In this milestone 125th anniversary year of women’s suffrage in South Australia, meet Miss Muriel Lilah Matters (1877-1969) – one of Adelaide’s most fascinating historic female figures and a wonderful example of the power of participation.
Muriel Matters was a stage actor and elocutionist but 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.
Growing up in Adelaide, Muriel saw South Australia become the first Australian State 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 at home, Muriel moved to London and was shocked to discover she couldn’t vote. Muriel joined the London WFL to fight for equal rights for women, managing its first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour of the south east coast of England and Wales in 1908.
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. Her 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.
Muriel’s advocacy work made global headlines when on 16 February 1909, she courageously took to London’s skies in the world’s first airborne protest. From her lofty post under a dirigible (an early form of hot air balloon) – emblazoned with the words: Votes for Women – she threw bundles of WFL flyers (the equivalent of 25kg) down to those below.
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.
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.