Alice Frances Mabel (May) Moss was the first elected president of the National Council of Women of Australia from 1931–36, her leadership qualities serving to establish the new organisation on firm foundations during a time of political and economic crisis. She was a member of the National Council of Women of Victoria from 1904. Though associated with the politically conservative Australian Women’s National League, she was a committed campaigner for the rights of women.
During much of her life, May worked with various local education, child welfare and women’s organisations but also played a leading part in the international outreach of Australian women as a government-appointed alternate delegate to the League of Nations in 1927, where she was the first woman to sit on a finance committee, and as the Federal Council of the NCWs of Australia representative to the International Council of Women executive meeting in the same year.
In 1934, she chaired Victoria’s Women’s Centenary Council and in the same year was appointed CBE as well as being awarded the NCWV gold badge for distinguished service.
May Moss played a significant role in the women’s movement in Australia between the First and Second World Wars. She was born on 27 April 1869 at Ballarat, Victoria, the daughter of English-born John Alfred Wilson, a sharebroker and later a licensed victualler, and his Scottish wife Martha Brown, née Lamb. She was educated at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, East Melbourne, and at the Sorbonne in Paris. Aged just 18, she married Isidore Henry Moss, a grazier (d. 1938) in a civil ceremony in Melbourne on 10 March 1887. They lived on a sheep station, Dandeloo, in New South Wales for thirteen years until a very bad drought caused them to leave their property and return to the home they had retained in East Melbourne where Isidore Moss became a wool classer.
While her two daughters were young, May began work promoting the rights of women. While vice-president of the conservative Australian Women’s National League from 1906, she campaigned for female suffrage in Victoria, a cause the League as a whole did not enthusiastically embrace. In 1914, on the outbreak of the Great War, she relinquished office in the AWNL in order to become the (then) only female member of the Victorian recruiting committee for the armed services.
As a member of the National Council of Women of Victoria from 1904, May Moss took a special interest in the plight of small children and the education of girls. In 1923, she prepared a report for NCW (Victoria) 'on the need for stricter control of street trading by juveniles', and she urged the government to raise the school leaving age to 15 and to make more opportunities available for girls in technical education. Other issues she took up were equal pay for female teachers, the evil of white slave trafficking, and opportunities for girls to work on the railway stations, trams, cabs and other vehicles.
In 1927, Moss was appointed by the Australian government as the alternate delegate to the Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva where she was the first female member of the finance committee and also served on other committees. Her fluency in French and German no doubt facilitated her League work, as well as her participation in the International Council of Women. She was also Australian delegate to the first World Population Conference at Geneva and the first Women’s Peace Study Conference at Amsterdam, Holland. After attending an executive meeting in Paris of the League of Nations Union, she returned to become vice-president of its Victorian branch in 1928.
While in Europe in 1927, Moss represented the Australian National Councils of Women at the International Council of Women executive meeting at Geneva. The following year, she was elected a vice-president of ICW, a position she held until her death. In 1930, as an Australian delegate, she attended the ICW congress in Vienna and the Codification of International Law Conference in The Hague. Among other things, this conference considered the problem of the nationality of married women, a matter of justice that was of particular concern to women’s organisations around the world.
After many years of service on the NCWV executive, Moss was elected state president from 1928 to 1938. She also served as the first elected president of the National Council of Women of Australia from 1931 to 1936. Her period of office was one of consolidation for the new body, including the admission of the WA Council in mid-1932 and NCWA’s decision in 1934 to become a full member of both the Australian Women’s Co-operating Committee of women’s national organisations with international affiliation and the Pan-Pacific Women’s Committee. She also actively canvassed the Australian government on behalf of the NCWA on the issues of a uniform federal marriage law, full nationality rights for married women and the right of married women to work.
In 1934, May Moss became the only female member of the Victorian Centenary Celebrations executive committee. On her appointment, she called a meeting of presidents of all women’s organisations. These women formed the Women’s Centenary Council and Moss was elected president. After broad consultation among the constituent organisations, the women’s committee decided to mark the state’s centenary by holding an international conference of women (Citizenship: Its Opportunities and Responsibilities), and establishing the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden in Melbourne’s Domain Gardens. Opened in 1935, the garden remains a site for acknowledging the significance of women in Victoria’s history. Under the sundial were placed hundreds of sheets of remembrance signed by thousands of women, men and children. Under Moss’s leadership, the Women’s Centenary Council also produced a Book of Remembrance containing records of around 1200 early women settlers and a Centenary Gift Book (edited by Frances Fraser and Nettie Palmer and featuring articles on the part played by women in public life). In recognition of her community contribution, Moss was appointed Commander of the British Empire on 4 June 1934 and, in the same year, was awarded the gold badge of the Victorian NCW for distinguished service.
As war loomed in 1939, Mrs Moss approached the state government to discover how women could best be organised to assist but was rebuffed. Refusing to be discouraged, NCWV took the initiative to set up a register for women who agreed to be available for wartime emergency services. They formed a Comforts Fund and a Red Cross Society branch, of which Mrs Moss was elected president.
Actively interested in other community organisations such as the (Royal) Women’s Hospital, the Collingwood Crèche and the Free Kindergarten movement, Mrs Moss also served on the board of management of the City Newsboys’ Society from 1906 to 1948 and was the first woman lay-member of the National Health and Medical Research Council from 1936 to 1945. May Moss was widely recognised for her distinguished contribution to the community, as well as for her dignity, charm and grace. As her biographer, Ada Norris, noted, she was always quick to praise the work of other people: ‘I like to give a rose to someone who can smell it’. Like many women of her class, she enjoyed playing bridge and her bridge parties became a significant source of income for the NCWV in the late 1930s and war years. A member of the International and Lyceum clubs, she was also interested in the theatre, painting and woodcarving. She died in East Melbourne on 18 July 1948, aged 79.
Explore further resources about May Moss in the Australian Women's Register.