Theme Women's Non-party Political Organisations

Written by Judith Smart, The University of Melbourne/RMIT University

The first stage of women's non-party political organisation in Australia occurred largely in the decades after white women achieved the Commonwealth suffrage in 1902, though, if a broad definition of 'non-party political' is adopted, some such organisations can be dated from the 1880s. They led a reconceptualisation of what constitutes the political in terms of policy and the legislative ambit of governments, though this was not reflected in significant parliamentary representation of women. The heyday for the emergence, growth and national organisation of these pioneering non-party political groupings in Australia was the interwar period, though the pre-World War I and, later, the World War II and postwar reconstruction periods also saw significant developments. Their focus was initially a maternalist and protectionist one, emphasising philanthropy and social welfare, economic independence, and the centrality of the home to national life, but, in the process of working towards these ends, the leaders of these organisations came to include a growing range of demands for equal rights with men (Lake, 1999, chaps 6-8; Lake, 1998, 137-9; Sawer, 2003, 104-06). The second phase of non-party political women's organisation emerged as part of second-wave feminism and was again responsible for leading a major reconsideration of what constitutes the political, this time focusing on liberation from traditional sex roles, sexual freedom, an end to gender discrimination, the empowerment of women and the revolutionary potential of collective decision making; most, however, also supported ongoing battles for social and economic justice, and (with reservations) equality (Lake, 1999, chaps 9 & 10; Lake, 1998, 141-2; Magarey, AWAL; Sawer, 2003, 106-07). While the development of new feminist non-party political organisation did from the 1970s coincide with a significant growth of parliamentary representation of women, this was not its principal objective. In both stages, the women's non-party movement regarded parliament as only one of many ways of doing politics, and some, though not all, ranked its importance as quite low.

The First Stage: Varied Manifestations of the Non-party Ideal

The narrowest definition of the non-party ideal for Australian women held that sex loyalty should prevail over party loyalty, and that, once equipped with the vote, women should therefore eschew the established male-dominated parties of class, form their own political organisations and use their collective electoral power for the good of all humanity, but especially to protect the interests of women, children and the home. While non-party women candidates for political office could be supported, it was just as important, if not more so, that women use their new power to mobilise public opinion and exert pressure on all governments and public authorities. Broader definitions of the non-party political stance came to include organisations that welcomed women members of all political parties on the assumption that, despite their different political affiliations, they could make common cause in the community as citizens on issues concerning women and humanity generally, as well as using their voting power to influence their parties as well as governments. Still wider understanding of the term non-party political came to embrace women's organisations focused on particular issues and constituencies and dedicated to public persuasion and the lobbying of all parties, authorities and governments in the interests of their members and communities, as well as the perceived common good. In this last group, we can include organisations that both preceded and followed the winning of the suffrage.

Most of the women's suffrage societies formed in the Australian colonies from the 1880s were in effect non-party but it was South Australia's Catherine Spence (Eade, ADB) who made the non-party position explicit in 1895 on forming the Effective Voting League to promote proportional representation. In the wake of gaining the Commonwealth suffrage in 1902, Australia's two best-known women suffragists, Rose Scott (Allen, ADB; Carter, AWR) of New South Wales and Vida Goldstein (Brownfoot, ADB; Land & Carey, AWR) of Victoria, also took a firm early stance against the 'snare' of party politics (Lake, 1999, 144) and put their ideals into practice by forming, respectively, the Women's Political Education League (WPEL) and the Women's Federal Political Association (later the Women's Political Association (WPA)), as well as, in Goldstein's case, contesting federal elections as an independent on an explicitly feminist platform. Both objected to the masculine character of the existing parties where women would inevitably be forced to 'adopt men's methods and men's aims' (Goldstein) and become 'camp followers to a corrupt system of party politics' (Scott) (cited in Lake, 1999, 145). Ada Bromham (Birman, ADB; Francis, 'Bromham', AWR), a non-party candidate in Western Australia in 1921, elaborated, arguing that male politicians invariably 'put business first and human welfare second', whereas '[w]omen put human welfare first and business second' (cited in Lake, 1998, 138).

Other non-party organisations emerging later in this period included the Women's Non-Party Association of South Australia (later League of Women Voters of South Australia), the Feminist Club in NSW, the Women's Non-Party League of Tasmania, and the Women's Service Guilds (WSG) of Western Australia. Under the leadership of Bessie Rischbieth (Lutton, ADB; Heywood, 'Rischbieth', AWR) of the WSG, this second group of organisations came together in the Australian Federation of Women's Societies for Equal Citizenship, formed in 1921 (re-named the Australian Federation of Women Voters (AFWV) in 1924). By this time, both the WPA and the WPEL had been disbanded but, in the following years, a new Victorian organisation emerged, the Victorian Women Citizens Association (formed 1922 and re-constituted with two other groups as the Victorian Federation of Women Voters in 1946), and three NSW groups joined together as the United Associations of Women (UAW) in 1929, led by Jessie Street (Radi, ADB; Morrell & Henningham, AWR), Linda Littlejohn (Foley, 'Littlejohn', ADB; Henningham, AWR) and Ruby Rich (Tate, ADB; Carey & Morgan, AWR), among others. They also affiliated with the AFWV (Byard, AWAL).

The AFWV continued throughout its existence to argue the need for women-only non-party organisation to provide education for citizenship and a forum in which women could develop the collective confidence and capacity to assert a sexually differentiated understanding of their civic duties that stressed welfare, individual legal status and equality, economic independence for their sex, and equal moral standards between men and women. But although the AFWV supported the need for separate organisation and was in the vanguard of progressive feminism for more than three decades, it was less critical than Goldstein and Scott had been of party affiliation and accepted that 'non-party' might in practice be more flexibly understood to mean 'every party', the affiliated organisations being places where both party and non-party women could stand together and pursue an agenda focused on the common interests of women, children and the home, as well as the promise of equal citizenship (Lake, 1999, 140, 144; Sawer, 2003, 105). And indeed, in some states, these organisations came to include leading women from the Labor Party and labour movement as well as many who were members of the conservative parties, though an ongoing suspicion of feminism as a middle-class phenomenon caused the male leadership of the Labor Party to discourage their female members from joining. The same was true of the Communist Party. Some Labor women did, however, participate. They included Jean Beadle (Birman & Wood, ADB; Heywood & Oliver, AWR) in the WSG and, by the late 1930s, Jessie Street in the UAW, while among the conservatives were Florence Cardell-Oliver (Black, ADB; Heywood, 'Cardell-Oliver', AWR) (a cabinet minister in the in WA Liberal-Country Party government from 1949 to 1953 and a long-term member of the WSG) and Australian Women's National League and United Australia Party member Julia Rapke (Smart, ADB), who was president of the Victorian Women's Citizens Movement and, subsequently, the League of Women Voters of Victoria during the 1940s. Membership of the AFWV and its affiliates enabled all members, regardless of party, to unite on the issues of equal divorce laws and guardianship rights, the right of married women to retain their nationality, equal pay and equal opportunity, as well as advocacy on behalf of Aboriginal women, and the appointment of women as police, prison warders, jurors and justices of the peace, and as members of hospital and other boards (Lake, 1999, 148-50; Sawer, 2003, 105; Byard, AWAL).

The non-party ideal in terms of independent candidature for parliament on a platform stressing the special interests of women saw the election of only one such candidate, Ivy Weber (Browne, ADB; Francis, 'Weber', AWR), who won the 'dry' seat of Nunawading in Victoria in 1937 (Lake, 1999, 152). The ideal nevertheless persisted, reaching its apogee in 1943 when the Women for Canberra Movement formed and stood nineteen women candidates in the federal election of that year (Sawer, 2003, 105; Lake, 1999, 151). Though none in this group was successful, the election did produce the first women members of both the House of Representatives (Enid Lyons for the United Australia Party) and the Senate (Dorothy Tangney for the Labor Party). But failure to gain the support of women voters for female independents saw the movement fade quickly thereafter, and a primary emphasis on non-party extra-parliamentary organisation and lobbying was resumed during the postwar period into the 1970s. A partial exception to this was the formation in 1951 of the Australian Local Government Women's Association (Carey, AWR; ALGWA), avowedly a non-party political association, to support participation of women in local government, though independence from party affiliation was not a prerequisite for membership.

The largest organisational groups espousing a non-party political viewpoint in the broader context of welcoming women of all parties (and no parties) were undoubtedly the National Councils of Women, formed in every state between 1896 and 1911 as umbrella gatherings of delegates from any women's organisations choosing to affiliate. Their move towards national organisation was slow but a federal council operated from 1925 and the National Council of Women of Australia came into being in 1931. Its rationale-in accordance with the founding ideals of the International Council of Women (ICW)-was (and remains) to discuss matters of common interest, to gather information and to learn from each other in order to promote peace and general wellbeing, but especially the wellbeing of women and children. The founding principle was a women's movement that went beyond political rights and reflected all the interests of women engaged in public work. By the 1960s, it claimed to represent over a million Australian women through the affiliated organisations in all states (Smart & Quartly, AWAL).

The motto of all the Australian Councils, taken from the ICW, has always been the Christian Golden Rule-'Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you'-and all have adopted a pledge with words similar to these from the Victorian Council in 1904: 'This Council is organised in the interest of no one propaganda, nor can it ally itself to any political or sectarian party, nor does it claim any power over its members except that of sympathy and suggestion' (NCWV, Constitution, 1904). But the Councils' avowed non-party stance and breadth of membership have not lessened their commitment to lobbying for the major components of the mainstream liberal feminist agenda, expressed as the promotion of 'equal status of women and men in law and in fact' (NCWA, 'About Us'); throughout their history they have waged campaigns on much the same issues as the AFWV-especially equal marriage and divorce laws, guardianship rights, the right of married women to retain their nationality, equal pay and equal opportunity, the appointment of women as law officers of all kinds, and as members of public boards and committees of inquiry. However, the very size and diversity of concerns and interests in the Councils meant that the political and equality objectives sometimes appeared to be less important than broad welfare matters and, conscious of the need to preserve amity among the delegates, Council leaders seemed on occasion to avoid particularly contentious issues and to adopt a middle-of-the-road approach to others (Smart & Quartly, AWAL). Impatience with this slowness of decision-making and an apparent reluctance to take prompt or decisive action provided an impetus to the formation of the AFWV (Byard, AWAL), and has continued to be a cause of frustration to more progressive NCW affiliates and their delegates ever since.

While the conservative label critics have given the NCWs can be challenged in terms of their commitment to an equality agenda, it is more justifiable as a characterisation of the party links of its leadership. Although the Councils have maintained a non-party position, Labor women's organisations were discouraged by their parties from affiliating and only rarely did so. Thus there was little competition offered to the election of conservative party women with political and organisational experience as leaders of the NCWA-of the twenty national presidents who held office between 1931 and 2000, nine were members of the Liberal Party (or its predecessors). But the constitutional strictures, together with the broad and varied commitments of the NCWA, have meant its leaders have generally worked hard to avoid party political bias, have negotiated with both Labor and Liberal governments, and have co-operated with trade union women, communist women and the AFWV, among others, in fighting for equal pay and other matters of gender justice. In the process, they have had to tread carefully to mollify the large sections of their affiliated membership suspicious of change, and perhaps their greatest political achievement has been the gradual education of their own members in matters of gender equality. In this sense, the Councils as a whole have played a crucial leadership role for women at state and federal levels (Smart & Quartly, AWAL).

Among women's organisations that can be defined as non-party political from the late 19th century onwards, we may also include those dedicated to public persuasion and the lobbying of all parties, authorities and governments on specific issues or groups of issues and on behalf of particular constituencies of women. Many of these were affiliated with the NCWs, though, one of them, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), in fact preceded and helped found the Councils and reinforced the more politically progressive elements of their leadership in most states. Though its primary focus was reform of the laws relating to the availability of alcohol and to moral behaviour, the WCTU led the way in the fight for women's suffrage in most states and, throughout the 20th century and to the present, has consistently supported gender equality and a wide range of welfare and justice reforms, including for Indigenous women. Its membership peak of approximately 18,000 was reached in 1930 (Grimshaw, 199-214; Smart, 'Mission', 215-34). Another explicitly non-party political group, the Housewives Associations, were in part a product of NCW initiatives to deal with wartime cost-of-living issues. Beginning in Victoria in 1915, they developed their own political strategies-boycotts, cooperatives, discount for cash, lobbying-and acquired a level of authority and influence in relation to consumer interests that was quite independent of the Councils. Expanding rapidly in the interwar and post-World War II period, they reached an estimated membership of 175,000 in the 1960s before declining rapidly from the 1970s (Smart, 'Politics of Consumption'). Outside the major cities, the Country Women's Associations, founded in most states in the 1920s, grew out of the growing social and economic crises of the interwar years, which saw years of drought, depressed prices for agricultural goods, the failure of soldier settlement schemes, and dissatisfaction with the fact that country areas were lagging behind the cities in terms of health services, educational facilities and general amenities. Led initially by a mix of governors' wives, journalists and landowners' wives, they developed organisational and leadership skills among women throughout rural Australia. Separately then together as the Country Women's Association of Australia (formed in 1945), they adopted a non-party political and non-sectarian stance and have continuously lobbied all levels of government in the interests of rural women and children, as well as providing networking and social activities and teaching leadership and life skills. At the end of 20th century, they constituted the largest individual women's organisation in Australia, with over 55,000 members (Crook, AWAL).

All of these first-stage non-party political women's organisations developed in a period when leadership styles were less varied than they became from the 1970s, and the models available, even in the more politically radical feminist organisations, generally assumed a masculinist understanding of power and influence exercised by a dominant individual-or group of individuals-at the peak of an hierarchical pyramidal organisational structure. While there were in this context some rivalries and conflicts-between Bessie Rischbieth and Edith Cowan (Brown, ADB; Francis, 'Cowan', AWR) in the World War I and postwar years, and between Jessie Street and AFWV leaders such as Rischbieth, Rich and Rapke, for example-the exercise of leadership in all these organisations developed on a consultative model and, though they all retained formal hierarchies, they pioneered the networking skills and practices that have come to be seen as a characteristic feature of women's leadership, most commonly through broad-based standing committees, organisational cross-memberships and collaborative lobbying work (Byard, AWAL; Smart & Quartly, AWAL; Davis, Musgrove & Smart, 2-4). Eleanor Glencross (Foley, 'Glencross', ADB; Carey & Heywood, 'Glencross', AWR), for example, was a key figure in the Victorian Women Citizens' Movement, the National Council of Women and the Housewives Associations in both Victoria and New South Wales as well as federally. Her activities spanned four decades. Cecilia Downing (Smart, 'Downing', ADB; Carey & Heywood, 'Downing', AWR), over the same period, held office in the Victorian WCTU and NCW, and in the state and national Housewives Associations as well as founding and leading the Victorian and Australian Baptist women's organisations. In South Australia during the interwar period, Agnes Goode (Edgar, ADB) operated across the same spectrum of women's organisations as Glencross. Mary Jamieson Williams (Alafaci, AWR) was prominent in the AFWV as well as in both the NCW and the WCTU in New South Wales in the 1920s, and Ada Bromham exercised leadership roles through the AFWV affiliates and the WCTU in four different states from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Early non-party women's leadership was significant in terms of a reconceptualisation of what constitutes the political in both policy and the legislative ambit of governments. As Marilyn Lake comments:

In their aim of creating a maternalist welfare state in Australia, feminists achieved a degree of success. As maternalist citizens, feminists led movements for and helped win a range of reforms, such as maternal and infant welfare clinics, women's hospitals, the maternity allowance, child endowment paid to mothers, custody and maintenance rights, and the appointment of women to public "protectionist" positions (Lake, 1998, 139)

It was an achievement of which this generation of non-party women leaders were very conscious, as Mildred Muscio (Foley & Fulloon, ADB; Lemon, 'Muscio', AWR), president of NCWNSW and second president of the Federal Council of NCWs, made clear in addressing the NSW Council in 1927. Domestic problems, she said, 'have become national problems'. 'Now the chief business of Parliaments is the business of the homes of the people … More and more our laws concern themselves with the affairs of the home' (Muscio, 3-4).

Both the AFWV and the NCWs, then the NCWA, also led Australian women into international relationships, employing the knowledge gained and the contacts they made through membership of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) (later the International Alliance of Women (IAW)) and the International Council of Women (ICW) to expand the vision of Australian women on gender issues and to exert pressure on Australian governments with regard to issues such as the nationality of married women, equal pay and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). AFWV and NCWA women provided the majority of Australia's substitute delegates to the League of Nations in the interwar period, and, following Jessie Street's term as the first delegate to the UN Status of Women Commission in 1947, a number of NCWA leaders were appointed, Ada Norris (Fitzherbert, ADB; Carey & Heywood, 'Norris', AWR) being especially notable for serving three terms from 1961 to 1963 (Smart, 'Ada Norris', 317-19).

Many of the non-party women's political organisations of the first-wave feminist movement survived into the second wave but were largely ignored by the new generation of women activists and quickly declined in membership and influence. Generally they had been gradualist, emphasising information, education and polite lobbying, and choosing to operate within the system rather than undermine it. They had nevertheless pioneered a number of political strategies subsequent non-party organisations followed. These included petitions; calling on the assistance of women journalists such as the Melbourne Argus's redoubtable Stella Allan ('Vesta') (Keep, ADB; Lemon & Henningham, AWR) for press publicity; and questionnaires administered to parliamentary candidates. The use of questionnaires dated back to the NSW National Council of Women's survey of candidates in 1910 concerning legislation for maintenance of deserted wives, and was subsequently employed regularly by the AFWV and its affiliates in the 1920s and 1930s. Other strengths of the non-party women's groups included their well-researched reporting, systematic attention to the work of governments, and the well-crafted letters sent to ministers. Nonetheless, they seemed staid and slow to act in the view of second-wave feminists and, as a result, failed to sustain membership from the 1970s. The member organisations of the AFWV gradually declined and disbanded in the 1960s and 1970s, the AFWV itself closing in 1982. Only the League of Women Voters of Victoria survives today. While the NCWA no longer represents the majority of organised women in Australia, its branches survive in all states and have continued to be active into the 21st Century; the NCWA is now a member of the Equality Rights Alliance, one of the six National Women's Alliances funded by the federal government since 2010 (Australian Government, 'Engaging with Women's Organisations'). Of the specific-purpose non-party women's organisations, many like the WCTU survive only in skeletal form. One of the more vibrant, the Australian Local Government Women's Association, is active in all states and continues to provide a useful forum for elected women representatives and employees in local government, though there has been little change in the proportion of women councillors (27 per cent) and chief executive officers (5 per cent) in the past two decades (ALGA, 'Women in Local Government'). The Country Women's Association has proved to be the strongest of these specific-purpose non-party organisations, surviving today in all states and nationally as the leading voice of rural women. It has suffered a substantial decline in membership in recent years, but it is still the largest individual women's organisation in Australia (Crook, AWAL) and forms the basis of the National Rural Women's Coalition, another of the six National Women's Alliances.

Non-party Political Women's Organisation of the Second Wave

In finding the existing non-party political organisations both uncongenial and of marginal relevance to their new and different understandings of feminism, young women in Australia from the 1970s moved towards a type of non-party political activism that challenged traditional organisational and leadership models (Curthoys, 1-13). As Lake writes: 'Promised equality and the rights of individuals, ambitious young women growing up in the 1950s and 1960s were outraged to discover that they were in fact treated as inferiors because of their sex' (Lake, 1998, 141). Among them was Germaine Greer, whose first and ground-breaking book, The Female Eunuch (1970), impelled many women-and not only in Australia-into a socio-political activism that came to be called Women's Liberation (Magarey, AWAL). In rethinking their position, these women rejected the aim of equality with men in the present society in favour of the revolutionary objective of liberation-'nothing less than a total transformation in what would later be called gender relations was required'. In taking a 'self-consciously disruptive and subversive' stance, Women's Liberationists 'represented a self-conscious break with the past', 'refusing hierarchies and traditional organisational structures' (Lake, 1998, 141).

This stance was based on the revolutionary feminist elision of the personal and the political, the principle that no platform or external cause should take precedence over the emergent knowledge arising from women's own experiences, all of which were equally valid (Andrew, AWAL). Susan Magarey has titled a recent article on this subject 'Women's Liberation was a Movement, not an Organisation' (Magarey, AFS) and, in her entry on the movement for this encyclopedia, she notes: 'the concept of leadership was … deeply problematic for feminism'. She quotes Anne Summers (Heywood, 'Summers', AWR) from Mejane no. 10 in 1973 in explaining the opposition of Women's Liberation to elected officers, formal membership and rules or platforms; these structures were 'always oligarchical' in that they 'inevitably produce an elite of leaders who cling to their powerful positions more tenaciously than they adhere to the principles of the organization they purportedly represent' (Magarey, AWAL). The ideal of the Women's Liberation movement was, on the contrary, women working together collectively and cooperatively in a group, having many women speak rather than one speaking for the many, and ending the conventional distinction between leader and led as well as eroding the status of professional expertise.

Meetings were open to any women who wished to attend, not just representative or invited individuals as in first-wave organisations, and they aimed to encourage all in attendance to speak and participate in an effort to 'prefigure the kind of social relations which would prevail in the kind of society we are trying to create' (Summers). While the spontaneity, emotion and enthusiasm generated were, as Magarey comments, 'entirely appropriate for small groups engaged primarily in consciousness-raising', they were found to be less effective in generating coordinated public action and policy. Structureless and leaderless meetings were open to a constant turnover of personnel and, as a result, well-considered decisions made at previous meetings were frequently overturned. Some activists became frustrated by the failure to get beyond the seemingly interminable discussion and impatient with what they increasingly saw as time-wasting. Inevitably, individuals did seize the initiative and start to take action before further reconsideration of decisions made could occur. As a consequence, some non-party political organisations for specific purposes grew out of (and mostly outlived) Women's Liberation, most of them consistent with the broad goals of the movement: refuges, working women's centres, rape crisis centres, and Women's Studies units in institutions of tertiary education, for instance. And specific campaigns were conducted-against sexist advertising, for the decriminalisation of abortion, for equal pay. But Women's Liberation did not, itself, ever become an organisation (Magarey, AWAL).

An illuminating article written by American Jo Freeman as early as 1972 and titled 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness', argued that the concept of 'structurelessness' not only produced inaction but was also a myth and, at its most dangerous, 'becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others', a way of masking the 'power of informal élites within the group'. A further consequence was the creation of 'the star system', whereby particular women were identified by the media as speaking for the movement even though they might deny this role. The emergence of these de facto élites and 'stars' inevitably produced conflict and resentment within the movement, leading to personal attacks and loss of cohesion and undermining the ideal of sisterhood. In Freeman's view, clinging to 'the ideology of structurelessness' risked destroying the movement. The movement should, rather develop new forms of organisation suited to 'healthy functioning', including where necessary a form of leadership more closely aligned with feminist principles (drawn from Magarey, AWAL).

In addition to the formation out of Women's Liberation of the specific-purpose political organisations already referred to, the 'developing impetus towards "practical action"' saw some women in the movement who were 'less oriented to personal-transformative change' than many of their peers turning to organisation focused on political lobbying and policy development (Andrew, AWAL). The result was the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), which, like Women's Liberation, attempted to avoid forms of organisation that would inevitably replicate patriarchal modes of structure and leadership. First formed in Melbourne in February 1972 by Beatrice Faust (Francis, 'Faust', AWR), it was quickly taken up in all the states and the first national conference was held in Canberra in 1973. By 1974/75, there were fifty-two groups in regional and rural Australia, in addition to those in the capital cities and suburbs (Sawer, 2008, 6, 10, 16-18). WEL continued to resist traditional organisational structures and permanent leaders or spokeswomen and, though it held national conferences, eschewed a national body. The extent to which different groups held to this view varied-Canberra especially seeing itself as ideally positioned to function as the national lobby group (Sawer, 2008, 94)-but the 1974 conference agreed that 'recommendations have no other status than as suggestions for WEL groups throughout Australia'. As Merrindahl Andrew notes in her entry for this encyclopedia: 'WEL groups tended to operate with revolving, typically monthly, rosters for convenor and spokesperson positions, in some cases even avoiding naming contacts in newsletters'. And, as Western Australia's Joan Eveline put it, 'we did a really good job of convincing [the media and politicians] that there was a kind of unified movement' (Andrew, AWAL).

Regardless of its attitudes to its own leadership, WEL itself led a major and largely successful campaign to have women's interests taken into account in all aspects of government policy and action, especially during the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating years when affirmative action was instituted and anti-discrimination legislation passed; in the process, they recognised the need to present a united front. Early strategies included candidate surveys, which though not new received greater publicity than those conducted by women's organisations in earlier decades, largely because of the direct involvement of journalists such as Sally White of the Age. Like their predecessors in non-party organisations, WEL members also engaged in research directed towards the policy writing and submission that perhaps constituted their most important work. WEL thus provided considered and evidence-based policy ideas as well as moral support for 'femocrats' such as Sarah Dowse (Lemon, 'Dowse', AWR) and Anne Summers in the public service and, though election to parliament was never a key objective, many women who later became prominent as MPs in the mainstream political parties cut their teeth in WEL where they developed political skills, a sound knowledge base and confidence (for example, Labor's Margaret Reynolds (Land & Henningham, AWR) and Susan Ryan (Morrell, 'Ryan, Susan', AWR), and the Liberal Party's Helen Coonan (Heywood, 'Coonan', AWR)).

The membership of WEL declined from the late 1980s partly because of its very success and partly because of the difficulty of holding together a horizontally organised network of semi-autonomous groups (Andrew, AWAL). However, it remains active and is Australia's official affiliate to the International Alliance of Women, in a line of direct descent from Vida Goldstein's Women's Political Association and the AFWV. Together with the League of Women Voters of Victoria and the Union of Australian Women (a left-wing non-party organisation, originally a breakaway from the Housewives Associations, dating from 1950), it hosted the IAW world conference in Melbourne in 2012. The other major non-party political organisation, NCWA, also preserves a close relationship with its international counterpart, the International Council of Women; Australian presidents and others who have undertaken positions with the ICW-among them Necia Mocatta ('Stirrers with Style'), Eleanor Sumner and Judith Parker ('Stirrers with Style')-found themselves working as unpaid virtually full-time officers of international agencies. And, under the presidency of Judith Parker, NCWA hosted the ICW triennial conference in Perth in 2003.


International Women's Year in 1975 has often been seen as the dividing point between dominance of the old-style or traditional mainstream women's non-party political activism and leadership and the rise of new forms of non-party activism such as WEL and Women's Liberation. This understanding overstates the nature of the change. Certainly the old channels of influence on government were disrupted by the appointment of the radical Elizabeth Reid (Land & Francis, AWR) as adviser on women's affairs to the Whitlam government and the subsequent influx of femocrats into the public service. But lobbying by the traditional non-party organisations continued and leading second-wave femocrats such as Reid, Lyndall Ryan (Morrell, 'Ryan, Lyndall', AWR) and Anne Summers corresponded with them and spoke at their conferences. Moreover, the presence of the familiar figure of NCW leader Dame Ada Norris in the chair of the United Nations Association of Australia's national committee for IWY and Decade, in which both first- and second-wave groups participated, gives some indication that the divisions between the old and the new movements were not total and that some of the old patterns of co-operation and co-option still had traction (Quartly & Smart). While tensions never completely dissipated, they learned from each other and have continued their 'networking and advocacy activities' though three 'National Secretariats' (1999), then four 'Coalitions' (2002) and, currently, through six 'National Women's Alliances' (2010). These groupings were established by successive federal governments, the purpose as phrased on the Alliances' latest website (2014) being: to 'bring together women's organisations … to share information, identify issues that affect them, and identify solutions' and 'engage actively with the Australian government on policy issues' (Australian Government, 'Engaging with Women's Organisations'). These objectives would have been very familiar to the women who founded the National Councils of Women and the AFWV at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Archival Resources

State Library of Victoria

  • Constitution, Article III - Policy [National Council of Women of Victoria (NCWV)], 30 March 1904, In transition; State Library of Victoria. Details

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Greer, Germaine, The Female Eunuch, MacGibbon and Kee, London, England, 1970. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999. Details
  • Norris, Ada, Champions of the Impossible: A History of the National Council of Women of Victoria 1902-1977, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1978. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, The Ethical State? Social Liberalism in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2003. 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

  • Brooklyn, Bridget, 'The 1920s: A Good Decade for Women in Politics', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 156-170. Details
  • Davis, Fiona; Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith, 'Introduction', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 1-12. Details
  • Dickenson, Jackie, 'Fran Bailey and the McEwen Electorate: Women's Leadership in Representative Democracy', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 218-231. Details
  • Gooch, Kathryn, '"Politics as War": Women and Leadership into the Future', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 406-421. Details
  • Grey, Madeline, 'The Nature of Women's Political Leadership: Women MPs in the Parliament of Victoria', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 379-391. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, 'A History of Australian Feminism', in Barbara Caine (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998, pp. 132 - 142. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'Ada Norris (1901-1989): Champion of the Impossible', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 307-325. Details
  • Summers, Anne, 'Where's the Women's Movement Moving To?', in Mercer, Jan (ed.), The Other Half: Women in Australian Society, First published in Mejane, no. 10 (March 1973), Penguin Books, Richmond, Victoria, 1975, pp. 405 -419. Details

Journal Articles

  • Curthoys Ann, 'Visions, nightmares, dreams: Women's history, 1975', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 27, no. 106, 1996, pp. 1-13. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'Gender, Citizenship and Race in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of Australia 1890s to the 1930s', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 13, no. 28, October 1988, pp. 199 - 214. Details
  • Magarey, Susan, 'Women's Liberation was a Movement, not an Organisation', Australian Feminist Studies, forthcomming. Details
  • Quartly, Marian and Smart, Judith, 'The Australian National Council of Women: Its Relations with Government to 1975', Australian Feminist Studies, forthcomming. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'A Mission to the Home: The Housewives' Association, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Protestant Christianity, 1920 - 40', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, September 2006, pp. 13 - 39. Details


  • Muscio, Mildred, Presidential Address, Biennial Reports for 1926 - 1928, 1 - 4, National Council of Women of NSW, c.1928. Details

Online Resources