Woman Waterworth, Edith Alice

Welfare worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Edith Waterworth was born in England in 1873, the daughter of joiner, Henry Hawker and his wife, Emma. The family migrated to Queensland where Edith completed her secondary education at Brisbane Girls' Grammar School, before working as a teacher until her marriage in 1903 to John Waterworth. The couple settled in Sydney where John studied optometry, before establishing a business as an optician initially in Launceston and, from 1909, in Hobart. Initially Edith supported John in his professional and political pursuits and cared for their children, but later the situation was reversed with John retiring in order to support his wife's political aspirations and community involvement.

Waterworth assumed the leadership role that Emily Dobson had previously occupied in Tasmania. Thirty years younger she was not afraid to exercise her influence in the public sphere (Thomas, p. 114). She made three unsuccessful attempts to enter the Tasmanian Parliament and one to enter the Senate as an independent, arguing that women should be given 'the opportunity to do their own work' rather than having their views represented by 'proxy' (Mercury, 2 June 1925). 'The State', she claimed, 'was just a larger home ... [and] it needed two sexes to manage it' (Mercury, 7 May 1925). The existing members, she believed, would 'be glad to have the questions relating to women and children taken off their hands, and in the care of a woman whose work it was to attend to them' (Mercury, 12 May 1925). This was a clear argument for difference rather than equality. 'Women claim equality with men and the right to undertake men's work, but ... are women ... undertaking what are essentially their jobs?' she asked. 'Women had a definite place in politics with special work to do', she believed, and although she had an obligation to inform herself about matters that lay outside that sphere, her role was to represent the feminine (Mercury, 1 June 1925).

Ultimately, however, it was through community organisations that she was to make her mark. President of the Women's Non-Party League, chair of the Tasmanian Council for Mother and Child, and founder and secretary of the Child Welfare League, she was also a member of the Women's Criminal Law Reform Association, the National Council of Women, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Housewives Association, the National Fitness Club, the Free Kindergarten Association, the Hobart Hospital Board, the Board of Censors of Motion Pictures and was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1931 (Mercury, 18 July 1931). During the 1920s and 1930s she attended several international conferences, sometimes as a delegate of the Tasmanian Government but at other times funding her own travel. She was also both a paid columnist and frequent letter-writer to the local press and used information gained on her overseas and interstate trips to castigate local politicians for not providing services for women and children similar to those that she had seen (Examiner, 26 February 1946). Described as 'an ardent worker for the rights of her sex' she campaigned on a range of causes common to middle class feminists of her era: 'the prevention of the multiplication of the unfit and the reduction of maternal mortality', assistance for widows with dependent children, representation of women on government boards, housewifery and mothercraft training for girls and equal guardianship of children (Mercury, 14 December 1933). She was careful to distinguish herself from what she saw as 'ultra-feminists', arguing that her belief was that 'the nurturing and preservation of the race was women's greatest work' (Examiner, 12 June 1933).

To Marilyn Lake, Waterworth was an archetypal advocate of maternal citizenship. (Lake, p. 270). 'This is a man managed world', she declared, 'and nothing to be proud of' (Mercury, 4 April 1941). While she argued for causes supporting the advancement of women and children, she was not a supporter of increased female autonomy, but rather greater supervision by experienced women such as herself. Hence, she opposed plans to increase child endowment, claiming that 'to hand further money to mothers without supervision of its spending was not the way to use the country's money' (Mercury, 1 June 1925). A confident campaigner she was not afraid to take a stand on controversial issues. In the wake of World War I, for example, she entered the debate about the memorialisation of the dead, suggesting that establishment of a foundling home would be 'not only a fitting and practical memorial, but would have its artistic and poetic value' (quoted in Scates, p. 59). Declaring herself 'astounded and shocked' that Prime Minister Curtin would not see her without an introduction from her local member she added: [women] should be heard as citizens, and they and their causes judged on their merits' (Mercury, 5 October 1944). Caroline Evans has suggested, however, that Curtin was not alone. While politicians undoubtedly listened to Waterworth, they also freely ignored any proposals they found inconvenient (Evans, p. 10). As a result she did become an object of ridicule. On one occasion, for example, she was indirectly advised that she needed to learn 'to think logically, not to act on instinct alone, to be calm, not to boil over so much' (Petrow, pp. 83-4).

Awarded the OBE in 1935, Waterworth was widowed in 1949 and died in Hobart in 1957.

Archival Resources

Tasmanian State Archives

  • Edith Alice Waterworth (Agency Details), 25 May 1912 - 9 November 1955, NG 1546; Tasmanian State Archives. Details

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Lake, Marilyn, 'Eldershaw Memorial Lecture: founding fathers, dutiful wives and rebellious daughters', Papers and Proceedings, Lecture presented to a Tasmanian Historical Research Association meeting on 10 April 2001, vol. 48, no. 4, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, December 2001, pp. 268-279. Details
  • Petrow, Stefan, 'The furies of Hobart: women and the Tasmanian criminal law in the early twentieth century', Australian Journal of Law and Society, vol. 11, 1995, pp. 67-90. Details
  • Scates, Bruce, '[It] Ought to Be as Famous as the Statue of Liberty': The Forgotten History of Tasmania's Cenotaph - Australia's First State War Memorial', Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 14, 2009, pp. 53-78. Details

Newspaper Articles


Online Resources