Theme Women's Electoral Lobby

Written by Merrindahl Andrew, Australian National University

Formed as part of the second-wave women's movement in Australia, the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) has been marked by a strong scepticism about leadership. This scepticism was held in common with some other social movements, and particularly with other parts of the women's movement. Yet, since its establishment in 1972, WEL has engaged in a political sphere that demands policy positions, representatives and media statements: practices normally associated with a hierarchical model of leadership. Like some other feminist organisations, it therefore developed a kind of 'hybrid' model of organisation: using democratic and 'horizontal' processes to counteract the internal and external pressures towards hierarchy.

This essay explains some of the concepts and processes that have made it possible for WEL to operate within these tensions, and situates WEL historically in terms of its approach to organisation and leadership. The rejection of leaders meant that much attention has been given to the question of how to organise without domination: how the groups that make up WEL should collectively decide what to do, how its positions and demands should be represented in the media and the political process, and how it should operate in relation to the rest of the women's movement.

From very early in the 1970s, a developing impetus towards 'practical' action was evident within the Australian women's movement, in part because the movement quickly broadened its base to include more women who had feminist commitments, skills and energy but were less oriented to personal-transformative change than the Women's Liberation Movement. Yet many Women's Liberationists, too, felt compelled to take action for women beyond their immediate groups. Two streams of practical action emerged: services (including refuges and women's health services), which were developed by Women's Liberation groups together with some WEL groups and others; and lobbying and policy development, which was undertaken mainly by WEL and feminist bureaucrats (femocrats). Femocrats took advantage of political receptivity, especially from the federal Whitlam (1972-1975) and Hawke (1983-1991) Labor governments, entering government in roles explicitly created to advance gender equality. WEL and its members played a central role in this process.

In Australian public life, WEL has best been known for its special focus on elections, initially through candidate surveys-although its 1972 survey was not, as is often thought, the first such feminist rating exercise internationally or in Australia. In the 1972 federal election and in subsequent state and federal elections, WEL developed lists of questions to be asked of political hopefuls, gauging their knowledge of and support for feminist goals such as reproductive choice, access to employment and gender stereotypes. Although WEL has always been in favour of having more women in positions of power and leadership, this has not been a central part of the way it conceives its own role. While journalists and others who are unfamiliar with WEL sometimes assume from its name that it is centrally concerned with the election of women, it has in fact always been more interested in achieving the adoption of women-friendly policies and political structures, leaving the promotion of women candidates to organisations such as Emily's List.

The focus on policy development and structural change has been WEL's particular expression of the more general women's movement philosophy of favouring collective action over individual advancement. In its early stages, the rejection of individual leadership models was firm. As Sara Dowse (Lemon, AWR) recalls, '"Where are your leaders?" we'd be asked. But we were a movement of ideas, not stars' (Dowse, 13). Carmen Lawrence (Heywood, 'Lawrence', AWR) is equally adamant: 'This is not the story of individual achievement. There were no leaders and no stars' (quoted in Sawer, 2008, xvi). WEL NSW's contribution to deliberations in 1973 about how WEL should be organised shows that at least some within WEL believed it to be a radical feminist group:

"We are determined to avoid having leaders-either convenors or permanent spokeswomen-or any form of power hierarchy. Like many other radical feminist organisations, in setting up a structure we want to move on from competitive masculine power politics, involving aggression and backstabbing, to true egalitarianism." (Sawer, 2008, 94)

Yet, even at this early stage, there were different views within WEL. WEL ACT believed that effective lobbying would need a strong central body operating in Canberra, unfettered by lengthy decision-making processes. In Western Australia, WEL rejected formal meeting procedures, but believed members should understand and be able to use these procedures. As Pat Giles (Heywood, 'Giles', AWR) noted in WA, 'We will doubtless evolve a modified version to suit a particular purpose in a tradition of feminist nonconformism' (Giles, 2). Her prediction proved to be correct.

One of the major contributions of Women's Liberation thinking was the primary importance given to women's own experiences: a philosophy fundamentally at odds with a model of individual leaders deciding for and representing others. This philosophy marked a difference from earlier forms of women's organising and changed the way individuals related to groups in the new women's movement. Even though WEL had much in common with older organisations such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters, it too was influenced by the new way of thinking. In the earlier decades of the century, individuals participating in women's organisations, whether as 'leaders' or ordinary members, tended to see themselves as working for a cause involving women in general. Their own personal empowerment or liberation was rarely articulated as part of the cause itself. A certain impartial distance was kept between the cause and their own selves. It was the cause that was all important, and not in terms of the biographical or bodily details of the individuals working for it. Although the political and professional ambitions of some of these women were evident, they did not typically use these organisations to promote them.

In second-wave Women's Liberation groups, by contrast, there developed an ethic of feminist action in which the individual's specific experience and understanding were seen as the only legitimate basis for activism. While the earlier tradition of advocacy on behalf of all women was continued by WEL, organisational structures were now problematic. If there was no platform or external cause that took precedence over the emergent knowledge arising from women's own experiences, then this drew into question the fundamental legitimacy of structures, especially hierarchical structures, designed to advance causes. In the 1970s, WEL developed a relatively strong organising capacity compared with other parts of the movement, though it too espoused principles of decentralisation and saw itself as fundamentally guided by participants' own interests and views about actions to be taken.

Following the proliferation of small groups formed for the 1972 election surveys, there was a pressing need to decide on a model of Australia-wide organisation; members eventually decided to avoid having one peak group (Canberra) to decide for others (Sawer, 2008, 94). Instead, the adoption of every policy position required agreement from all WEL groups. So, for example, the report of the 1974 national conference emphasised that the 'recommendations have no other status than as suggestions for WEL groups throughout Australia' (WEL Australia, 'National Conference', 6). WEL groups tended to operate with revolving, typically monthly, rosters for convenor and spokesperson positions, in some cases even avoiding naming contacts in newsletters.

Despite such processes designed to prevent the accrual of power to individual women, many members did go on to achieve leadership positions beyond WEL, partly as a result of their experiences in the organisation. This is not to suggest that they deliberately used WEL to 'get ahead', as critics sometimes said, but because WEL fostered the development of political skills, confidence and interests that would later be expressed in formal politics and the bureaucracy. For example, a number of WEL activists have become parliamentarians, especially Labor members such as Margaret Reynolds, who was Senator for Queensland from 1983 to 1999 (Land & Henningham, AWR). Liberal Party members have always been only a minority within WEL, with Labor and more recently Greens affiliation much more common. There have, however, been prominent Liberal Party women with WEL backgrounds, such as Senator Helen Coonan (Heywood, 'Coonan', AWR), the late Virginia Chadwick (former NSW Liberal state cabinet minister) (Alafaci, AWR) and former SA cabinet ministers Jennifer Cashmore (née Adamson) (Francis, 'Adamson', AWR) and Joan Hall (Francis, 'Hall', AWR). WEL has tended to provide support for feminists working in government, but these relationships have sometimes been tense, as when WEL described the government's planned legislation for affirmative action as a 'toothless tiger', angering Minister for Women Susan Ryan, a founding member of WEL ACT who had led the push to legislate for equal opportunity, at some personal cost (Sawer, 2008, 181-7; Morrell, 'Ryan, Susan', AWR).

In the 1970s and 1980s, then, feminist groups generally engaged in a great deal of debate about methods of organisation. This included American feminist Jo Freeman's famous paper, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, which argued that the apparent lack of leaders and structures did not eliminate power in groups but rather displaced it onto unaccountable friendship groups and cliques. Freeman's article reinvigorated attention to matters of fair process, inclusion and accountability within groups, and was welcomed by those, such as many WEL groups, that had themselves adopted procedures for tasks such as minutes and for (rotating) positions of convenor to improve efficiency and openness. These procedures were grafted onto an ongoing commitment to action flowing from the personal experiences of movement participants, rather than developing political platforms for public representation of the movement as a whole. Speaking about her experience as a WEL activist in the WA context, academic Joan Eveline recalls:

"We never saw ourselves as a body that was centrally organised that should put this, that or something else on the agenda-that only happened very occasionally. Most of the time we were out there beavering away on particular [issues] … It wasn't that there was, kind of, debates within WEL as to whether WEL should be doing this or should be doing that. Because it was run in that way, it wasn't an issue, because nobody controlled it. It was groups who were independently picking up what they thought was important and what they could pull most people in around." (Eveline, Interview)

However, WEL groups recognised the need to present a united front. This applied to WEL itself but also led WEL to represent its actions as being on behalf of the women's movement, or women's interests more generally. WEL itself was therefore cast in the role of a movement leader, even though participants were ambivalent, or at least bemused, about that profile. Joan Eveline recalls how WEL WA operated:

"You had lots of different groups and you just talk about, we just use those terms 'women's liberation' and 'Women's Electoral Lobby'… For the sake of some of the campaigns we projected it as if we were all going in the same direction. The issue there of course is that the people coming along behind us and the media and all, believed that! They believed that; we did a really good job of convincing them that there was a kind of unified movement." (Eveline, Interview)

As Women's Liberation participant Julia Ryan (Morrell, 'Ryan, Julia', AWR) recalls, 'it was always pretty hard [for the media] to get hold of some central spokesperson … for a long time WEL kind of seemed to be the thing they fastened onto to get an opinion on anything' (Ryan, Interview). Interestingly, however, WEL members were inclined to see Women's Liberation groups as the real 'leaders' in terms of advancing social change. As a former WEL SA activist and early Women's Liberation participant, Viv Szekeres, reasons: 'It was only because there were women in Women's Liberation who were out there, and who were wearing the boiler suits or whatever it was, out in front of the movement that we could continue to do the things that we were then doing' (Szekeres, Interview).

Similarly, WEL WA member Val Marsden comments:

"We needed them, they were the cutting edge people … we all went out on marches together … you know, it was pro-choice marches or whatever, [we] recognised that they would do things that we wouldn't do … so we could trail along behind them and be more reasonable and maybe get what we wanted, and they would offend people, but that's necessary." (Marsden, Interview)

Some WEL members acknowledged the importance of the Women's Liberation groups, not only in creating space for more reform-oriented activism but also in expanding their own knowledge and willingness to act. So, while it was convenient for the media and politicians to see WEL members as representatives of the women's movement, many WEL members saw Women's Liberation groups as taking a genuinely leading role in elucidating women's oppression and creating the basic solidarity required for change.

The question of who is authorised to speak for whom has always been a fraught one for WEL, as for other parts of the movement. While the need for identifiable spokeswomen has long been accepted within WEL, an important principle is that these positions are meant to fulfil functions for the group, not act as platforms for individual reputation-building. Complicating this situation is the fact that the media and, to a certain extent, policy-makers find it easiest to deal with individual representatives authorised to speak on behalf of constituencies. Therefore it has always been possible to argue that a more high-profile representative will better be able to advance WEL's objectives. And, in fact, a tacit acceptance of this as an operating principle has emerged, alongside a continued strong 'self-limiting' scepticism about individual leadership and, more widely, about the framing of social change projects in individualistic terms.

It has not only been to fit with political imperatives that WEL shifted towards more conventionally hierarchical models of organisation and leadership. Participatory decision-making is laborious; it requires a great deal of commitment and goodwill. From the 1980s, the number of active members declined and friendship networks within WEL dissolved, partly because key participants moved on into positions made possible by the women's movement. This left WEL with less capacity for the intensive communication and negotiation required to hold together a horizontally organised network of semi-autonomous groups. In turn, WEL has had to rely more on individual leaders and organisers, who have often been uneasy, not to mention exhausted, by their long, unchallenged tenures. On the other hand, the maintenance of cultural and procedural checks on individual leadership must surely count as an achievement of feminist organisation.

Additional sources:

  • Eveline, Joan, interviewed by Merrindahl Andrew, Perth, 24 October 2006. In possession of Merrindahl Andrew.
  • Marsden, Val, interviewed by Merrindahl Andrew, Perth, 26 October 2006. In possession of Merrindahl Andrew.
  • Szekeres, Viv, interviewed by Merrindahl Andrew, Adelaide, 20 September 2007. In possession of Merrindahl Andrew.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Julia Ryan interviewed by Sara Dowse, 26 September 1990, ORAL TRC 2651; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Sawer, Marian, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Making Women Count: A History of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Australia, Radford, Gail, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2008, 317 pp. Details

Book Sections

  • Freeman, Jo, 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness', in Baxandall, Rosalyn and Gordon, Linda (eds), Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement, Basic Books, New York, United States of America, 2000, pp. 73 - 75. Details

Journal Articles

  • Giles, Pat, 'Our First Meeting', Broadsheet (Women's Electoral Lobby Western Australia), vol. 1, no. 2, April 1974. Details
  • Women's Electroal Lobby (WEL) Australia, 'National Conference January 18 - 20', Broadsheet (Women's Electoral Lobby Australia), vol. 3, no. 24, 1974, pp. 6 - 11. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • 'WEL backs change in Family Law Bill', The Australian, 15 August 1974, p. 3. Details


  • Dowse Sara, 'Shining Stars in Feminist Struggle', Review of: Making Women Count: A History of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Australia, By Marian Sawer, Canberra Times, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 20 December 2008, p. 13. Details


  • Dowse, Sarah, Address to WEL-ACT Dinner, 5 June 1989. Details


Online Resources