Woman Russell, Delia Constance

Community Worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Delia Russell was born in the Melbourne suburb of Emerald Hill in 1870, the oldest of four children of accountant, James Law and his wife Alice. Educated at a private college she did not need to seek employment. She married solicitor Percy Russell in 1893, shortly before he was elected mayor of Hawthorn. Her only child was born in 1904 at the start of the second of the four terms she would serve as mayoress, and it was at this point that she also began her charitable career.

Russell was a founder of the Talbot Epileptic Colony, and during World War I, an enthusiastic organiser for Red Cross where she was able to more fully develop her organising ability, establishing a kitchen, staffed by volunteers, which prepared culinary treats for distribution to military hospitals throughout Victoria (Leader (Melbourne, 1 July 1916). Initially funded by local effort, and working from the basement of the Hawthorn Town Hall, the kitchen was so successful that it was given official Defence Department recognition and provided with building in St Kilda road, from which it continued to operate until 1920 (Argus, 20 September 1916).

A confident leader, Russell was never backward in claiming credit for her achievements. After the war she extended her interests to include the National Council of Women, the English Speaking Union, the Playgrounds Association, the Women's Hospital and the Housewives Association, using public meetings, newspapers and radio to speak to and for women on such issues as food prices, domestic economy, ugly advertising and women's fashion. She was quick to recognised the importance of inducting younger women into charitable work, playing an important role in the establishment of Junior Red Cross, and supporting the work of 'younger sets' in association with the Women's Hospital (Age, 17 February 1938).

Elected to the presidency of the Housewives Association in 1929, Russell sourced and distributed butter, fish, bread, milk, eggs and vegetables to members in an attempt to overcome what she saw as 'profiteering' (Smart 2010, p. 99). However, these schemes came to a sudden end one year later when she split from the Association in acrimonious circumstances, establishing her own organisation under a slightly different name. At the centre of the dispute was Russell's championing of the Australian Temperance Association which, claiming to advocate temperance through education rather than regulation (Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1956), 29 January 1930), stood in opposition to the views of a substantial proportion of the Housewives Association membership (Advocate, 24 March 1930), although her self promotion had also alienated other committee members (Smart 2006, p. 22). 'We were entitled to expect that Mrs Russell, on becoming president, would make herself familiar with the policy and traditions of the association', the remaining members of the executive argued, adding, 'her failure to do so is responsible for the present state of affairs' (Argus, 5 March 1930). The dispute became heated, with police needing to be called to separate warring factions on one occasion. Russell's supporters, a journalist observed, 'used their hands and nails to some effect, tearing clothes and hats and almost disrobing one another' (Cairns Post, 21 March 1930). In the aftermath of the split, Russell declared 'the only way to get on in life was to pull together and try and do good' (North Eastern Ensign, 11 September 1931).

Awarded the OBE for her wartime activities in 1920, and appointed a justice of the peace and special magistrate of the Children's Court in 1929, Russell died in 1938 (Argus, 17 February 1938). On the first anniversary of her death, the members of the reconstituted Housewives' Association which she had founded joined a pilgrimage to her grave (Argus, 17 February 1939).

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Smart, Judith, 'The Politics of Consumption: The Housewives Associations in South-eastern Australia Before 1950', Journal of Women's History, vol. 18, no. 3, 2006, pp. 13-39. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'The Politics of the Small Purse: The Mobilization of Housewives in Interwar Australia', International Labour and Working-Class History (ILWCH), vol. 1, no. 77, 1 March 2010, pp. 48-68. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources