Emily Dobson was born at Port Arthur, and educated at home by her father, Thomas James Lempriere, a public servant, artist and amateur scientist. At twenty five, she married Henry Dobson, a young and enterprising lawyer from a wealthy, cultivated Hobart family. They had five children.
Henry Dobson entered politics in 1891 as the liberal MHA for Brighton, serving as premier from 1892-94.
Emily Dobson was the most notable local leader of women and predominant in charitable endeavours from the early 1890s, with an enormous range of interests: the Women's Sanitary Association which entered the male domain to pressure local government for sanitary reform; the Ministering Children's League; the Free Kindergarten Association; the New Town Consumptives' Sanitorium; the Blind, Deaf and Dumb Society; the Brabazon Society; the Union Jack Society and many others. During the depression of 1892-95, she provided tangible assistance by organizing a soup kitchen which supplied up to a thousand meals a day; and effectively ran the Village Settlement Scheme at Southport, where the poor were given a chance to become independent farmers. Money was raised through fairs, entertainments and balls.
Both Dobsons dominated the social scene, forming a pressure group nicknamed 'Dobsonia' by the socialist paper Clipper, which was highly critical of her upper middle class, 'do-goodish' approach to social problems which was out of touch with real needs.
Although she established and ran many charitable organisations, she had no radical aims or desire to change the social structure, but to relieve the worst of society's inequalities. In this, she reflected the attitude of her times: poverty was caused by individual character defects, not a flawed economic or social system.
The 1890s was a time of change and increased activity for women, with many involved in charitable and public organisations. The Dobson family wealth enabled Emily's participation in a vast range of charities, assisted by a full-time private secretary. Unfettered by domestic duties, she was able to represent Tasmanian women overseas, with 33 trips to Britain and Europe, and 67 away from the state.
She was the mainstay of the NCW (National Council of Women, formed 1899) for thirty years: as a founding member, Tasmanian president from 1902 until her death, first Australian president 1906-34, an international vice-president, and life member. In recognition of her contribution, in 1919 the Tasmanian NCW established the Emily Dobson Philanthropic Prize Competition for welfare organisations.
Reputedly a good speaker, she canvassed shops and workrooms in aid of her husband Senator Dobson. She was very active in separate right-wing women's political organisations, such as the Liberal League - unlike Labor women, who met in mixed groups.
Although not a teetotaller herself, she was sympathetic to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and joined in 1912, but was an intermittent member.
Both the WCTU and the NCW supported women's suffrage. Henry Dobson was known to have opposed women's suffrage as 'politics were too dirty for women'. Emily herself never spoke publicly on the issue. However, in 1906, replying to a letter requesting support for British suffragettes, she said that while the NCW was in favour of some women having the vote, it disapproved of universal suffrage for either sex
In 1930 she was appointed to the League of Nations Assembly for her valuable contribution to local, national and international councils.
Alexander, A., The Public Role of Women in Tasmania, 1803-1914, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Tasmania, 1989
Pearce, V., '"A Few Viragos on a Stump": the Womanhood Suffrage Campaign in Tasmania, 1880-1920', Tasmanian Historical Research Association. Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 32, No. 4 (December 1985)
Radi, H. (ed), 200 Australian Women: a Redress Anthology, Broadway: Women's Redress Press Inc., 1988
Taylor, A., Mrs Henry Dobson: Victorian "Do-Gooder" or Sincere Social Reformer, Unpublished BA Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 1973
This entry was researched and written by Wendy Rimon, B.A.