One of Adelaide’s most fascinating historic female figures, Miss Muriel Lilah Matters (1877-1969) is currently the subject of an exhibition in the City Library’s History Hub. Presented by the City of Adelaide Archives, in partnership with the City Library and The Muriel Matters Society Inc, The Story of Muriel Matters is an exhibition featuring photographs, original artworks, postcards, newspaper cuttings, ballots boxes, WFL brooches, a replica Muriel Matters outfit, and other memorabilia relating to Muriel’s life and story. It runs until Thursday 8 November.
On Friday 28 September at 11am, Frances Bedford MP, Secretary of the Muriel Matters Society Inc., will share insights into the achievements and adventures of this pioneer for women’s rights at a “Why does Muriel Matter?” talk in the City Library. Both these events are free, but bookings to the talk are essential and can be made by clicking here. Joining Frances Bedford for the talk will be City of Adelaide Curator, Polly Dance – who shares a little of Muriel’s incredible story in this article below.
A stage actor, elocutionist and advocate for Montessori education and the Labour Party, Muriel Matters is perhaps best known as a suffragist and for her efforts on behalf of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in campaigning for equal rights for women.
Born into a large Methodist family on 12 November 1877 in Bowden on the outskirts of the City of Adelaide, Muriel Matters was one of ten children and the third eldest to parents Emma Alma Matters (née Warburton) and John Leonard Matters.
Growing up in Adelaide, Muriel Matters saw South Australia become the first State in Australia to give women equal rights to vote and the first place in the world to grant women the right to stand for parliament.
After voting twice in the South Australian elections, Muriel moved to London to pursue her acting career and was shocked to discover she could no longer vote. She joined the London WFL to fight for equal rights for women and from May-October 1908, managed the first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour of the south east coast of England and Wales. Notably, Muriel Matters was the first full-time paid organiser for the WFL’s Caravan Tours. The caravan visited many towns in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, promoting women’s rights and setting up new WFL branches.
Muriel Matters is recognised as the first woman to speak in the House of Commons after chaining herself to the grille of the Ladies’ Gallery in the British House of Commons on 28 October 1908. Muriel’s non-violent protest brought to light the oppressive symbol this iron gate held in separating women from taking part in parliamentary debate. In her best elocutionist voice, she proclaimed:
“The women of England demand the vote, for too long we have been kept behind this grille.” – Muriel Matters
Muriel served a month’s imprisonment at Holloway Gaol for her actions, considered to be wilfully obstructing London Police. The sentence did nothing to dampen her spirits.
On 16 February 1909, the gumptious 31-year-old took to London’s skies in the world’s first airborne protest – travelling in what was known as a dirigible (an early form of hot air balloon) emblazoned with the words: Votes for Women. Muriel distributed the equivalent of 25kg of WFL flyers to pedestrians below, attempting to intercept the British Houses of Parliament. Her innovative advertising campaign made newspaper headlines everywhere!
Muriel Matters travelled back to her homeland of Australia between May and July 1910, running a lecture series across the country, including our very own Adelaide Town Hall. She visited four states in Australia and spoke to thousands in packed theatres. Advertisements lauded Miss Muriel Matters as: That Daring Australian Girl and The Lady of the Grille, England’s Foremost Woman Orator.
She returned to London to discover the fight for the vote was becoming more violent and corrupt. Muriel had no interest in a military campaign and instead turned her efforts to helping those in need.
On 15 October 1914, aged 36, she married Dr William Arnold Porter and became Muriel Matters-Porter; the couple had no children. In 1916, she attended a training course by Maria Montessori in Barcelona, Spain, which began her commitment to Montessori and alternative education. In 1922, she returned to Australia once more to run a lecture series on the merits of Montessori education. Two years later she ran as a Labour candidate for a seat in Hastings, British Parliament General Elections. Although unsuccessful, Muriel’s actions are evidence of her deep belief in women’s right to be heard and at the forefront of decision-making. She lived in Hastings until her death on 17 November 1969, aged 92.
In January 2018, as part of the Adelaide Fringe Street Art Explosion program, artist Claire Foxton was engaged to create a new mural to honour Muriel Matters – adding to the City of Adelaide’s rich tapestry of public artworks. You can view Muriel’s mural in person in Dawkins Place, just off Frome Street.