Theme Urban and Suburban Community Organisations and Activism
Written by Renate Howe, Deakin University
The distinctive suburban form and culture of Australian cities' entrenched divisions between home and work have been interpreted as limiting women's capacity for leadership in activities concerning urban and suburban issues. However, this interpretation overlooks the significance of women's leadership in a wide range of suburban community organisations, including school mothers' clubs, kindergartens, churches and Sunday schools, progress associations, cultural organisations and environmental groups, as well as in various state and national non-government organisations (NGOs). Clearly women have found extensive leadership opportunities in the suburbs and capital cities, although the experience in local and even state-wide organisations did not readily translate into women's political leadership in any level of government. Although Australian women were among the first in the world to be granted the vote and the right to stand for public office in the new federal parliament in 1902 and were gradually granted the same rights in state and local governments, very few women were elected to local councils or state and federal legislatures before the 1970s. Women instead built an impressive alternative sphere of leadership, developing strategic goals for community advancement through NGOs and local organisations. This experience of leadership was important when, after World War II, traditional barriers to women's wider political and public participation were gradually eroded as a result of some improvements in work-life balance issues, along with increasing education and employment opportunities and advances in gender equality.
The quality and extent of women's urban and suburban leadership is an important study, given that the majority of Australian women spent most of their lives in the suburbs of the capital cities. Although opportunities for women's leadership varied over time and between cities and suburbs, important periods of change can be identified in the 20th century, at first after Federation, then in the periods of social change that followed the two world wars and, finally, during the turbulent social movements of the 1960s and 70s.
Federation and Nationhood
By Federation in 1901, women were established leaders in a range of organisations, especially in social welfare. Responding to the limited welfare provision of 19th-century colonial governments, women were active in the area of public health, serving on the committees of major public hospitals and in children's welfare organisations, where they made a significant contribution not only to fund-raising and the delivery of services but also to the development of policy and legislation. An outstanding example of the leadership of women in social welfare was the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society (MLBS) (Francis, 'Melbourne LBS', AWR). As the only provider of outdoor relief in 19th- and early 20th-century Melbourne, the MLBS was far from a marginal charitable group. Funded by donations and grants from municipal councils, the local branches of the MLBS visited, assessed and distributed relief in areas of poverty mainly in the inner suburbs. Following the depression of the 1890s and the passing of unemployment legislation, the MLBS coordinated the work of local committees and liaised with local and state government in the distribution of unemployment relief. As this case study demonstrates, women's exceptional leadership in health and welfare through local urban and suburban organisations and NGOs at the time of Federation continued to contribute to the social policies and programs of governments.
Anticipating the granting of the suffrage at the time of Federation, some women's organisations developed a political agenda. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) (Carey, 'National WCTUA', AWR), a state, national and international organisation with an extensive network of groups in Australia's state capitals, suburbs and regional cities, lobbied for women's franchise in order to achieve not only temperance aims such as limiting the availability of alcohol but also legislation to protect women working in industry and for women's legal rights. The federation of the Australian colonies also spurred the formation of peak organisations, an important step in the development of women's leadership. Especially significant was the National Council of Women (NCW), first formed in New South Wales in 1896, then in all states by 1911. The Councils held interstate conferences from 1903, and gradually moved towards national organisation, establishing a Federal Council in 1924/25 before a fully national body, the National Council of Women of Australia, came into being in 1931. The initial aims of the NCWs were: 1. To establish a bond of union between the various affiliated societies; 2. To advance the interests of women and children and of humanity in general; 3. To confer on questions relating to the welfare of the family, the state and the Commonwealth. National Councils were umbrella organisations bringing together a wide range of women's community, welfare, cultural, political, professional and other interest groups, and they became influential political lobbyists on women's issues ( Smart & Quartly, 2009, 339-57; Carey, 'NCWA', AWR)
The style and limits of women's urban and suburban leadership emerged in this early period. Even though the major political parties had affiliated women's groups such as the Labor Party's Women's Organising Committees (WOCs) and the very large conservative Australian Women's National League in Victoria, women's leadership on matters relating to the urban and suburban context was primarily exercised outside the institutional political system, and built on extensive involvement in local and community organisations. Religious commitment to the achievement of a moral and just society inspired many women to assume leadership roles in serving their communities. This leadership was exercised by lobbying for social and political reform through informal but cohesive networks and increasingly through state and national co-ordinating bodies. Clearly women's opportunity to participate and take on leadership roles was influenced by geography, with most women's groups located in the cities and suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, and, to a lesser extent, Brisbane, Perth and Hobart. Home and family responsibilities mostly limited membership to middle-class suburban women, single or married with older children, and not in the paid workforce.
The Interwar and Post-World War II Period
As women cast off their long skirts and bobbed their hair, their urban and suburban leadership became more inclusive, more assertive and more aware of the international context, especially the social changes needed to build a better world and prevent another war. In the 1920s, major Australian women's groups linked into or expanded their connections to international organisations; apart from the WCTU, these included the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) (Bussey, AWR), the Girl Guides, the International Council of Women (ICW) to which the Australian Councils were affiliated (Smart & Quartly, 2012), the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (later International Alliance of Women) with which the Australian Federation of Women Voters was associated; Christian education organisations and welfare groups. There was a growing awareness among Australian women leaders of international developments in women's advancement, including legislation to protect children and women, scientific approaches to infant development and child care and the importance of legislating women's legal rights.
The suburbs continued to be the main sphere for Australian women's leadership activity in these crucial areas. Following the post-war expansion of Australian cities, activist mothers living in new 1920s suburbs ensured that local municipalities provided modern baby health centres, kindergartens and playgrounds. School mothers' clubs expanded their activities beyond tuck shops and fund raising to focus on issues such as physical education and the social development of children. As well as these developments at the local level, peak organisations were becoming more professional and more focused on fostering women's leadership skills. In Victoria the Free Kindergarten Union (FKUV) (Morrell, AWR) was established in 1908 by suburban and professional women for the coordination of kindergartens located in the inner suburbs to provide care for the children of working mothers. In 1917, the FKUV sought state registration as a training centre for teaching staff, not only for inner city child-care centres but also for the expanding suburban kindergartens. As enrolments at the training centre increased, the union established a Kindergarten Training College at premises in Kew.
As well as courses for teacher training, courses for hospital almoners and social workers were also established by women's organisations, led by the NCWs. Women's local involvement in social welfare became more professional. The MLBS, for example, continued as Melbourne's principal relief agency with a major role in dispensing social service benefits. But coordination with municipal councils was improved, training was given to 'visitors', and leading members of the society were closely involved in the development of state welfare policy in the 1920s and 1930s.
The YWCA was also important in developing women's leadership skills in relation to urban problems between the wars. The 'Y' headquarters in Melbourne and Sydney provided a wide range of educational courses and recreation facilities for the growing number of single working women employed in shops and factories. The YWCA also provided opportunities for women to exercise urban leadership at an international level. In the 1920s, Australian women were appointed to Asian YWCAs in Japan, India and China. At the YWCA in Shanghai, Eleanor Hinder from the Sydney 'Y', along with other Australian women, promoted the appointment of factory inspectors and the introduction of protective legislation to improve conditions for the young women and girls working in the city's massive textile industry (Howe, 2001).
Australian women's formal political representation began at the municipal level in the 1920s. Women candidates standing in local government elections were attracted by the enlarged social responsibilities of what had been predominantly 'roads and rubbish' councils (Smith, 12-18). These candidates drew on the support of community groups and were motivated by a strong sense of civic service. However, few women were successful in the face of significant barriers to their election and participation in municipal councils. Australian local government predominantly represented businessmen wanting to protect and advance their commercial interests. For many male councillors, election to local government was the first step in a political career at state or federal level. However, not all of the opposition to women candidates came from men. Many women of conservative political or religious persuasion disapproved of women's candidature; in their view local government was not an appropriate or 'ladylike' sphere for women's leadership (Sturrock, 10-11).
Although few in number, early women councillors brought a new style of leadership focused on the social responsibilities of councils. Mary Rogers, Victoria's first woman councillor, was elected in a by-election to the inner suburban Richmond Council in 1920 (Cunneen & Torney, ADB; Lemon, AWR). Perhaps in working-class suburbs there was not the same emphasis on the separation between women's and men's spheres of influence, and Mary Rogers was able to draw support from men through her involvement in trade unions and the Australian Labor Party (ALP). She was secretary of the North Richmond ALP branch, a delegate to the Victorian Trades Hall Council and a member of the Central Executive of the Labor Party's Victorian Branch. Her manifesto announced that 'times have changed' and that the enlarged role of municipal authorities in family and welfare issues challenged women to extend their influence beyond the home. 'Baby Health Centres, distribution of relief, representation on the Ladies Benevolent Society and control of Emergency Hospitals … is not a woman best fitted to deal with matters of this kind?' However, despite this emphasis on welfare issues in her manifesto, Mary Rogers, once elected, served on a range of Richmond Council committees including public works and industrial disputes, and was even chairman of the powerful finance committee (Sturrock, 24-9).
Although few in number, women elected to councils between the wars served on a range of council committees, an indication that women were well prepared for a broad leadership role. However, few women were elected to mayoral positions, even though mayors were usually selected from among councillors on a rotation basis. Women mayors challenged engrained stereotypes in the community and their selection was strongly opposed by male councillors. In a comprehensive study of Australian local government, political scientist Margaret Bowman argues that male chauvinism on the part of 'old fogey' inept male councillors was the major reason for women councillors not becoming mayors (Bowman, 10). It was 1938 before Australia's first woman mayor, Alderman Lillian Fowler, was elected by the Newtown Council in inner city Sydney (Sturrock, 26).
Nevertheless, women's urban and suburban leadership advanced slowly between the wars with more women represented in local government and three elected to state parliaments in the 1930s. Women's groups were conscious of the need to develop leadership skills through training and recognised the importance of international links for developing wider agendas. Members of organisations and leaders were drawn from more diverse backgrounds and there was a growing participation from working-class women.
One significant new women's national organisation with a diverse membership and political agenda was the Federated Associations (later Association) of Australian Housewives formed in 1923. Housewives Associations were established in all states, beginning in Victoria in 1915, and were
'broadly dedicated to representing the interests of housewives, through political lobbying as well as various efforts to help members keep their household costs down, including domestic advice and member discounts. Although their primary function was always to reduce the cost of living and to control "profiteering", they very quickly proclaimed themselves to be political organisations, though always "non-party".' (Carey, 'Australian Housewives Association', AWR)
The Housewives Associations set out to influence public policy on consumer protection and in areas dealing broadly with the home, women and children. With a combined membership of 115,000 by 1940-1941, the Federated Association of Australian Housewives (FAAH) was the largest single national women's association, reaching a peak of 175,000 members in the 1960s before declining in the 1970s as women's roles and attitudes to housework changed (Smart, 13-39). In the late 1940s, a group of more politically radical members, many with communist sympathies, broke away from the Housewives Associations to form the New Housewives Association in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. It was renamed the Union of Australian Women (UAW) in 1950 in Sydney and became a national organisation in 1956 (Carey, 'New Housewives', AWR; Land & Henningham, 'Union of Australian women', AWR). The activist UAW built a high public profile through formidable and informed leadership on social and urban issues: notable among the leaders were Alma Morton, Marjorie Oke (Wilkinson, AWR), Barbara Curthoys (Henningham, AWR) and Ruth Crow (Heywood, AWR). The most effective UAW campaigns included the provision of child care, equal pay for women, and women's legal rights (Curthoys & McDonald; Crow Collection).
Identification with political parties continued to be an important and divisive issue in terms of women's leadership. The NCWs and Australian Federation of Women Voters continued to argue that a non-party policy was essential to women's style of leadership. For the NCWs, municipal politics was a training ground for women to take a larger part in public life, lobbying for issues such as better housing, playgrounds and children's libraries. NCW leaders opposed political affiliation in local government and maintained an official non-party position in internal Council debates and public pronouncements, believing women could achieve much through developing well-researched policies and doing what they did best-lobbying politicians and governments regardless of party. However, while the non-party strategy could work at a municipal level where the party affiliation of candidates was generally not acknowledged, it raised more difficulties for women's candidature at state and federal levels as political parties became more organised and the likelihood of women being elected as independents declined even further.
Post-war Reconstruction and the 1950s
In the 1950s, the post-war 'cream brick' suburbs of Australian cities were embraced by young married women raising families. The suburban women of this period have been parodied by satirist Barry Humphries in the character of 'Edna Everage' as obsessed with home and family. This image has distracted attention from the complexity and variety of women's experience of suburban life and their leadership of community groups and NGOs in the post-war period. Women pioneered new spheres of activity, especially in organisations concerned with environment and planning issues such as progress and ratepayers associations. Marion Harper transferred the leadership skills gained in the inner city Fitzroy Ratepayers Association when she moved to the new public housing suburb of East Preston. There she became a leader in the movement for establishing the East Preston Health Centre, a one-stop, inclusive centre providing health, counselling and legal advice for families in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Barbara Niven's leadership of the Beaumaris Progress Association was focused on protecting the natural environment from developers in this growing beachside suburb. On moving to South Melbourne, she become a founder of the Emerald Hill Association and successfully fought to protect the area's 19th-century heritage from demolition by private developers and the Housing Commission of Victoria (Howe, 2012).
Leadership in planning for the post-war world has largely been studied in terms of the Australian government's post-war reconstruction initiatives, in which women had little official representation. Some attention has been paid to the advocacy of the Women's Charter Movement (Morrell & Henningham, AWR), but the enthusiastic and widespread contribution of local community groups where women were significant leaders has gone largely unacknowledged. For example, the Christian Social Order Movement had a strong suburban following among women, especially in Sydney, promoting discussion of ideas for a more just post-war social order through public meetings, a radio program, the journal New Day and a network of local branches planning for post-war reform (Howe, 2009, 259-60).
Women's increasing participation in political institutions in the 1950s was still largely confined to local government. This remained the most accessible tier of government for women because
'more seats were available , the costs were minimal , one did not need to go through the trauma of political party endorsement, the municipal offices were usually within walking distance of one's home, one was likely to have local contacts and involvements, it was a part-time responsibility and, with proper organisation, both home and family duties could be accommodated.' (Sturrock, 20)
By the post-war period, enough women had been elected to encourage the formation of Local Government Women's Associations in NSW, Victoria and South Australia after a national Local Government Women's Association (ALGWA) was founded in Canberra in 1951. However, while the NSW organisation continued, the other state groups and the ALGWA itself lapsed until 1963 when the national organisation was revived, state branches following soon after. The renewed associations combined educational and recruiting roles (Carey, 'Australian LGWA', AWR; Sturrock , 48-63).
Another new organisation with a more radical agenda for social and political reform with relevance to cities and suburbs was the League of Women Voters (Land & Heywood, AWR) formed in Victoria in 1945 from three earlier organisations. Like the Australian Federation of Women Voters to which it was affiliated, it aimed to promote women's political leadership and was affiliated with the International Alliance of Women. The League encouraged and mentored women interested in seeking public office but opposed political party endorsement. However, this resistance to the affiliation of women candidates with political parties was beginning to erode as the limited opportunities for women's political participation in government outside of political parties was recognised. Women's organisations had been associated with the two major national political parties from early in the century, as we have seen. But their powers were limited and women were not encouraged to become candidates in winnable seats. Even as late as the mid-1960s, Julie Dahlitz, lawyer, peace campaigner, mother of two daughters and chair of the Labor Party's Women's Organising Committee in Victoria, failed after conducting a vigorous campaign to win pre-selection for a winnable seat. Women were only a little more successful in the main conservative party. Soon after formation of the Liberal Party of Australia by Robert Menzies, the Australian Women's National League subsumed its identity in the formation of the Federal Women's Council of the Liberal Party in 1945. The Council was said to have had a powerful 'behind the scenes' influence and six Liberal Party women senators were elected in the 1950s and 1960s. However, little party support for the selection of women candidates in winnable lower house seats was evident after the retirement of Enid Lyons in 1952 (Fitzherbert, chap. 3).
Women's urban and suburban leadership in government operated mainly at the local level. Nevertheless, Margaret Bowman's comprehensive study of Victorian women in local government in the late 1960s found that, even there, little progress had been made in the post-war years. Women candidates were still recruited through holding office in community organisations, which continued to be more important than political affiliation. Bowman also found that women in local government were still mainly inspired by public service ideals rather than by the pursuit of political power. She described their advance in local government as 'glacial' (Bowman).
1960s and 1970s: Grassroots Leadership
The subtitle of Morna Sturrock's thesis on women councillors in Victoria up to 1970 is 'a slow and silent revolution'. Women had been elected to local governments (mostly in Victoria) but advances at the state and federal level had been disappointing. Unsurprisingly, younger women involved in the new social movements during the turbulent years of the 1970s had no intention that the revolution in women's political leadership should continue as 'slow and silent'. This was evident in the lead-up to the federal election of 1972, when the newly established Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) (Morrell & Carey, AWR), a non-party feminist group founded by Victoria's Beatrice Faust (Francis, 'Faust', AWR) and mentored by members of the League of Women Voters, came to national prominence through surveying candidates on their attitudes to women's issues. WEL held its first national conference in Canberra in 1973 and established a national organisation in 1978; arguing that women must influence mainstream politics, it was primarily a political lobby group for the inclusion of women in party and government policy development but it also came to support women candidates and to demand that political parties nominate women for winnable seats (Sawer with Radford, 27, 88-9).
The 1970s was a crucial decade in the history of women's urban and suburban leadership and reflected the structural urban and social changes in Australia's capital cities. Whereas in the 1950s women had moved to new post-war suburbs, during the 1960s their daughters reversed the trend and settled in the inner city. The geography and influence of women's urban and suburban leadership, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, reflected this generational change from middle-class suburbs to the inner suburbs.
The new leaders were young aspirational women. Most were well educated, had lived or studied overseas and were attracted by the social and built form diversity of the inner suburbs (Howe 2012). These women, many of whom also had young families, soon entered local politics through involvement in the residents' associations established in response to large, destructive development projects in the inner and central city areas of Melbourne and Sydney. There was a sudden spike in women's representation in local government from 250 in 1970 to 460 in 1974 (Smith, 13).
A new style of women's urban and suburban leadership emerged, based not on lobbying but on direct action. In Sydney in 1971, women opposed to the redevelopment of the Kelly's Bush area on the harbour persuaded the Builders Labourers Federation to support their opposition and stop work on the development, resulting in one of the first Green Bans (Burgmann & Burgmann). The Kelly's Bush women then won a clean sweep of positions on the local council, promising to protect the natural and urban environment. Women opposed to the destruction of communities by large infrastructure construction and high-density flat developments in North Sydney were also able to win places on the local council and to develop a new plan for North Sydney based on developing precincts that protected communities (Park, 133-9). These new objectives for planning were also supported by women in Melbourne's inner city residents' associations in the early 1970s. In Carlton and North Melbourne, women contributed to the development of comprehensive community plans that were to influence planning not only in the Melbourne City Council but also the state government (Howe, 2012).
A new development was support for women candidates from the younger men on councils, who recognised the need for a more diverse membership if councils were to protect community values and prevent destructive development. As a young mother living in Collingwood, Caroline Hogg was encouraged by Cr Andrew McCutcheon to stand for Collingwood Council. A councillor from 1970-1979, she was the municipality's first woman mayor in 1978 (Francis, 'Hogg', AWR). Although she later moved on from Collingwood Council to become a member of the Victorian state parliament and then a minister in the Cain and Kirner Labor governments, she recalled that she had not seen local government as a step to higher office (Grey, 268-70).
However, in other councils, battles were more keenly fought and women were not welcomed to leadership positions in the men's club of local politics. Councillors Helen Halliday at St Kilda and Faith Fitzgerald at Doncaster-Templestowe in Victoria were involved in bitter, personal struggles when they contested mayoral positions. ALP women in Sydney faced formidable barriers to pre-selection for local government, in the face of opposition from men in the entrenched NSW ALP 'machine'. Because women were particularly interested in communities and social issues, they were criticised for focusing on 'soft' issues, an attitude reflected in the dismissal of new councillors in Balmain as 'basket-weavers' (Harris). However, despite such opposition, women contributed to the transformation of local government by encouraging new areas of responsibility. An outstanding example was the support of women councillors in Fitzroy for the establishment of a Social Planning Office, which, under social worker Jenny Wills, developed as a model co-ordinated and empowering centre for the delivery of community services. The Social Planning Office was a far cry from the limited social programs of earlier councils in Fitzroy (Wills).
The barriers to women becoming mayors were also being successfully challenged from the late 1970s. Cr Carole Baker, a member of the North Sydney residents' association, was elected mayor in 1979 of a council that had long been a bastion of power for businessmen and developers (Park, 91-111). In the 1980s, Lecki Ord and then Winsome McCaughey were elected as mayors of the powerful Melbourne City Council. Both women had been activists in the North Melbourne Residents' Association and both acknowledged the importance of the mentoring of Ruth Crow in developing their social and planning interests (Howe, 2012). Lucy Turnbull became the first woman to be lord mayor of the City of Sydney in 1999 and, in 2004, Clover Moore became the first popularly elected woman lord mayor of the city. Clover Moore had been involved in resident action movements and had been an alderwoman on South Sydney Council. In a recent interview, she identified her success in saving a small South Sydney park used by local children as a playground not only as marking the start of her political career but also as one of her most important achievements (Aston, 103).
The selection of women candidates for winnable seats in state and federal government also gathered pace in the major political parties. This occurred as a result of demands from their own members and from the women's movement, though the response in the male upper echelons of the parties was often grudging. Models of successful initiatives in British and European political parties to ensure women's representation in governments were also influential (Grey, 259).
This exceptional period of generational change in the extent and influence of women's urban and suburban leadership was evident not only in terms of women's growing representation in government but also in terms of the effectiveness of their activism in residents' associations and community groups. The period also saw a modification in gender relations as significant numbers of men came to accept women's political participation and recognised the need for partnerships to achieve change. However, in exercising urban and suburban leadership in the political world of government, women were still motivated 'by a strong sense of public service' rather than power (Grey, 259). This sense of civic service that has underpinned women's urban and suburban leadership in government and their community involvement in social and environmental issues has made a major contribution to Australia's largest cities being judged the most liveable in the world.
Victoria University of Technology, Victoria University Archives
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