Theme Voluntary Work

Written by Melanie Oppenheimer, Flinders University

The voluntary work of Australian women in the 20th century and beyond has been dogged by 19th-century caricatures of its leaders. The term 'Lady Bountiful' developed as a derogatory stereotype of older women who carry out philanthropy and charity. It is far removed from its origins, in English playwright George Farquhar's play, The Beaux Stratagem, first published in 1707, where the character 'Lady Bountiful' was described as 'an old civil Country Gentlewoman, that cures all her Neighbours of all Distempers'. By the mid-19th century, 'Lady Bountiful' referred to middle or upper class women undertaking good deeds, often for their own self-aggrandisement. They were the 'spinster bluestockings, social-worker-types and busybodies' who took it upon themselves to undertake a range of unpaid work in the public sphere (Mahood, 7).

Another famous female literary caricature of philanthropy is Mrs Jellyby from Charles Dickens' Bleak House. It is said that Dickens modeled his character on the Australian female reformer and philanthropic leader, Caroline Chisholm. Aged 'from forty to fifty', Mrs Jellyby practised what Dickens described as 'telescopic philanthropy': that is, being involved in many charities and causes in Africa or exotic places overseas, all the while neglecting her family, her children, her own appearance and her domestic chores at home. Writing in the 1990s, sociologist Cora Baldock reaffirmed the existence of these negative remarks, describing the public image of female volunteers as 'blue rinse ladies patronizing the poor with token handouts' (Baldock, 1990, 4).

A volunteer is someone who 'willingly [gives] unpaid help, in the form of time, service or skills, through an organization or group' (ABS, 2006). Voluntary work has always been important for women, and they continue to dominate the volunteering statistics in Australia. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms that, in 2006, 36 per cent of women over the age of 18 volunteered their time, compared with 32 per cent of men. Women in the 35-44 age group are more likely to volunteer (48 per cent) than those in other age groups. There are two main types of volunteer work-formal and informal. Both incorporate choice and involve women donating or giving their time with no financial remuneration and of their own free will. Formal volunteering is carried out within structured organisations in the public sphere, whereas informal volunteering involves unpaid work in the domestic sphere caring for family, friends and neighbours, and outside of formal organisational structures. Volunteering is highly gendered, with women dominating the welfare and community areas. Baldock's study found that volunteers in the welfare sector in particular are predominantly women, from an older age group, a substantial minority is unmarried, most are European and Australian by birth and many had paid jobs as well (Baldock, 1990, 27-44).

Voluntary work encompasses many diverse features. It can mean sitting on voluntary boards and committees, running meetings and lobbying officials and politicians. It can also mean fundraising, running stalls and baking cakes, hosting charitable events such as balls, fetes and garden parties. It has been argued that women, in particular, can acquire and build managerial and leadership skills through volunteering.

The negative stereotypes of Lady Bountiful and Mrs Jellyby still linger and continue to be problematic for women volunteers and their leaders. Yet the women's movements of the 19th and 20th centuries was mostly led by these same volunteers. From the days of Mary Wollstonecraft, women and their leaders interested in the position, status and welfare of women came predominantly from the middle and upper classes; the few exceptions were mostly evident in the labour movement. Middle- and upper-class women leaders were educated and articulate, and were concerned with the position of women and reform in a range of social, political and economic arenas. They went outside their 'domestic' spheres and into the public domain and carved out a niche for themselves in the new world of female philanthropy. This formed part of their sense of moral and social obligation, or noblesse oblige. Such women were usually associated with Christian churches of various denominations, and frequently with evangelicalism, and they championed the virtues of femininity, religiosity, purity and concern for others less fortunate than themselves. As Kathleen McCarthy (1990) has demonstrated in the American context, women's voluntary labour as philanthropists and volunteers was not only valuable in its own right but had a positive impact on the public sphere.

Women who were denied access to the paid workforce forged careers and provided leadership in the increasingly large voluntary or non-profit sector. In Australia, there have been plenty of examples of the wives of governors and governors general assuming positions as patron or president of many women's voluntary organisations and providing leadership. Vice-regal women from Helen Munro Ferguson (Oppenheimer (2002); Heywood, 'Munro Ferguson', AWR) to Zara Gowrie were activists and proponents of women's volunteering. They believed that part of female citizenship involved active participation in community endeavours.

The two world wars were watersheds for Australian women, especially in the area of voluntary work. With gender restrictions on military service, and the women's auxiliary services only formed after manpower shortages during World War II, active participation for women was sought and found in the voluntary sphere. Voluntary work in wartime was extensive and crossed class boundaries. Beginning in World War I, women excelled in organising themselves together to make comforts, knit socks and raise money for the war effort, both for the 'boys' away fighting and for allied civilians affected by war. Through organisations such as the Australian Red Cross, led with distinction by Helen Munro Ferguson, or the Babies' Kit Society, led by Mary Booth (Roe, ADB; Morgan & Carey, AWR), women volunteered their time and labour and responded through community engagement. New opportunities arose for female leaders to step forward in their local communities to take charge of branches and activities. Although in some communities the baton of leadership was kept firmly in the grasp of the local matriarchs and leading families, in other areas, a more varied cross-section of women took up the opportunities provided. Empowered by their experiences, women created powerful organisations in the post-war period such as the Country Women's Association (CWA), a non-political, yet conservative, lobby group looking after the interests of rural women and children. In the cities, the Housewives Associations performed a similar role for suburban wives and mothers. These volunteer roles were further extended during World War II.

Volunteer work was closely aligned with the women's domestic sphere of household and childcare duties. It provided women with access to the public sphere, and it gave them a sense of independence and ability to enact their female citizenship through community-based volunteer work. Leaders of these voluntary women's groups tended to be the wives of schoolteachers, bank managers and clergymen, especially in the small towns. In larger centres and suburbs, wives of well-established tradesmen and professional men such as doctors and accountants were also found in leadership positions.

Through the 20th century, voluntary work assisted women's move from the private domestic sphere into the public domain. The very nature of women's organisations and networks allowed for different levels of leadership. Women could remain at the local level, serving their community, or they could move up the organisational hierarchy and sit on state-based committees. In some cases, with national organisations such as the Australian Red Cross or the National Council of Women, they could end up leading the organisations. It was through these extensive women's voluntary networks that women could meet, exchange ideas on leadership, and make real and lasting changes for their sex.

Joanne Scott argued that, for many women, and especially their leaders, volunteering was a 'career' or, as Arlene Daniels termed it, they were 'community service professionals with invisible careers' (Scott, 14; Daniels, xxvi). Prominent women in voluntary organisations established and pursued careers, at the same time exercising considerable power within their various voluntary organisations. Cecilia Downing who led the Federated Association of Australian Housewives is a case in point; her career involved a range of voluntary associations over many decades (Smart, 1994; Smart, ADB; Carey & Heywood, AWR). A long-time volunteer career for the middle and upper classes meant that women needed financial independence, generally through inheritance or marriage in order to sustain the lengthy periods away from home, family and children in pursuit of their interests and concerns.

Although important, the particular focus on middle-class philanthropic traditions has distorted our understanding of female volunteering. As noted earlier, volunteering was undertaken within the working classes as well, in both informal and formal settings and networks, such as trade unions, self-help and mutual aid societies, church groups and welfare organisations. As Bobbie Oliver and Margot Beasley have revealed, female working-class leaders such as Mary Swanton from the Coastal Tailoresses' Society (Grahame, ADB; Henningham, AWR) and Jean Beadle, founder of the first Labor Women's Organisation in Western Australia (Birman & Wood, ADB; Heywood & Oliver, AWR) were leaders, activists and volunteers. Along with Rose Fuhrman, their lives were dominated by undertaking an enormous amount of voluntary work on behalf of other working-class women. Oliver argued that 'the organized labour movement in Western Australia survived and thrived on the efforts of volunteers' (Oliver, 93). These women were 'career' volunteers, working as hard as any waged employees. Prominent women leaders in voluntary organisations from all levels of society have pursued 'careers' without entering the paid workforce. Others, such as labour organiser and equal pay campaigner Muriel Heagney combined their activism as volunteers with full-time paid work (Bremner, ADB; Francis, AWR).

A defining feature of women's leadership in voluntary work was personal commitment to the cause, whatever that might have been. It did not matter which side of politics you came from or where you lived or which church you prayed in, the characteristics of female leadership in the voluntary sphere were simple. Hard work and tenacity were other qualities. After all, these women were not driven by money but something much deeper, a belief in making a better society, a spirituality of purpose, and 'bringing into being a better world' (Oliver, 100). Frank Prochaska, writing about women and philanthropy in Britain, believes that volunteering is not so much about class as about 'kindness', which includes 'benevolence within classes as well as between them' (Prochaska, 7). The main point to be made here is that leadership and volunteering had less to do with class and more to do with individual character and personal drive.

Voluntary organisations gave women the chance to experience leadership, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. The women who came to lead the 1960s organisation, Save our Sons (SOS), for example, were middle-aged housewives, all of whom had sons of eligible age for conscription. Horrified at the fact their sons could be called up for duty during the Vietnam War, they found themselves united in a cause. They devoted years of their lives to this issue, volunteering countless hours each week to office work, and to organise and conduct the pressure group.

Many women undertook volunteer work to escape the drudgery and boredom of their domestic lives. It was a way to escape into the public domain. This was how many leaders began their public lives, as Dame Beryl Beaurepaire, a leading Melbourne philanthropist and one of the few founding female members of the Liberal Party in the 1940s, explained (Beaurepaire, interview; Heywood, 'Beaurepaire', AWR). Her prime motive was to get out of the house. Others, such as Gladys Owen Moore, volunteered in a number of voluntary organisations such as the Australian Red Cross, and also managed a career in the paid workforce with ABC radio through the 1930s and 1940s. She inspired younger women to 'open the windows on the world and on the doors to opportunities which were at that time beyond their reach' (Carmichael, 6; Flower, ADB; Morgan, AWR). Cora Baldock's 1990 study of female volunteers involved in social welfare work found that most of the leaders on committees that ran voluntary organisations originally came from the ranks of the service volunteers. That is, they rose up and became leaders through a combination of work, service and, presumably, demonstrable ability to lead.

Voluntary work became a site of conflict between women engaged in such activities and the second-wave feminist movement. The new feminist view was that voluntary work was exploitative of women, supported the traditional sexual division of labour and denigrated women's paid work. It was argued that volunteering was another example of the subservience and domination of women within a patriarchal society. Volunteering denied women access to the paid workforce. The Lady Bountiful stereotype was accepted as a valid characterisation. Carmel Shute's 1980 article, based on Australian women's voluntary work during World War II, is indicative of this view.

Assumptions that only middle-class, leisured women undertook voluntary work further served to extend the stereotype. Another view was that women did not choose volunteer work but, rather, were forced into it because there were few paid work options available (Hartmann, 773-6). In 1971, the American National Organisation for Women (NOW) passed a resolution challenging the benefits of 'service volunteering' that merely maintained 'women's dependence and secondary status' (Ms. Magazine, February 1975, 74). Two years later, a task force on volunteerism declared that volunteering reinforces women's low self-esteem and was simply an extension into the community of unpaid housework and women's role as 'helpmeet'. There were some, however, who did argue against this view; Herta Loeser, for example, contended in her 1974 study that voluntarism was a positive force in women's lives.

Since the 1970s, there have been significant changes to the broad areas of paid work with the lifting of restrictive work practices, granting of equal pay, and the enactment of anti-discrimination legislation. Partly as a result of these changes, interest in the voluntary sector has also risen and attention paid to increasing its professionalisation. The transformation in women's working lives has affected the supply of volunteers, especially with increasing numbers of married women staying in the paid workforce and thus sapping a traditional source of volunteers, notably in areas of social welfare. Yet, in 2007, a study of women's leadership in both paid and unpaid sectors by the Australian Women's Coalition found that, despite heavy commitments to work and family, many women still participated in a range of voluntary roles. 'Women bring particular qualities to their leadership', it was argued, 'most commonly a relational form of leadership that is non-hierarchical, consultative, affirming and encouraging of others' (AWC, 2007, 4). But many volunteer organisations lacked the resources to foster, develop and retain leadership roles for women. Among the means identified by the AWC study to develop more professional leadership within such organisations were networking and mentoring, observing successful women, classes in public speaking, negotiation and listening skills.

Good leadership, whether in the paid or voluntary sector is learned, and requires passion and commitment. In the 21st century, more and more women are transferring their skills and the leadership experiences gained through paid work into their volunteering. This is especially the case when their paid work expertise is called on in their volunteering roles, for example, when serving on committees and boards. The connection between women's voluntary work and their paid work in the public sphere is close. Fleming's theory of a 'symbiotic relationship' between women's paid and volunteer labour sheds light on how women can successfully integrate the different compartments of their working lives, in the paid workforce and in volunteering. The same applies to women and leadership in voluntary work.

Perhaps now it is time to place both Lady Bountiful and Mrs Jellyby securely within their historical contexts and leave them there. The challenge, now, is to focus on contemporary aspects of women, leadership and volunteering. In doing so, the rich layered complexity of women's working lives can be properly appreciated.

Additional sources: Carmichael, Alan, Director of ABC quoted in an unpublished brochure, 'Gladys Owen Moore, OBE (1899-1960): An Exhibition in Retrospect, May 1976', 6.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Baldock, Cora Vellekoop, Volunteers in Welfare, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Baldock, Cora Vellekoop, Seniors as volunteers: an international perspective on policy, Ageing and Society, vol. 19, 1999, 581-602 pp. Details
  • Daniels, Arlene, Invisible Careers: Women Civic Leaders from the Volunteer World, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, United States of America, 1988. Details
  • Kaminer, Wendy, Women Volunteering: The Pleasure, Pain and Politics of Unpaid Work-from 1830 to the Present, Anchor Press, New York, United States of America, 1984. Details
  • Loeser, Herta, Women, Work and Volunteering, Illustrated by Pavlowsky, Inge, Beacon Press, Boston, United State of America, 1974. Details
  • Mahood, Linda, Feminism and Voluntary Action: Eglantyne Jebb and Save the Children, 1876-1928, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, England, 2009. Details
  • O'Brien, Anne, God's Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2005. Details
  • Oppenheimer, Melanie, All Work. No Pay. Australian Civilian Volunteers in War, Ohio Productions, Walcha, New South Wales, 2002. Details
  • Oppenheimer, Melanie, Volunteering: Why We Can't Survive Without It, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2008. Details
  • Prochaska, Frank, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century England, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1980. Details
  • Waring, Marilyn, Counting for Nothing : what men value and what women are worth, Australian ed edn, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, New Zealand, 1988. Details

Book Sections

  • Godden, Judith, 'The work for them and the glory for us!': Sydney Women's Philanthropy, 1870-1900', in Kennedy, Richard (ed.), Australian Welfare History: Critical Essays, Macmillan, Melbourne, Victoria, 1982, pp. 84 - 101. Details
  • Shute, Carmel, 'From Balaclavas to Bayonets: Women's Voluntary War Work, 1939-41', in Women, Class and History, Dominion Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1980, pp. 353 - 387. Details

Edited Books

  • McCarthy, Kathleen D. (ed.), Lady Bountiful Revisited: Women, Philanthropy and Power, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, Canada, 1990. Details
  • McCarthy, Kathleen D. (ed.), Women, Philanthropy and Civil Society, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, United State of America, 2001. Details
  • Noble, Joy and Johnstone, Fiona (eds), Volunteering Visions, Federation Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2001. Details
  • Warburton, Jeni and Oppenheimer, Melanie (eds), Volunteers and Volunteering, Federation Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2000. Details

Journal Articles

  • Baldock, Cora, 'Feminist Discourses on Unwaged Work: The Case of Volunteerism', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 13, no. 27, 1998, pp. 19 - 34. Details
  • Beasley, Margo, 'Soldiers of the Federation: The Women's Committees of the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia', Labour History, vol. 81, November 2001, pp. 109-127. Details
  • Evans, Caroline, 'Declining volunteerism in Tasmania's neglected children's department, 1896-1918', Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 16, 2011, pp. 73-88. Details
  • Fleming, Rebecca, 'Making the Invisible Link Visible: The Symbiotic Relationship between the Paid and Voluntary Labour of Women in the NSW Institute for Educational Research', Australian Journal on Volunteering, vol. 12, no. 2, 2007, pp. 21 - 29. Details
  • Hartmann, Heidi. I., 'Comment on Marnie W. Mueller's "The Economic Determinants of Volunteer Work by Women"(vol. 1, no. 2)', Signs, vol. 1, no. 3, Spring, pp. 773 - 776. Details
  • Leonard, Rosemary, 'A Qualitative Exploration of Women's Volunteering in Human Services', Third Sector Review, vol. 8, no. 2, 2002, pp. 31 - 50. Details
  • Oliver, Bobbie, '"In the thick of every battle for the cause of Labor": The Voluntary Work of the Labor Women's Organisations in Western Australia, 1900-70', Labour History, vol. 81, November 2001, pp. 93-108. Details
  • Oppenheimer, Melanie, 'Voluntary Work and Labour History', Labour History, vol. 74, May 1998, pp. 1-9. Details
  • Oppenheimer, Melanie, '"The Best P.M. for the Empire"? Lady Helen Munro Ferguson and the Australian Red Cross Society, 1914-1920', Australian Historical Studies, no. 119, April 2002, pp. 108 - 124. Details
  • Scott, Joanne, 'Voluntary Work as Work? Some Implications for Labour History', Labour History, vol. 74, May 1998, pp. 10-20. Details
  • Smart, Judith, '"For the good that we can do": Cecilia Downing and Feminist Christian Citizenship', Australian Feminist Studies, no. 19, 1994, pp. 39 - 60. Details
  • Swain, Shurlee, 'Women and Philanthropy in Colonial and Post-colonial Australia', Voluntas, vol. 7, no. 4, 1996, pp. 428 - 443. Details



Resource Sections

  • Beaurepaire, Beryl, A Life, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), ABC TV Series, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), January 1996. Details

Online Resources