later, it became a preferred venue for the nascent suffrage movement, including the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales, of which Maybanke was elected president in 1893.
Maybanke, born in England in 1845 before migrating to Australia with her family aged nine, believed that women securing the vote was just the first step for feminist reform. She was not without experience in these matters: in 1884, her first husband Edmund Wolstenholme abandoned the family (they had seven children), but it was not until the Divorce Amendment and Extension Act was passed in 1892 that she could officially divorce him for desertion.
During their marriage, Edmund had purchased a large home in Marrickville; in 1885, a year after he left, Maybanke opened a school on the property to prepare girls for the University of Sydney entrance examination. In its decade of operation, it became known as Maybanke College.
Maybanke continued her work in education while active in the suffrage movement. In 1893 she founded the Australasian Home Reading Union, a literacy program run through small study circles in rural areas, and in 1895, as president of the Kindergarten Union, she established Australia’s first free kindergarten to support the children of working mothers. During this period she also published a fortnightly newspaper, Woman's Voice, which covered suffrage issues in Australia and abroad.
In 1895, women secured the vote in South Australia; in 1902, the rest of Australia followed thanks to the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (though this still excluded Indigenous Australians from voting and standing for parliament).
Maybanke married second husband Sir Francis Anderson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sydney, in 1899 and spent her later years organising for the University Women's Society and the Women Evening Students' Association as well as writing on a range of topics, from local history and travel pieces for the Sydney Morning Herald, to her handbook on early education Mother Lore.
Today, the former Maybanke College and Quong Tart’s family home in Ashfield share a strange synchronicity – both have been converted into aged care facilities.