Lee, Mary Agnes (1821–1909), suffragist in Australia, was born Mary Agnes Walsh on 14 February 1821 in Co. Monaghan, the daughter of John Walsh; her mother's name is unknown. Raised in Ulster, in 1844 she married George Lee, the organist and choirmaster of Armagh Cathedral; they had four sons and three daughters. After the death of her husband, in 1879 she emigrated to Australia for the sake of her son John Benjamin Lee, who was terminally ill. He died the following year, but Mary decided to stay in Adelaide, both because she could not afford to return and because she had become attached to the country.
Despite her advancing age, she threw herself into political causes, especially campaigns to improve women's status in society. She became ladies' secretary of the Social Purity Society, a movement which made great progress nationally, and many of the improvements in the Criminal Law Consolidation Act (1885) were credited to Lee. Continuing the fight, she was instrumental in the founding, in July 1888, of the South Australian Women's Suffrage League. As joint secretary and later sole secretary she played a pivotal role in the movement, which she described as her ‘crowning task’. Her main objective was to secure the vote for women on the same terms as men; she was less concerned about women sitting in parliament. Employing biblical, historical, and literary allusions to prove her case, she was frequently attacked by opponents in quite extreme terms. Her emphasis on social justice alienated many conservatives: one wrote that, if women got the vote, ‘I may live to see her [Lee] knitting, counting the while the bleeding heads of the thrifty and learned as they fall between the strokes of the guillotine' (Oldfield, 177). At a meeting in 1889 Lee proposed the formation of trade unions for women, and two years later the Women's Trades Union was founded; she was secretary until 1893. The United Labor Party supported female suffrage from 1891, but the lack of progress frustrated Lee, who caused uproar when she denounced the party as ‘a lot of nincompoops’. Finally, in 1894, women in South Australia won the right to the parliamentary vote.
The following year Lee declined two invitations to stand for parliament. For her seventy-fifth birthday in 1896 she was awarded fifty sovereigns by the Adelaide town hall, and she was praised for her leading role in securing women's suffrage. Later that year she was appointed by the government the first woman official visitor to asylums for the mentally ill, and over the next twelve years she ministered to the patients with great compassion. Beset by financial problems in her final years, she was forced to sell her library. Despite pleas for public aid, it seems her sharp tongue and uncompromising attitude had made her many enemies and few genuine friends. As she fell into poverty she became bitter that her years of public service had been carried out at her own expense. She died 18 September 1909 at her North Adelaide home, and was buried in the Wesleyan cemetery, Walkersville, her tombstone bearing the words ‘Secretary of the Women's Suffrage League’. A fiery orator, she had a volatile temper but a kind nature. She is now recognised as one of the leading figures of the Australian suffrage movement.