LAWSON, LOUISA (1848–1920)
Louisa Lawson was a pioneer woman journalist and an indefatigable fighter for women’s causes. She was also a poet and short story writer (and mother of Henry), but her fame rests upon the Dawn, a monthly national women’s journal that she edited virtually single-handedly from 1888 until 1905, when her ill-health forced its closure. Lawson started the Dawn some five years after she left a life of rural poverty to move to Sydney, supporting her dependant children by washing, sewing and taking in lodgers. This editorial longevity remains her leader community newspapers single most remarkable achievement, given that she was poor and barely educated, and had no previous journalism experience.
Lawson was responsible for virtually all the Dawn’s editorials, as well as creative pieces, poems and numerous other items. Particularly in its first decade, the magazine (originally titled A Journal for Australian Women, then A Journal for the Household) enjoyed an extensive female readership in urban and rural Australia. Lawson attributed its popularity to the alternative it offered to the period’s frivolous and superficial way of presenting women’s issues. Certainly it was not afraid to be a ‘phonograph to wind out audibly the whispers, pleadings and demands of the sisterhood’ (first editorial, May 1888), and it dealt with many controversial issues of the day, including women’s education and right to work, domestic violence, divorce and women’s rights within marriage. But Lawson’s greatest cause was women’s suffrage, which she espoused with single-minded and passionate fervour until the NSW government awarded women the vote in 1903.
But Lawson was also an astute businesswoman, and the Dawn was—unusually for its time—a self-supporting commercial success. Between half and one-third of each edition was devoted to advertising, so the magazine—which also provided a mail-order service—functioned as a shopping catalogue for country subscribers. Lawson also offered inducements to increase the number of subscribers, including 2 acres of farmland near Mudgee, New South Wales—presumably her own property, left to her when her estranged husband died in 1888. Moreover, the Dawn offered entertainment as well as enlightenment, providing fashion hints, a ‘Children’s Corner’ with jokes and stories, and household tips. This strategy of allurement and edification, coupled with Lawson’s prodigious energy, ensured the Dawn’s stand-alone success among Australian women’s magazines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
REF: S. Pearce, The Shameless Scribbler (1992).