This exhibition showcases the lives and achievements of the women who were presidents of the National Council of Women of Australia between 1931 and 2006. These women have been little recognised in the pages of Australian history. But they and their organisation spoke on behalf of many thousands of Australian women, and governments responded—sometimes after decades of polite agitation. These determined defenders of women's rights represented the mainstream of women's opinion across the last century, and did so with grace and style.
A national president-to-be usually joined her state branch as a delegate from one of the organisations that clustered under the NCW umbrella. These included church groups of all denominations, political groups—usually on the right—peace activists, professional organisations, moral improvement groups, old scholars associations, and cultural and educational organisations: a diverse collection bought together by a common concern for the welfare of women. To lead such diverse interests, presidents needed tact, persuasion and a degree of persistence.
National presidents were generally recruited from the ranks of the state presidents. In the early years, these women were mostly well-to-do leisured ladies, the wives of men prominent in business and politics. They were often already world travellers, happy to extend their annual trip Home to include a visit to an International Council of Women assembly in Europe or the United States. And they were stylish, remembered as women of 'beauty, grace, and elegance', famed for 'wit and wisdom and trailing draperies' . None of this diminished their commitment to fight for women's equality before the law, nationally and internationally.
From the 1950s, the presidents were less leisured, and sometimes less lady-like. Hats and gloves were worn less frequently in formal portraits, and draperies vanished. As servants disappeared from Australian society, married women waited until their children were grown before volunteering as leaders. Single women were usually well established in professional careers. The work of these volunteer presidents became itself more professional, as governments and utilities appointed them to commissions and boards requiring expert knowledge.
The last decades of the 20th century saw the trend towards professionalism intensify. Presidents found themselves writing submissions, applying for project grants, justifying expenditure and reporting on outcomes. Representing the interests of Australian women became a full-time (unpaid) occupation. At the international level, the same pressures applied. Australian presidents who undertook positions with the International Council of Women found themselves working as unpaid officers of international agencies.
Through all these changes some qualities persist. Presidents of the National Council of Women of Australia continue to be women of tact and persuasion, wit and wisdom, representing the interests of Australian women with charm, grace, and a large degree of persistence. One might say that these are requirements of the job.
- Ada Norris, Champions of the Impossible: A History of the National Council of Women of Victoria (Melbourne: The Hawthorn Press, 1978), pp. 92, 57. Return to text