by Ada A Kidgell (1869-1949)
Ada A Holman (née Kidgell), wife of the first “Labour” premier of New South Wales, published the following story in 1898, when she was only 19. Set more than ten years in the author’s future, the story not only predicts women’s suffrage and right to stand for parliament, it also demonstrates Kidgell’s early interest in progressive politics, in particular women’s work and the problem of child care. The heroine, like Kidgell herself, is a talented debater, and her resignation of her political ambitions in favour of her husband’s career presciently foreshadow the sacrifices and frustrations Kidgell herself was to experience in her marriage.
“So you and Lyall are not friends yet?” said young Mrs. Clement’s mother to her daughter one summer morning in the year 1909.
“No, nor likely to be,” replied the young woman. “It is not as if ours were a trivial difference — a mere absurd lovers’ quarrel such as retrograde women love to indulge in; it is a matter of principle with me. Lyall holds such wrong opinions on all the subjects nearest my heart; his fiscal attitude is absurd — most absurd, and on industrial questions his views are totally antagonistic to the progressive thought of Australia. You can see there can be no patching up of a — friendship which is not only torn, but from which immense pieces are missing.
“Yes; but, my dear, it was strange you did not find out his views earlier.”
Lillah flushed. “Well, mother, it is not for you to rebuke me that I did not study these great matters sooner. Pardon me, you scarcely forwarded my political education. It is only since I have had the inestimable benefit of the companionship of such minds as Amy Dombrelles and James Whitford that I have formed right opinions on these all vital topics.”
“Well, it makes, me miserable.”
“You need not be miserable, mother; I am perfectly happy. See, I have all: the world for comrades — my country for home!”
“Where is Babs?”
“In the garden. I don’t quite know where, but with Olga somewhere. Olga looks after her beautifully. She’s a splendid girl — in a limited sphere, you know.”
Two or three weeks later Mrs. Clement’s mother was not greatly surprised to hear that in the general election then pending, her daughter was a candidate for Parliamentary honors. Of course, women had long since exercised the franchise, and had obtain ed the right to stand for election on equal terms with their male compeers, but in those early days of the privilege it was not largely availed of. Women had not yet grasped all the possibilities of their prerogative, and though the Legislature counted several feminine members in its ranks, the fact was still sufficiently novel to excite jocular comment, just as even in the closing years of the dead century a “bloomered” lady on a wheel had not ceased to be a mirth-provoking object.
But the disturbing note in this election to her mother’s mind was not so much Mrs. Clement’s candidature itself as the fact that her opponent in the electorate she was contesting was her own husband.
Party feeling ran high and strong at the time, and Mrs. Clement was nominated by the extreme Radicals, known then as the Marxites, and her husband by the Conservative body — the Mallockites. The voting promised to be remarkably even, and the win would be a distinct one for one side or the other as at the perfection to which party nomination had then attained, no third candidate had a possible show. There were several important issues in the field, but alas! it was not altogether on the voters’ convictions that this election was to be won. Mrs. Clement had been chosen by her party, it was publicly averred, not only because of her adherence to their platform, but because of her marvellous gift of eloquence. Lillah, a practised debater in the many club; she had belonged to both before and since her marriage, had indeed great power to sway a multitude. The clear, rich tones of her voice, her great mastery of language, added to much beauty of person, were often instrumental in convincing the most pig-headed man. But there was a whisper that had it not been for the influence of James Whitford, the energetic organiser of the Marxites, another candidate would have been chosen to represent them. It was certainly true that Mr. Whitford worked with might and main for the return of the fair politician, at whose house he had of late spent most of his time, and as he had a strong following amongst the men, many of whom were, as well, ardent personal admirers of Lillah Clement, it was believed that her chances justified the confidence she everywhere expressed.
Her husband had by no means her endowment of oratory, but he was looked up to as a man of sterling worth, consistency of demeanor, and “sound, very sound” on the platform of the Mallockites. It was besides, often remarked that Lyall Clement was as handsome as his wife was beautiful. Dozens of the younger ladies said so, and during his canvass those good looks and his general charm of manner towards the fair sex obtained for him the’ votes of nearly all the women. But not of all. The most advanced women had long ago formed a League in which they were pledged to support any female candidate no matter what her policy, in order to push the cause of Woman to the utmost. They looked on every question as minor to this of equal representation for their sex. Therefore many of the elderly and middle-aged women were countenancing Lillah, though each secretly held she herself should have been the chosen candidate of the League.
On the other hand, Lyall would get a good proportion of the men’s votes, not only of those with whom principle was everything, and the personal equation nothing, but of that other body which still existed to glibly repeat: “A woman’s place is her home — que le diable va-t-elle faire dans cette galere?”
All things balanced and considered, the rival candidates had just cause for their feverish energy and unremitting canvass. Lillah knew that the women, speaking generally, made her weakness, and she set all the handsome young men of her committee to call personally on every woman in the electorate. Some went to afternoon teas, some hung over wash-tubs and shirt-boards, others took the schools, the typewriting and other professional institutions. Her public meetings were remarkably successful, but so were her husband’s, and she heard with chagrin of the good results attending his adoption of her weapons — his bevy of lovely maidens calling alike on the hoary-handed and the tender-palmed male voter.
The campaign was thoroughly enjoyed by all, save perhaps the two hard-working principals.
One evening Lillah, after dressing for an important meeting, was sitting in an upstairs study taking a few notes from one of her pet economists, when Olga, her cousin and housekeeper, came in with a plump young lady of some two years in her arms.
“You won’t come to see your baby, Lillah, so I’ve brought her to you.”
“Oh, thanks, Olga, darling. She does look well. Have you any idea where I can find some statistics on the Norwegian land laws?’
“No, I have not. Do you like the ducksie in blue as much as in pink? Granny brought her this frock to-day.”
“Yes, I’m sure she looks sweet in anything. Ah, Olga, she’s mixed all my papers up! Never mind. I’m in no hurry for half an hour. Give me the precious infant. Well, I declare I have scarcely had time to look at the mite for more than a week. She is quite lovely, isn’t she? It is such a comfort to see her so charming, and to know she’s always so well looked after. Aren’t people absurd who say a child can’t be cared for except by its mother? Now, as James Whitford, in his article in the ‘Twentieth Century Pandect,’ proves conclusively a mother is often the worst possible guardian a child can have, as the State is logically the best.”
“Did Whitford write that? I think you must have misunderstood him; he never impresses me as being an unnatural monster,” said Olga, flushing.
“An unnatural monster! You absurd, old-fashioned person! Do try to study things from the scientific standpoint, Olga, dear.”
“And when you’re in Parliament will you never devote any time to Babs?”
“Why, I’ll be devoting all my time to her and every other baby of the nation. I am going to give up my life to improving the condition of the race, and will not my own child participate in the good of the whole community? And, anyway,” added Mrs. Clement, coming down from her heights, “Lyall never comes to see her at all. Why should I devote more time to our child than he does?”
“Lyall comes over from his hotel every evening to see her. Generally when you are with your committee.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Lillah, thoughtfully. “Who is that coming upstairs?”
It was Mr. Clement come to request an interview with his wife. Olga snatched up the fat, paper-chewing baby and left the rival candidates together.
Lillah was looking very beautiful that evening; she had dressed with particular care, and her shining eyes and warm-tinted cheeks told of the inward triumph she was enjoying. James Whitford had been with her shortly before with news of the ever-increasing support being accorded her party in the electorate, and had exultingly declared her return “one of the certainties” of the campaign.
“There is nothing to fear now,” he had said. “The factory hands in E section have declared unanimously for you. Their vote is nearly a fourth of the total.” And this from the cautious Whitford was a rope to trust to.
In the light of these tidings, Lyall was not likely to succeed in the object of his visit; he had come to beg Lillah to retire from the contest, promising in return to concede all the many points of issue of their married life, and even to take up many of the important questions the Marxites were advancing. He put forward so many good reasons and was so deferential and conciliatory that Lillah did not remember till afterwards that she should have repulsed him with indignation. But perhaps her certainty of triumph had evoked such joyousness and goodwill that it stayed the wrathful periods which the occasion doubtless demanded. However, her refusal, though uncompromisingly definite, was couched in terms so courteous that Clement, on his side, had no cause for bitterness.
“Anyway, I think you ought to appear before the public differently,” he grumbled in an old-time marital way. “That’s hardly the rig for a platform speaker.”
“So you don’t, think I look nice?”
“Nice? It’s what I object to, perhaps. Isn’t there a more manly style of garb you could adopt?”
“It is so good of you to interest yourself so far as to object to my personal adornment,” said Mrs. Clement, sweetly, as she rose; “but do you mind if we postpone the discussion? That must be Mr. Whitford’s cab drawing up.”
Baffled and discomfited, and filled with jealousy of Whitford, Clement left the room shortly after his wife, refusing to call in at the nursery as was his wont, even though Olga ran out to the landing to detain him.
“Won’t you come in to Babs for a minute?” she pleaded.
“Why,” said he in alarm at her urgency. “Isn’t the child well?”
“Well! She’s quite well. Oh, good-night. Wait a minute, Lyall — Where is last month’s ‘Twentieth Century Pandect?’ ”
“In the green bookcase downstairs; but great Jupiter! Olga, have you, too, taken to ‘ologies and ‘nomics?”
“There is something in it I wanted to read, that is all. Good-night.”
Lyall went out to join some members of his committee, amongst whom was his brother.
“It’s no use, Godfrey, I’ve told Lillah how poor her chances are; how convinced, in fact, by the latest indications, you and the others are that she stands no show, but she won’t listen to me. I’d like, indeed, to save her the ignominy of a crushing defeat, but she will go on, urged by that bumptious Whitford, and there’s nothing for it but to let her.”
“It might be better if I put the facts before her?”
“No; she’s thoroughly obstinate. Indeed, it was most amusing; she told me her return was a dead certainty!”
* * *
The general election of the year 1909 was behind none of its predecessors in the matter of interest. The excitement in the streets was intense during the day, naturally increasing in fervor as the hours rolled by and the results might be expected. The chief of the late Parliament was an ardent Marxite, but he had by no means an over-whelming majority in the country, and he was of that wise temperament that is never surprised by either defeat or victory. He believed he had the women, particularly the working women, with him, and this in the well-balanced State of the sexes was certainly an advantage.
A Parliamentary election was not yet preened into the rose-leaf elegance of a ladies’ school breaking-up party, but no exhibitions of larrikinism were tolerated, such as, to believe the local Press, were the unfailing concomitants of Nineteenth Century contests.
Lyall Clement was apparently altogether cool and collected while awaiting the returns from his constituency of Hampden. He smoked, discussed the political outlook dispassionately, and expected victory with smiling confidence. Lillah would have given any thing for such an appearance of composure. She knew the papers next day would have comments on her “feverish agitation,” but even that disturbing anticipation could not give her repression. But she told herself there would be plenty of time to cool down after wards; when the joyful win was once announced her pulsations would be come normal.
One constituency after another became the happy possessor of a member, amidst the acclaim of the multitude gathered below the newspaper hoardings, but still the fate of Hampden hung in the balance. The excited crowd, particularly those of it especially interested, began to ask each other what delayed the Hampden returns; all eyes were turned on that portion of the board which held the two similar names, L. Clement above, and L. Clement below.
It may have been an oversight at this particular office, or else there was no room on the board for Christian names, but by this arrangement, when the numbers did go up, no one was much the wiser.
About 9 o’clock came the figures — 803 to the top name, 800 below! but appended thereto was the word of suspense, “incomplete.” In common with her committee Lillah knew that the larger number pertained to her husband. So far the majority was against her. The next few minutes were a crushing agony. Her heart-strings would snap, she knew, if the strain were kept up much longer.
What a shout! What a roar from the crowd! What is it? L. Clement 857 and L. Clement 857!
Lillah knew that if she fainted or even reeled now she would be disgraced for ever, and not only she herself, but what was more to her than life, her sex’s cause. With a supreme effort she kept up, responded at random to the medley of voices around her, and went out on the balcony to return thanks in the brightest, wittiest speech she had ever made.
No wonder her humor flowed cheerily, for a conviction was hers that Lyall could not feel — the casting vote of the returning officer would be hers. He was not bound to one candidate more than another, as both were new-comers to the electorate, the late representative having been prevented by illness from coming forward. If he had the slightest political bias it might be towards the Mallockites, but Lillah smiled a satisfied smile when one of her committee gloomily suggested this.
Does a man ever forget his first love? Would Norman Strand be true to the vow made to a brown-haired girl, the companion of his schooldays in the dusty streets of a far-away mining town, twelve years before? In Lillah’s ears still rang that promise of eternal fidelity: “Good-bye, if it must be, Lillah, but remember till the end of life my devotion is at your feet.”
Was it only chance that here in Sydney brought their paths together, though they never met, that had given him the position in which he could prove his desire to serve her? But, after all, twelve years was a long, long time! She brought all her powers of concentration to will him into concession.
Lyall, on his side, was in no position to divine how Mr. Strand would vote. He knew the Mallockites had really no grounds on which to claim the returning officer as of their party, as, from what he knew of him, he believed Strand impartially sceptical regarding the merits of both factions, and he knew nothing of any tender interest that might affect the case.
* * *
When the poll for Hampden was declared at noon next day, and the returning officer, after announcing a tie, gave his casting vote in favor of Lillah Clement on the ground that public feeling evidenced a strong desire to give women an active part in the government of the country, a denouement resulted that was the subject of public and private controversy for days.
Immediately on obtaining the intelligence for which she had almost prayed the night through, Mrs. Clement entered into private and earnest conference with her committee. Whatever she decided in that interview was not accorded unanimous consent, but the member over-ruled every objection. At its close she sent for her husband, who came to her without delay.
“Lyall,” she began, hardly waiting to receive his congratulations, “did you not promise, if returned, to take up our attitude on the Factories question and the Education Act? Did you not, in fact, at several of your latest meetings adopt a large portion of the Marxite platform?”
“I did,” he said, defiantly, “for reasons approved of by my conscience, and, I may add, by my committee.”
“Thank you. This being so, gentlemen, I have much pleasure in retiring from Hampden in favor of Lyall Clement.”
She sat down. Lyall came towards her, striving for fit speech. She pushed him off, saying:
“Wait. Listen to what the others have to say.”
There were some on both sides to approve her course, others who voiced dissent, and urged further consideration or consultation with the constituency.
Lilla listened respectively to all that was put forward; then, excusing herself, she smilingly wished them a pleasant time at the luncheon that was to wind up proceedings, and went away with her husband.
“What makes you do it, Lillah?” he asked. “I don’t, of course, know yet whether I’ll accept the sacrifice.”
“But I do,” she laughed. “You have no choice. You need not fear another contest either. No one except me would have any show against you in Hampden.”
“I think you are right in that; but you don’t answer my question.”
“Well … There are so many things … It does not sound exalted put into words. I only know that I have fought in the last few days solely possessed by the joy of resigning what I was to win. I was certain of victory — certain — though I knew it would be close. It was keen anguish to-night when your first return exceeded mine. I was to be deprived of my glorious renunciation. Ah, Lyall, you will work well for women, won’t you? And for all workers — the down-trodden, the oppressed, the ignorant?”
“God is my witness. I faithfully shall.”
They stood outside their house. Babs, from an upstairs window, stuck out a fat pink fist and gurgled in recognition. Olga held her in her arms, but kept in the background, not daring to look out to read the news their faces would disclose. She hardly knew what she wished, but she believed that if Lyall were tasting the joys of triumph it meant the death of Babs’ mother.
“You can help in the work as much outside the House as in it, Lillah,” Lyall was saying.
“Yes, I know. And there is Babs. Lyall, I think I decided it when Olga told me you came every day to see her. I hadn’t held the mite in my arms for nearly a week; but you know if you had persisted in going the whole length of the Mallockites, I couldn’t have given up. Convictions are not to be thrown overboard for sentiment, are they?”
“No, of course not. But, Lillah, while we are talking like true comrades, as of old, let me tell you how much I dislike that Whitford hanging about the house so much. I wouldn’t say … I mean, I know … You understand my undying faith in you, but he need not come about any longer now the campaign’s over, need he?”
“I think he’ll come just the same,” Lillah rippled.
“By Heaven, it’s too much!”
“Are you any good at telling stories — fibs, you know, Lyall?” she asked, positively ignoring his emotion. “That’s an absurd question to ask a man at the end of an election fight, I know, but do you mind swearing an extra big lie in a good cause?”
“What’s all this?” he demanded, angrily.
“Well, have you any objection to telling Olga that you wrote that ‘State Nursery’ article in last month’s ‘Pandect’? She will never marry James Whitford as long as she believes he wrote it. It’s not signed, you know.”
“Does Whitford want to marry Olga?”
“Yes, why not? Do you think your wife the only desirable woman in the world? But what about that article? Hurry up; she must be in a real fever to hear the news.”
“I’ll promise anything — anything. Is there a thing I could refuse anyone at this moment? But no, I’ll tell her you wrote it; that will sound more plausible. I’m pretty sure you inspired it, Lillah.”
“I don’t care. Perhaps it would be as well; I’ve got an unpleasant quarter of an hour before me with some of the extreme Marxites, so I may as well have something to point to to prove my adherence. I’ll tell James that I can claim that henceforth.”
“I understand two or three things now,” mused Clement, as they went in doors. “By Jove! I wonder if the profession of politics has anything in it of the complex compared with the little dramas going on under every man’s roof tree? I’ve got to take up the cause of women! If I could only understand one individual among them it would be of some slight assistance in that airy little contract.”
[signed Ada A Kidgell]
Kidgell, Ada A, The triumphant candidate, Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW), 18 Dec 1898: 13.
Image source: M. E. L., “Mrs W A Holman“, The worker (Wagga Wagga NSW), 17 Dec 1904: 5.
What a great story. I was spellbound! Though I’m not sure that Ada’s moral – make way for your husband – is one with which I agree, especially when it involves the ‘marxites’ losing a seat.
I’m glad you liked it, Bill. You can see why I chose it over her journalistic piece on marriage. And yes! Her capitulation is so annoying – even if she thinks she’s getting the best of both words, hands-on motherhood and all the advances for women that she’s been working for. Too much trust in the husband, methinks!