A brief history of the National Council of Women of Australia

A major step in the development of women's activism and civic awareness in Australia was the formation of National Councils of Women in all states between 1896 and 1910—New South Wales in 1896, Tasmania in 1899, Victoria in 1902, South Australia in the same year (collapsed 1909, reconstituted 1920), Queensland in 1905 and Western Australia in 1911. Each was affiliated separately to the International Council of Women (ICW) until the formation of the National Council of Women of Australia (NCWA) in 1931 [1]. NCWA was preceded by interstate conferences from as early as 1902, by agreements on federation for purposes of financial and representation arrangements with the ICW dating from 1906, and by a federal council formed over the period 1924–1925. But the process was slow, reluctant and tentative. In later years, new Councils were admitted to the NCWA from the Australian Capital Territory (1939) and the Northern Territory (1964), and Launceston Council was granted conditional autonomous status in 1952.

The broad world-wide Council concept had been the brainchild of two American women leaders, suffragist Susan B. Anthony and fellow activist May Wright Sewall. In June 1887, Anthony issued an international call to 'all women of light and learning, to all associations of women in trades, professions and reforms, as well as to those advocating political rights' [2], to congregate together on 25 March 1888 at a conference hosted by the National Woman Suffrage Association in Washington DC to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the American women's Equal Rights Convention held at Seneca Falls in 1848. The ideal, to form an international women's movement that went beyond political rights and reflected all the interests of women engaged in public work, was summed up by Sewall as the 'Council Idea'. Because the Council was conceived as an umbrella structure, existing women's groups of all kinds could gather under its canopy at national and international levels to discuss matters of common interest, to gather information and to learn from each other in order to promote peace and general wellbeing [3]. Thus the gathering in 1888 saw the birth of both the International Council of Women and the first National Council of Women, appropriately in the United States. The ICW's American founders took advantage of the Chicago World exhibition in 1893 to organise the largest and most representative gathering of women yet held anywhere in the world to start planning the structure of the envisaged permanent forum 'where all the great questions that concern humanity shall be discussed from the woman's point of view' [4]. Margaret Windeyer, a NSW commissioner to the Chicago World exhibition, brought the idea back to Australia and formed the first Council in Sydney in 1896.

In the wake of the Great War, ICW became one of the principal channels through which women's interests were expressed at the League of Nations. After World War II, it was granted United Nations general consultative status. The NCWA has thus been able to claim to speak on behalf of its constituents at state, national and international levels of government, though this was not without challenge from newer, generally more radical groupings. The Council has, however, had more staying power than any of its rivals and, for most of its existence, can be accurately described as the peak body representing the great majority of women's groups in this country: groups whose activities focused on religion, morality, health, child welfare, education and philanthropy, but also on peace, women's economic and political rights, media representations, and legal reform in the interests of justice for women. The number of affiliated organisations enabled NCWA leaders to claim they represented the views of over a million Australian women. Thus the feminist face the NCWA has presented is necessarily moderate with an emphasis on information, education and co-operation rather than on activism, agitation and opposition. Although the Councils have always identified as moderate and mainstream, stressing especially the interests of home and family, membership of the ICW committed them to a growing list of policies that reflected a broad liberal equal rights feminist agenda and inevitably involved them in lobbying on issues such as equal pay, equality within marriage, equal representation on all decision-making bodies and equal access to all occupations and professions.

NCWA's more radical rivals have characterised the Councils as conservative, and, while this can be challenged in terms of their commitment to equality and legal reform, it has certainly been an accurate description of their alignment in terms of party politics. This was partly at least because Labor women were for long periods of time blocked by their party from affiliation and, more recently, because second-wave feminists had a number of different goals and were impatient with slow constitutional and hierarchical forms of decision-making. Many NCWA leaders have been members of the Liberal Party (and its predecessors) and nearly all non-Labor women parliamentarians, both state and federal, had links with the Councils until at least the 1970s. But the broad and varied commitments of the NCWA and its international commitments have meant its leaders have co-operated with trade unionists in seeking equal pay for women, with second-wave feminists on family law reform and measures to counter domestic violence, and that they have generally worked as willingly with Labor governments as with non-Labor ones. The presidents have frequently had to tread carefully between the suspicion of change among large sections of their affiliated membership and the progressive policies to which ICW affiliation committed them, and perhaps their greatest political achievement has been the gradual education of their own members in matters of gender equality.

Between NCWA's formation in 1931 and its 75th anniversary in 2006, there have been 23 presidents but 3 other women deserve to be included in this pantheon—Emily Dobson who led the Australian delegation to the ICW conferences from 1904 till 1920; Lillias Skene who was the first president of the Federated Councils of the NCWs of Australia; and Mildred Muscio who was the Federation's second president and interim president of NCWA until the new board of officers could be elected. This exhibition thus consists of biographical studies and assessments of the contributions of 26 women who have played key leadership roles in the history of mainstream feminism in Australia.



  1. The organisation was named the National Council of Women of Australia (NCWA) in 1931, but it became known generally as the Australian National Council of Women (ANCW) before it officially returned to the original NCWA nomenclature in 1970. Return to text
  2. Leila Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women's Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 15. Return to text
  3. Leen Van Molle and Eliane Gubin (eds), Women Changing the World: A History of the International Council of Women (Brussels: Editions Racine, 2005), p. 16. Return to text
  4. Karen Offen, 'Overcoming Hierarchies through Internationalism - The Council Idea: May Wright Sewall's Objectives for the International Council of Women (1888-1904)', Paper presented at the IFRWH/CISH Conference, Amsterdam, August 2010. The quotation from Sewall also comes from this paper. Return to text