Woman Elliott, Della

Feminist, Journalist and Trade Unionist
Alternative Names
  • Elliott, Kondela

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Della Elliott was born in 1917 Carlton, Victoria, the second of four children born to Agnes, a one-time circus performer, and Nicholaos Xenodohos, a Greek migrant who arrived in Australia in 1910 to work in the Queensland canefields, eventually moving further south, to run cafes and fish and chip shops. Although she was an intelligent girl who liked school and harboured the desire to attend university, Della's formal education was cut short at the age of fourteen when she was forced to leave school and contribute to the household economy during the depression. But even as a schoolgirl, it was clear that the social justice vision of socialism was integral to her being and something she would always fight for. At the age of nine, she was disciplined at school for standing up in class to denounce the treatment of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian-born anarchists who were convicted of murder and executed in the United States after a highly politicized and controversial trial.

On leaving school she received a scholarship to attend Charters' Business College. She graduated as an accomplished shorthand typist in 1932, but found that for every job she applied for 'there'd be a hundred other people going for it.' (Yarn Spinners, 1987) To make ends meet, she worked in a range of housekeeping, cleaning and waitressing jobs. When she did obtain office work, it was in a mixture of volunteer and paid positions with a succession of left-wing organisations. She worked for a year for fares and her lunch as a typist for the International Labour Defence, then for wages at the Friends of the Soviet Union and the Militant Minority Movement.

A self described 'adherent of the Socialist credo', (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2011) she combined her paid work with activism. As an adolescent, she was involved in Young Communist League activities and a socialist theatre company. She joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), leading her parents and elder sister, Sylvia, into the organisation. On Sundays, she spoke regularly and engagingly on the CPA stump in Sydney's Domain. Her personal relationships were similarly left focused. In 1937, she married Laurie Aarons, the future leader of the CPA. Her commitment to left-wing politics outlasted the marriage which ended in 1945.

Della joined the New South Wales Branch of the Federated Clerks' Union in 1936 and immediately became active in the union. She was elected to the union's Central Council in 1940 and then organiser in 1942, the first woman to hold the position. 'My job's a bit like selling insurance,' she told a journalist for the Women's Weekly. 'Many office girls have never thought about being unionists' (Australian Women's Weekly, 1942). In 1943 she became Assistant Secretary, the first woman in the union's history to hold high office. During this period, she became known as Della Nicholas, an anglicised version of her name that still referred to her father. By all accounts, she excelled in the job but relinquished her executive position in 1948, a victim of internal politics. The union journal The Clerk described her as 'one of the leading personalities of the Trade Union Movement' (http://www.mua.org.au/news/della-elliot-remembered/).

Della Nicholas was a great friend of Jessie Street, with whom she shared a life-long special interest in the status of women and the issue of equal pay. She noted later the importance of middle- class women's activism to this cause. 'The real move for equal pay came from them, not the women on the factory floor.' (Yarn Spinners, 1987) Nicholas was a dedicated advocate on behalf of working women, as a delegate to the New South Wales Labour Council and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) throughout the 1940s, believing the fight for equal pay was so important, 'it was like the fight for the vote'. In September 1947, at the ACTU congress, she was successful in moving the first resolution to set forth a positive action programme for the equal pay campaign. Nicholas also worked with Muriel Heagney on the Council of Action for Equal Pay.

After leaving the clerks' union, Della began working for the Waterside Workers Federation through which she met the leader of the Seaman's Union of Australia (SUA - now amalgamated with the Maritime Union of Australia), Eliot Elliott. They lived in a de facto relationship (Eliot used the term 'collective' to describe the partnership), eventually marrying in 1982. (http://www.mua.org.au/news/della-elliot-remembered/) While Eliot presided over the SUA, Della began work there in 1955 as an administrator in the federal office. Under her administration, the records were scrupulously kept and became recognised for their value as a system that 'empowered and protected the union, facilitating the mounting of effective industrial campaigns, and transparency when it came to responding to the calumnies of powerful anti-union interests' (http://www.mua.org.au/news/della-elliot-remembered/). She also edited the Seamen's Journal adopting a policy of inclusion that motivated rank and file seamen to contribute content, thus ensuring that the journal remained accessible and promoted a sense of community and camaraderie. She retired in 1988, four years after Eliot's death.

Della Elliott was a strong supporter of causes outside the union movement. She was involved in the wartime Sheepskins for Russia campaign during the war, The League for Democracy in Greece and the Union of Australian Women. She helped historians of the union movement in Australia and, with a collective of women that included Quentin Bryce, worked to establish the Jessie Street National Women's Library in Sydney. Towards the end of her life, she gifted a scholarship to the University of Sydney Women's College to assist female Indigenous students.

Della Elliott died in October 2011, remembered in her eulogy as someone who 'didn't just join unions, she worked hard for them, from the days when she was often the 'first woman' to hold a position to her retirement helping researchers piece together union histories.' (http://www.theage.com.au/national/obituaries/dedicated-to-the-workers-struggle-20111103-1mxm2.html) A trailblazer for women in the Australian union movement, she never sought the limelight. 'There was no personal glorification in fighting for equal pay. It was just something you believed in.' (Yarn Spinners, 1987)

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Yarn Spinners, Story Number 35, 1987, 491618; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources


  • Kirkby, Diane, Voices from the ships: Australia's seafarers and their union, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2008. Details

Journal Articles

Magazine Articles

Online Resources

See also