An Autobiography HTML version

My Work For Education
I was the first woman appointed on a Board of Advice under the Education Department,
and found the work interesting. The powers of the board were limited to an expenditure
of 5 pounds for repairs without applying to the department and to interviewing the
parents of children who had failed to attend the prescribed number of days, as well as
those who pleaded poverty as an exewe for the non-payment of fees. I always felt that the
school fees were a heavy burden on the poor, and rejoiced accordingly when free
education was introduced into South Australia. This was the second State to adopt this
great reform, Victoria preceding it by a few years. I objected to the payment of fees on
another ground. I felt they bore heavily on the innocent children themselves through the
notion of caste which was created in the minds of those who paid fees to the detriment of
their less fortunate school companions. And again, education that is compulsory should
be free. Other women have since become members of School Boards. but I was the
pioneer of that branch of public work for women in this State. It is a privilege that
American women have been fighting for for many years--to vote for and to be eligible to
sit on School Boards. In many of the States this has been won to their great advantage. In
this present year of 1910 Mrs. Ella, Flagg Young, at the age of 65, has been elected by
the Chigago Board, Director of the Education of that great city of over two millions of
inhabitants at a salary of 2,000 pounds a year, with a male university professor as an
assistant. At an age when we in South Australia are commanding our teachers to retire, in
Chicago, which is said by Foster Fraser to cashier men at 40, this elderly woman has
entered into her great power.
It is characteristic of me that I like to do thoroughly what I undertake to do at all, and
when, on one ocasion I had not received the usual summons to attend a board meeting, I
complained of the omission to the Chairman. "I do not want," I said, "to be a merely
ornamental member of this board. I want to go to all the meetings." He replied,
courteously, "It is the last thing that we would say of you, Miss Spence, that you are
ornamental!" It was half a minute before he discovered that he had put his disclaimer in
rather a different form from what he had intended, and he joined in the burst of laughter
which followed. Another amusing contretemps occurred when the same gentleman and I
were visiting the parents who had pleaded for exemption from the payment of fees. At
one house there was a grown-up daughter who had that morning left the service of the
gentleman's mother--a fact enlarged upon by my companion during the morning's drive.
"Why is your eldest daughter out of a place?" was the first question he put to the woman.
"She might be earning good wages, and be able to help you pay the fees." "Oh!" came the
unexpected reply, "she had to leave old Mrs. ---- this morning; she was that mean there
was no living in the house with her!" Knowing her interlocutor only as the man in
authority, the unfortunate woman scarcely advanced her cause by her plain speaking, and
I was probably the only member of the trio who appreciated the situation. I am sure many
people who were poorer than this mother paid the fees rather than suffer the indignity of
such cross-questioning by the school visitors and the board--an unfortunate necessity of
the system, which disappeared with the abolition of school fees.