Who Was Brettena Smyth?

She was born in c. 1840. She stood at almost six feet tall. She was a commanding character. An advocate of women’s health. A campaigner for women’s rights. A lecturer of health and a single mother who supported her children from a drapery and druggist shop in North Melbourne where she would also dispense contraceptive devices. A committed secularist. An active supporter of the labour movement. A challenger of conventional reticence, she had fought for her advanced ideas in women’s bodies and reproduction most of her adult life. She was Bridgetena (Brettena) Smyth, and her story is important.

She was born in Kyneton to a local merchant. At twenty-one years old she married William Taylor Smyth, the owner of greengrocers in North Melbourne. In the years that followed, she would bear five children – only four of which survived infancy. Her husband passed away in 1873 of tuberculosis and another son had passed before adolescence, leaving Brettena to support three children by herself.

After her husband’s death, Brettena converted the greengrocers into a drapery and druggist business. It was a business she would manage throughout the remainder of her life.

She was a member of the Eclectic Association and the Australasian Secular Association. The former was an organisation that discussed ideas considered controversial, while the latter supported social and political ideas that were deemed as radical. One of which was birth control (Malthusianism as it was known). An idea taken for granted today but shunned and looked at in disgust only a hundred or so years ago.

Brettena’s fight for ideals and progressiveness didn’t stop there. She was a member of the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society, the first women’s suffrage movement in Victoria, formed in 1884. Soon afterwards, Brettena formed a breakaway group called Australian Women’s Suffrage Society. According to sources, one of the reasons for this was the opposition that Brettena faced for her views and support for voluntary motherhood and more importantly for her views on contraception.

The topic of contraception and family size was debatable in Australia at the time. Followers that were deemed ‘respectable’ may not have wanted to connect themselves with such radical ideas as birth control and believed that such issues would deter from the broader fight for gaining suffrage.

One of Brettena’s biggest fights was that of the maternal body and the education that she believed women needed to know, and understand, about their own internal functions.

Often speaking in support of motherhood and the maternal role, Brettena also deplored how little women knew of their bodies. Topics of which at the time were thought to be indelicate, Brettena tried to push. A group of women, including Brettena Smyth and Constance Stone (a founder of the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women and a doctor), began to argue against this narrative.

Brettena, who had once hoped to become a doctor herself, could not afford higher education at a time of recession in the 1890s, however educated herself extensively.

Things began to change in 1888. Birth control literature was finally overturned as ‘obscene’ material, and Brettena soon after began to advertise and sell contraceptive devices from her North Melbourne shop.

The Preventif Pessaire was the preferred item of choice for Brettena. It was a contraceptive that a woman could use without the knowledge of her husband. Its slogan was, ‘the best, safest and most sure check’.

Brettena also produced a book, The Diseases of Women. Along with pamphlets on an array of topics for women, from Love to Marriage. If that wasn’t enough, Brettena, never short of vigour and character, also lectured extensively on the subject in the 1890s. With mostly women as her captive audience, her lectures were well attended and of great interest to youthful females.

            ‘No false modest should prevent the teaching and education necessary for the ideal commencement of woman’s existence. Woman should be trained at an early age to understand herself, and should be taught anatomy and physiology and their influence on her life and happiness.’

                        Topic, ‘Woman, and How to Train Her’, Brettena addressing her audience at the monthly meeting of the Prahran branch of the Women’s Franchise League in July 1895.

She spoke at town hall meetings, encouraged free-thinking and broader values, made her voice heard over unjust prosecutions of women, and fought at every corner for a better, brighter future, at a time when the recession was burning through society and the government was at breaking points.

With women’s suffrage intensifying in Victoria, Brettena Smyth made her voice heard across these public forums in North Melbourne, Brunswick, Prahran, Fitzroy and regional Victoria.

            ‘Women should be placed upon the same footing as men, socially and politically, for it was to the advantage of men that women should advance side by side with them with the progress of the age. (Disorder) Many women paid taxes and still had no representation in the Legislature, and this was not fair. (Hear. Hear.) That in the opinion of this meeting the women of this colony are justly entitled to the franchise, and that it is a gross injustice to women to withhold it from them; and that the ballot box in their hands would tend to further the best interests of the State.

Brunswick meeting, June 1894. Through many attempts from audience to interrupt, the motion was carried.

She was a voice for the voiceless, an educator for the uneducated, a bringer of choice, a supporter and fighter at a time when the world was locked in the thralls of darkness and women were subject to little if any rights.

Brettena Smyth died at the young age of fifty-seven, on the 15th of February 1898 from Bright’s disease at her son’s residence in Morwell. Newspapers at the time all commented on the tragic loss.

She died just ten years before women in Victoria could finally vote, and women’s suffrage was taking full flight.

For more information of Brettena Smyth, and to see the resource for this article, please see oldtreasurybuilding.org.au/brettena-smyth/