Theme International Activism and Organisations

Written by Natasha Campo, LaTrobe University and Marilyn Lake, The University of Melbourne

From the late 19th century, Australian women were keen to participate in international meetings, join international organisations campaigning for women's rights and work for social reform, even though travel to Europe and the United States was time-consuming and costly. There were also issues of representation to grapple with as the colony- or state- based nature of early feminist associations and Australia's continuing subjection to Britain in international affairs complicated feminists' claims to speak as national representatives in international forums until well into the 20th century (Lake, 1999, 154- 61). Regardless, Australian women were exhilarated to be at the forefront of what they knew to be world historic developments and they were, from the beginning, enthusiastic internationalists, excited about the new transnational friendships to be forged, the alliances to be formed and the possibilities of working for economic, political and social change. They were driven by a sense that their pioneering status in achieving advanced reforms in Australia, including women's rights, was better recognised on the world stage than at home.

In 1893, Catherine Spence from the colony of South Australia and Margaret Windeyer from New South Wales joined hundreds of American and European women gathered at the astonishingly large Congress of Women, held in the Woman's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition (or World Fair) in Chicago, where Spence gave a talk on 'Effective Voting' (or proportional representation) and Windeyer spoke about the novels of George Meredith. Spence also attended the International Conference on Charities and Corrections held in conjunction with the World Fair as a representative of the South Australian State Children's Council. Her visit was part of a lecture tour during which she addressed hundreds of audiences across the United States and made many new friends. 'To that celebrated journalist, poetess and economic writer, Charlotte Perkins Stetson [Gilman], who was a cultured Bostonian, living in San Francisco', Spence wrote in her Autobiography, 'I owed one of the best women's meetings I ever addressed. The subject was "State Children and the compulsory clauses in our Education Act" and everywhere in the States people were interested in the splendid work of our State Children's department and educational methods' (Magarey, 2005, 147).

Margaret Windeyer, a commissioner to the Chicago Exposition, also attended the second world congress of the International Council of Women (ICW). On her return home, she helped form the first Australian National Council of Women (NCW) in New South Wales, the sixth in the world, in 1896. Further 'national councils' were formed in quick succession in the colony of Tasmania in 1899, the state of Victoria in 1902, South Australia in the same year (collapsed 1909, reconstituted 1920), Queensland in 1905 and Western Australia in 1911. Despite their claims to speak for Australian women, not until 1931, the year in which the British Statute of Westminster established legislative equality between the British government and the Dominions, was a National Council of Women of Australia officially formed allowing Australian women formal national representation at ICW conventions (Smart and Quartly, 2009, 339- 57).

Meanwhile, in 1902, Vida Goldstein travelled from Melbourne to the United States to attend the inaugural International Woman Suffrage Conference in Washington, when she was also granted an audience with the US president, Theodore Roosevelt, who was keen to meet this representative of the only nation that yet extended full political rights to women, the right to vote and to stand for the national parliament (Wright, 2013). Although Aboriginal women were, for the most part, excluded from this national experiment in equality, they had been enfranchised, alongside white women, to vote for the election of the colonial government of South Australia from 1894 and a number did so. In the new nation state formed in 1901, however, political rights and national identity were racially defined in terms of the new modern ideal of 'White Australia'.

When Goldstein visited the United States, in 1902, she was a self-conscious representative of the New World and a global pioneer, invited to address audiences across the United States on the empowerment of women in Australia and their achievement in advancing the interests of women and children. In international feminist debates over issues of equality and difference, whether feminists should promote the distinctive interests of women or pursue the same rights as men, Australian feminists tended to take the side of 'difference', emphasising distinctive women's values and interests, as mothers and wives and their exploitation as 'creatures of sex'. It was these interests that Goldstein advocated in the US in 1902, priorities shared by the leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who sponsored her speaking tour. It was also this conception of women's civic and political responsibilities- as 'maternal supervision'- that Alice Henry promoted in her position as secretary of the US Women's Trade Union League and editor of the journal, Life and Labour (Kirkby, chaps 3 & 4).

World War I reinforced the understanding of women's position as primarily wives and mothers, exhorted by the authorities to make the ultimate patriotic sacrifice of sending their husbands and sons to serve their country at the front. Many women resisted this call, however, and resolved, to the contrary, to protect their boys by opposing war and conscription in the name of peace. As early as 7 August 1914, Goldstein's Women's Political Association (WPA) declared:

This Association hopes that women everywhere, the life givers of the world will work henceforth with one mind to destroy the perverted sense of national honour and demand that international disputes shall be adjusted by arbitration. This Association resolves to cable to the President of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance, asking that women of all nations be urged to support the actions of President Wilson and lead for immediate arbitration (Lake, 1999, 63).
In 1915, anti-war activists in Melbourne formed the Women's Peace Army and Sisterhood of International Peace. The Sisterhood affiliated with the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace in The Hague, which, after the war, became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, a long-lived organisation, soon to celebrate its centenary. A post-war congress held in Zurich in 1919 was attended by three Australians, Vida Goldstein, Cecilia John and Eleanor Moore; Moore would become the secretary of WILPF in Australia and author of its history, The Quest for Peace, as I Have Known It in Australia.

One consequence of World War I and the Versailles Peace Treaty was that Australia and the other British Dominions were accorded separate representation at the new international organisation, the League of Nations, to be based in Geneva. In this changing world order, Australian feminists saw the limitations of colonial and state-based organisations in the international arena. Although they had secured representation at the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) conference in 1913, they were restricted to a maximum of four members in the British delegation of twelve. And, while there was an 'Australian' delegation to the ICW conference in Rome in 1914, it was made up of state-based NCW delegates who, though grouped together, were identified as Victorian, Tasmanian, and so on.

When the ambitious Bessie Rischbieth sought to affiliate the Western Australian Women's Service Guild (WSG) with the IWSA, as the Victorian WPA had done, she was told this was not possible because the WSG was not a national association. The legacies of colonialism posed particular problems for Australian feminists wishing to play a leading role in the new century of internationalism. Thus Harriet Newcomb, the Australian secretary of the London-based British Dominions Women's Citizens' Union, was obliged to explain to Rischbieth:

The WPA is not a national association, either, but Miss Goldstein arranged to pay the affiliation fee for the whole of Australia, until a national association was formed. If the Women's Service Guild and the Women's Non-Party Association of South Australia would join with the WPA of Victoria, it would be a glorious beginning of a national association (Lake, 1999, 157).
Disinclined to accept the implied seniority of Goldstein and the WPA in such a plan, Rischbieth set about forming a new national organisation, starting, significantly, with a meeting in Perth, in 1918. The new organisation, called the Australian Federation of Women's Societies (later the Australian Federation of Women Voters or AFWV) was hailed in London as having world-historic significance:
I need not repeat what I have already said about the importance to the whole world, as well as to Australia, of this step. To me it seems that we cannot overrate its importance. Australian women are now brought into the forward line of the great world movement which aims to realise the most deeply cherished ideas of women.
Henceforth Australian women were represented at the IWSA by national delegations sponsored by the AFWV. Initially, the IWSA shared the maternalist orientation of Australian suffragists but, in its new incarnation as the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, the emphasis changed to the promotion of equal rights in response to the new call, in the 1930s, for an internationally recognised Equal Rights Treaty (Lake, 1999, 61, 67, 167- 76).

With the formation of the AFWV, Rischbieth felt confident in asking Australian governments to include a woman delegate in the national delegation to the League of Nations. The first woman to thus represent Australia (and any of the British Dominions) was Marguerite Dale, a temperance advocate and playwright, who went to Geneva as (substitute) delegate in 1922. Their participation in the work of the League of Nations converted Australian women into enthusiastic converts to this international forum that institutionalised, as they thought, relations of sexual equality. Stella Allen, a Melbourne journalist and delegate in 1924, returned enraptured. The press reported: 'She had come back with an almost overwhelming sense of the importance of the League of Nations. In no other place in which she had been were women and men on such equal terms as in Geneva. The mental attitude was one of absolute equality' (Lake, 1999, 159).

But the AFWV was not the only organisation that had pressured the government on this issue and was unable to monopolise the appointment of women delegates. In line with ICW policy, the Queensland National Council of Women had begun lobbying as early as 1921 and the other Councils followed suit in 1922, though they did not coordinate their efforts until the following year. In 1923, the successful candidate, Melbourne historian Jessie Webb, was nominated by agreement among the state NCWs, which expressed their opposition to Rischbieth's claims on behalf of the AFWV well into the 1920s (Smart and Quartly, 2012, 70- 73). Most delegates in the interwar period were nominees of either the Councils or AFWV, though some were appointed simply because they happened to be in Europe at the appropriate time.

Whereas the internationalist engagement of Spence, Windeyer, Goldstein and Alice Henry- who arrived in New York in 1906 and began a life-long career with the Women's Trade Union League in Chicago- was more oriented to the United States, after World War I, as Australians were locked more firmly into the British imperial embrace, Australian feminists' international activism also became more empire-minded. Rischbieth, for example, helped form the British Commonwealth League in London, which developed a special interest in the plight of Indigenous women throughout the empire. A number of British-Australian women- British-born or educated in Britain- including Edith Jones, Constance Ternente Cook, Mary Bennett and Mary Jamieson Williams used the platform provided by the British Commonwealth League to publicise the appalling condition of Aboriginal Australians (Paisley, 2000). Bennett was also actively engaged with the League of Nations, identifying the potential of ILO Covenants as setting standards against which Australian policy and practice in Indigenous affairs would be found wanting. She pointed in particular to the covenants on slavery (in 1926) and forced labour (in 1930) when calling for justice for Aboriginal workers exploited by the pastoral industry and Aboriginal women recruited into sex slavery. In her landmark text, The Australian Aboriginal as a Human Being, Bennett pointed to the international significance of this national issue: 'The founding of a just relation of the white and dark races is not our problem alone. It is a world problem' (Bennett, 11).

Labor Party women in Australia also looked to the ILO for inspiration and support in their campaigns for improvements in women's working conditions more generally-in securing equal pay and opportunity- and to consolidate their international networks, including, initially, with women in the Soviet Union. In 1924, the year John Curtin represented trade unions in the Australian delegation to the ILO, Muriel Heagney began a two- month internship there, joining the Workers' Organization Service of the Intelligence and Liaison Division, which liaised with international trade union associations, national trade union movements and women's organisations. She also travelled to Britain, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Greece, Switzerland, France and Russia, travels she discussed in a series of lantern slide lectures on her return to Australia. 'I am talking quite a lot about international affairs', she wrote to Martha Muntt at the ILO, 'but people are most interested in Russia' (Heagney to Martha Muntt, 14 December 1925).

In the Soviet Union, Heagney was welcomed by the All Russian Trade Unions and hosted by American and English Quakers, who had been assisting with famine relief. It was the most wonderful part of her time overseas, she said in the introduction to her lectures on 'The Riddle of Russia': 'I feel privileged to have had such a unique opportunity of seeing even a little of this great experiment in human affairs'. In her talk on 'Social Life', she discussed the position of women in particular, declaring 'social and political inequalities removed' and 'equality of opportunity secured in industry' (Heagney to Muntt, 28 October 1925). Heagney hoped that May Holman from Western Australia- described as one of her 'very best friends'- would become the first woman to join an Australian delegation representing trade unions at the ILO but this was not to be. Not until 1940 was an Australian woman included in the national delegation when Heagney herself went as an 'advisor'.

International engagement produced internationalists. When Vida Goldstein had attended the International Women's Suffrage Conference in Washington in 1902 there was much talk of the racial kinship of American, British and Australian women, 'sisters in language and blood' (Lake, 1997, 81). By 1912, Goldstein was moved to deplore the racial exclusions of the Maternity Allowance Act as the 'white Australia policy gone mad' (Lake & Holmes, 7). In 1919, a conference organised by the WPA in Melbourne saw a number of feminists advocating the ideals of 'internationalism' and 'cosmopolitanism' as alternatives to White Australia (Lake, 1997, 86). In that same year, Goldstein condemned Australian claims to German New Guinea by referring to the terrible national record in dealing with native peoples (Lake, 1997, 87). By 1930, Goldstein was warning the AFWV that Asian neighbours resented Australia's arrogant discrimination against them.

This was also the message of Eleanor Hinder, an Australian social worker based at the YWCA in Shanghai, who was instrumental in publicising the exploitation of women and girls who worked in the new and often British factories and in organising the Pan-Pacific Women's Conferences (Paisley, 2009; Loy-Wilson). Hinder, who had visited the ILO in Geneva before her appointment to the YWCA in Shanghai, played a key role as a labour reformer in China in the inter-war years where she Hinder lobbied for and succeeded in establishing a new department of the Shanghai International Government called the Industrial and Social Division. As director, she worked with around fifty Chinese colleagues to produce major reports, policy documents and enquiries into twenty different industries in Shanghai. She created a system of factory inspection, health and safety regulation, and industrial and technical training initiatives. She also emulated the Australian example in establishing a system of industrial relations based on conciliation, mediation and industrial agreements.

Unlike the men who represented their countries in national delegations at the ILO, these labour reformers were self-conscious internationalists, whose novel commitments Hinder theorised in the YWCA newsletter, Threads:

International Action is remarkably new to all of us and the first casting of small threads across the spaces that divide us may seem as futile as the spider's filament. But watch them by degrees strengthen into unbreakable bonds. A weaving has started that cannot easily be stopped…Slogans and posters and handbills, in terms people can understand, distributed broadcast at such times, have led to common thinking and engendered a group mind. (Paddle, 2001)
During her long career as a reformer Hinder worked as a senior administrator in numerous international organizations including the Shanghai Municipal Council, the government of the International Settlement in Shanghai, the Young Women's and Men's Christian Associations, the League of Nations, the ILO, the Pan-Pacific Union, the Pan-Pacific Women's Conference and the United Nations. She was active in advancing the claims of Chinese women but was rebuffed when she sought to speak on their behalf in calling for the second Pan-Pacific Women's conference to be held in Shanghai. Chinese women, said Dr Mei Iung Ting, would have to decide that themselves (Paddle; Paisley, 2009).

In the 1930s, Australian feminists became active participants in the Pan-Pacific Women's Conferences, which brought women from America, Asia, Australasia and the Pacific into conversation to enhance cross-cultural mutual understanding. Muriel Heagney attended the first conference in 1928. 'It was a great experience and a very fine conference', she wrote to Martha Muntt in Geneva:

The oriental women- particularly the Chinese- were charming and remarkably able. I went as a delegate of the Labor Women's Committee endorsed by the Trade Unions of Victoria and NSW. It is the first time a woman delegate has been sent abroad like that to a conference so we are slowly making progress … The industry section was first class- many of its members you know- Mary Anderson, Elizabeth Christman, Jo Coffin and Mrs Katherine Edson of USA- Miss Bae-tsing Kyong of China (YWCA) made a fine contribution and Miss Yoshi Shoda- lecturer in Sociology- Japan Women's University-Tokyo was also good (Heagney to Muntt, 28 December 1928).
Heagney regretted she was not able to go to the next Pan-Pacific Conference in 1930 because of the deteriorating economic situation in Australia: 'things are too bad here and the expense so great that it was impossible to get away' (Heagney to Muntt, 31 July 1930). She was pleased, however, that Dr Ethel Osborne, an expert in industrial health, was able to go and would report back to labour women. That same year, Dr Georgina Sweet, a University of Melbourne research scientist, was elected president of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association.

As Fiona Paisley has pointed out, many Australian women saw themselves as perfectly placed-in geographical and historical terms- to mediate between the women of the West and those of the East (Paisley, 2002, 105-06). Delegates might challenge the racial exclusions that underpinned the White Australia Policy at home, even as their Pan-Pacific activism often re-inscribed the dichotomy between 'advanced' and 'backward' women and between settler women and 'natives' (Paisley, 2009). Aboriginal women themselves refused these distinctions and sought to engage with international organisations on their own behalf. Pearl Gibbs wrote in July 1938 on behalf of fifty persons who attended a meeting of the Aborigines Progressive Association, in Dubbo, to protest to the League of Nations against 'the ill treatment of the Aborigines throughout Australia', but particularly in the Northern Territory, over which, she incorrectly assumed, the League had a mandate (Gibbs to President, League of Nations, 4 July 1938).

In the international arena, the maternalist orientation of earlier feminist organisations that looked to achieve the better 'protection' of women and girls gradually gave way in the 1930s to a greater emphasis on equal rights. There was a new focus on the goal of equal citizenship and the campaign for an Equal Rights Treaty (Lake, 1999, 61, 67, 167-76). In 1929, Sydney feminist Linda Littlejohn travelled to Berlin to attend the founding of a new organisation called Open Door International (ODI) for the Economic Emancipation of the Woman Worker, whose single goal was the absolute equality of men and women in the workforce, and, in an historic deputation, feminists waited on the director of the ILO, Albert Thomas, to protest against special industrial protection for women (Lake, 2001, 254-62). Local branches of ODI were formed across Australia. Littlejohn became president of the NSW branch and Katharine Gilman Jones, secretary of the Victorian Women Citizens' Movement, president of the Victorian branch, which sponsored Muriel Heagney's research and writing of the book, Are Women Taking Men's Jobs?, several copies of which Heagney sent to the ILO. In a parallel move the following year, Equal Rights International, allied with the US National Women's Party, was formed with Australia's Jessie Street as vice-chairman.

The other international movements that galvanised Australian women in the unsettling decade of the 1930s were those focused on disarmament, peace and the defence of the League of Nations. These widespread mobilisations were responses both to the unprecedented carnage of World War I and to the deteriorating international situation precipitated by military aggression on the part of Italy, Germany and Japan (Rasmussen, chaps 1 & 2). In 1930, a Monster Women's Peace Demonstration, organised in Melbourne by a committee of combined women's organisations, resolved to urge the people of Australia 'to use to the utmost their powers and influence for the prevention of war and the organization of the world for peace' (Summy, 95). 'Between 1925 and 1935', wrote Eleanor Moore, 'disarmament ceased to be an academic project; it became a definite political plan and as such it fired the imagination of the civilized world' (Moore, 85). The international petition organised by WILPF attracted over 8 million signatures, an astonishing achievement, in recognition of which US leader Jane Addams won the Nobel Peace prize. In Australia, guided by the indefatigable Moore, WILPF with the assistance of other women's organisations collected 118,000 signatures, a figure thought to be one of the highest per capita in the world (Summy, 95).

Another leading internationalist, who became active in the peace movement, secretary of the Victorian branch of the League of Nations Union and of the Bureau of Social and International affairs was Constance Duncan, who like Eleanor Hinder first went to Asia as a 'missionary' for the YWCA, living, working and learning the language in Japan in the 1920s. Her knowledge of Japanese culture and politics led her to become an expert in the emergent (and masculine) field of 'international relations' and to join delegations to high level conferences on the Asia-Pacific region. In 1936, she was Victorian delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations conference in California and, on her return, toured Japan and China on behalf of the Bureau of Social and International Affairs and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Her task was to gather and disseminate information that would make 'Australians better informed and more curious about our neighbours in the Orient'. An enlightened public was considered essential since 'Australia is destined to be closely associated with the Orient, which to us is not the Far East but the Near North' (Summy, 2008).

Back in Australia, Duncan became active in assisting refugees from Hitler's persecution, whose plight became an urgent international issue. In her capacity as director of the newly formed Victorian International Refugee Emergency Council, she worked to dispel prejudice against the mostly Jewish refugees and to assist them in re-settlement. In 1940, she was at the forefront of the campaign to assist those who arrived on the Dunera and were interned as enemy aliens at Tatura in Victoria and Hay in New South Wales (Langmore,; Warne, 292-306).

World War II saw a re-invigoration of feminist mobilisation on the home front with a large national women's 'charter conference' organised in 1943 and the 'Women for Canberra' movement, which contributed to the election of the first women to the federal parliament, forty years after women had first stood as candidates. Following World War II, the most active internationalists were often those connected with communist and left-wing groups, and the many feminists inspired by and active in the United Nations (Caine, 166). Jessie Street was at the forefront of a group of international feminists- including Bertha Lutz, Minerva Bernadino and Amelia Ledon- who lobbied hard in San Francisco to make the Charter a more gender inclusive document: 'If you read the Charter in its original form', she wrote to her friends in Sydney', you will see there is no reference whatever to women' (Lake, 1999, 192). In 1947, Street was appointed vice-chairman of the new Sub-Commission on the Status of Women. In the following two decades, Australia frequently sent delegates to the UN Status of Women Commission, among them Elsie Byth (NCWA), Isabel McCorkindale (WCTU), Jean Daly (St Joan's Alliance), Ruth Gibson and Ada Norris (both NCWA).

From its establishment in 1950, the Union of Australian Women (UAW) was active in relation to both international and local issues. These left-wing activists worked closely with the Australian Peace Council to campaign for recognition of the People's Republic of China and were supportive of Indonesia's claim to Dutch New Guinea (B. Curthoys & McDonald, 36). The UAW forged international contacts through the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and regularly sent Australian representatives to its international conferences. While membership of the UAW dropped in the 1960s during the Sino-Soviet split over the direction of communism, those remaining continued their international activities by joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and sponsoring Henrietta Katz, of the French Union of Women, to tour Australia to encourage opposition to France's nuclear testing in the Pacific (Fabian & Loh, 63). Aboriginal women had been members of the UAW since its beginning and Aboriginal rights was high on its agenda. UAW women (along with those from other organisations) used the staging of the Empire Games in Perth, in November 1962, to draw international attention to the oppressive conditions that continued to be experienced by Indigenous Australians (B. Curthoys & McDonald, 65-6).

The campaign for Aboriginal rights gained new momentum when Jessie Street- exiled in London in the context of the Cold War- joined the aged Mary Bennett in working with the Anti-Slavery Society with the intention of placing the position of Aborigines before the United Nations (as Bennett had earlier lobbied the League of Nations). Realising that action should be initiated by an Australian organisation, Street suggested to friends and colleagues in Australia that they bring their various state-based societies together to form a new national body, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines (FCAA), later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). National campaigns for Aboriginal rights were intertwined with new developments at the international level, as, for example, in 1957, when ILO Convention 107 (later replaced by 169) stated 'indigenous peoples have the right to enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination', including the recognition of cultural practices and tribal lands ( The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 had codified a range of individual human rights defined in terms of the principle of non-discrimination. Inspired by this vision, feminist and other activists engaged in campaigns to end racial segregation in Australian social life and in the Constitution, culminating in the referendum of 1967 to amend section 51 (giving the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aboriginal people), and repealing section 127 (thus allowing Aboriginal people to be counted in the national census).

International solidarities were also influential in encouraging mobilisation against the Vietnam War and conscription. The UAW used its international affiliation with the WIDF to publicise first-hand accounts of the suffering endured by Vietnamese people from both North and South Vietnam. At the war's end, the UAW arranged visits by Vietnamese women to Australia and continued their support for the country by establishing a hospital for women and children in Hanoi (Ovedoff, 523-4; B. Curthoys & McDonald, 80-1). In the 1980s and 1990s, the UAW turned its attention to Chile and Nicaragua, East Timor and particularly to South Africa. These efforts were recognised in 1990 during Nelson Mandela's visit to Australia when, as South African president, he publicly thanked the UAW for its support at an official reception in Sydney (Fabian & Loh, 166; Caine, 167).

Women's Liberation in Australia was fuelled by international writings, from the UK, the US and France in particular-with UK-based Australian writer Germaine Greer having a particular impact with her book, The Female Eunuch-but the political focus of the movement was national, with demands for immediate reforms in abortion, contraception, childcare, domestic violence, education, equal pay and opportunities. The new Whitlam Labor government's warm response included the appointment of a top level advisor on women's affairs, Elizabeth Reid, who was keen not just to secure domestic change but also to connect Australian initiatives to wider international developments, especially the proclamation of the United Nations International Decade of Women, which began with International Women's Year (IWY) in 1975, celebrated in Australia through the funding of a wide range of programs- from film-making to women's history to women's health. The Women's Film Fund, which began with IWY funding, enabled the early work of international award-winning film-makers such as Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion, who was the first woman ever to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes (Collins, 114). Reid was also instrumental in the Whitlam government's decision to ratify the ILO Convention on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation), which had been in force since 1958 (Sawer & Groves, 55; ILO C111).

Australia led the world in institutionalising feminist reform in government and bureaucracy, inventing in the process the figure of the 'femocrat' as the exponent of a distinctive brand of 'state feminism', a new version of the traditional 'focus on the state as the central mechanism for determining both public and social policy unique among liberal market societies' (Magarey & Sheridan, 141). Australia gained an international reputation for successfully translating feminist demands into government policy and, in many cases, changes to policy occurred so rapidly that new bureaucratic structures had to be established to administer them. By the early 1980s, in addition to the federal women's affairs machinery, each state government had its own women's affairs branch and women's policy advisors (Curthoys, 14- 28; Dowse, 201- 23; Sawer). Elizabeth Reid and her feminist colleagues laid the groundwork for the establishment of the 'femocracy' and, in the years following the defeat of the Whitlam government, it became an established feature of Australian political life (Eisenstein, 27). Many of their achievements such as federally funded childcare, women's refuges, women's health support, campaigns against domestic violence, sex-discrimination and affirmative action legislation and the outlawing of sexual harassment were, according to US commentator and Australian bureaucrat, Hester Eisenstein, distinctive to Australia (Eisenstein, 50- 1). A key feminist reformer in the 1980s was Senator Susan Ryan, who under the Hawke government (1983- 1992) became minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women (and later minister for education). Under Ryan's guidance, Prime Minister Hawke ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1983, and oversaw the introduction of the first federal sex discrimination and affirmative action bills, passed in 1984 and 1986 respectively (Sawer & Groves, 61- 7).

The achievement of Australian women at the government level led to a strong Australian presence at all four United Nations World Conferences on Women- in Mexico City in 1975, in Copenhagen in 1980, in Nairobi in 1985 and in Beijing in 1995 (Sawer & Groves, 35). Elizabeth Reid played a key role in the preparation for the Mexico Conference in 1975 and led the Australian delegation. Once there, she chaired the working group set up to consider 'the World Plan of Action for Eliminating Discrimination against Women' (Sawer & Groves, 35). The Australian delegates were also successful in pushing member states to propose 'a women in development policy', finally announced in 1977 (Pfanner, 316). Members of the National Women's Advisory Council (NWAC), established in 1978 by the Fraser government as a new channel of communication between the Women's Affairs Branch of the federal government and the wider community of women, led the Australian delegation at Copenhagen in 1980. There Wendy McCarthy, member of the NWAC (and founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby) was instrumental in persuading an Egyptian doctor, Nawel el Sadawi, to speak on record about the practice of female genital mutilation in Egypt and other African and middle-eastern countries. The interview was broadcast across Australia and has been credited with being the beginning of a worldwide campaign to end the practice (McCarthy, 139).

At the Nairobi Conference in 1985, Australia worked with Canada to have the 'Forward Looking Strategies' adopted, and took the initiative in proposing ways 'for monitoring the performance of UN bodies and member states in improving the status of women including the use of statistical indicators' (Sawer & Groves, 35). At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the Australian delegation was led by Dr Carmen Lawrence, then minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women. On Australia's initiative, it was proposed that the Beijing Conference should be a 'Conference of Commitments', in recognition that too little change had occurred since the Nairobi meeting in 1985 (Lawrence, This idea was subsequently adopted by other world conferences, for instance 'Habitat 2', the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, held in Istanbul in 1996. At Beijing, a majority of nation states supported Australia's initiative 'that all countries, regardless of their state of progress on the status of women issues, would commit pledges and resources to some priority issues in their countries' (Lamour,

Despite Australia's reluctance to recognise Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty, Australian Indigenous women have forged an important presence on the international stage in demanding rights and recognition. Kath Walker/ Oodgeroo Noonuccal (founding member of FCAATSI and member of the UAW) attended the World Council of Churches conference on racism in London in 1968. Her experience there led her to push for amendments to the FCAATSI constitution, aimed at increasing Indigenous power on the council. When the amendments failed, Walker, with Doug Nicholls, established the National Tribal Council as an alternative Indigenous body. In December 1992, Lowitja O'Donoghue became the first Australian Indigenous person to address the United Nations General Assembly during the launch of the UN International Year of Indigenous People. And, in 2011, Megan Davis, professor in law and director of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of NSW, made history when she became the first Indigenous Australian woman to be elected a UN expert member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and Rapporteur of the Expert Group Meeting in New York on Violence Against Indigenous Women (

Another key player in international affairs has been Elizabeth Evatt, who was elected a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women Committee in 1984 and 1988, serving as chair from 1989-91. Evatt's reports to the committee were considered exemplary and she went on to wield considerable influence on international policies and decisions on women's rights (Sawer & Groves, 37; Grahame, 416). Evatt was also the first Australian elected to the UN Human Rights Committee, in 1992, serving as a member from 1993 to 2000. Between 1998 and 2007, Evatt also served two terms as a judge of a tribunal of the World Bank and was elected a commissioner of the International Committee of Jurists in 2003 (Australian Women's Register, Australian women continue to be active participants in a range of UN bodies and UN Women (created in 2010) recently sponsored a film, On Her Shoulders, documenting the history of Australian feminism.

An extension of Australian women's leadership at the UN Conferences on Women has been their role in international aid work. For many years, foreign aid was blind to the needs of women in developing countries, ignorant of their productive work and using a welfare approach that rendered women as 'passive victims of overwhelming oppression'. Too often, foreign aid was, in Jeannie Rea's words, simply been 'just another form of imperialism' (Rea, 293). Australian women aid workers have been leaders in developing a 'Woman and Development' approach to foreign aid, which, rather than integrating women in to the mainstream or 'male stream' development, seeks to separate out specific projects for women and puts women- their literacy, education and training and income-generation- first. The International Women's Development Agency (IWDA) exemplifies this approach. Founded in 1986 by women working in mainstream development for government who were frustrated by the slowness of change, it set out to raise money through public and funding agencies to fund projects run by women in Aboriginal Australia and overseas (Rea, 296). Today the IWDA focuses on Asia and the Pacific and currently has project partnerships in Cambodia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Thai-Burma border and Timor-Leste (IWDA, 'History',

A less recognised area of Australian women's international leadership has been in feminist scholarship. Australian women have long held posts in the universities of other countries, one of the best known being Germaine Greer. Countless others have held positions in the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Germany, the Netherlands as well as in the UK. A number of women scholars have been appointed to overseas chairs in Australian Studies, including the chair at Harvard and most recently at Tokyo. Many Australian academics have also been influential in the 'international trade in feminist scholarship' (Magarey & Sheridan, 140). Susan Magarey and Susan Sheridan have identified three major, specifically Australian, contributions: theory regarding feminism's relationship to the state, feminist philosophy of the body, and the creation of a new feminist science studies. The work of philosophers Elizabeth Grosz, Genevieve Lloyd and Moira Gatens on 'the body' or 'embodiment', 'specifying its distinction from "malestream" philosophy's preoccupation with the mind', led to a conference in Britain in 1998 called 'Going Australian: Reconfiguring Feminism and Philosophy' (Magarey & Sheridan, 143). Dale Spender made an influential contribution to understanding the role of language in perpetuating sexism and publicising the writing of women. In the field of feminist history, too, Australian scholars have been at the forefront of new developments. When it was published in 1994, Creating a Nation was the first feminist national history ever published (Grimshaw, Lake, McGrath & Quartly, 1994). As president of the International Federation for Research in Women's History between 1995 and 2001, one of its co-authors, Patricia Grimshaw, hosted an international conference on the history of human rights and women's rights in Melbourne in 1998 (Grimshaw, Holmes & Lake). Drawing on multiple intellectual traditions, Australia has produced an academic feminism that has become truly transnational and interdisciplinary, as exemplified by the journal Australian Feminist Studies founded by Susan Magarey in 1985 (Papadelos, 188).

Feminism has been an international movement since the late 19th century, offering Australian women opportunities, alliances, networks, friendships and solidarities beyond the confines of the nation state. In terms of political rights, Australian women once led the world; then, in the middle decades of the 20th century, they fell behind. In 2012, with feminists Julia Gillard serving as prime minister and Quentin Bryce as governor general, Australia is once again distinguished by its international leadership. What impact these leaders will or can have on the larger world is yet to be seen.


We wish to thank Lee-Ann Monk and Judy Smart for their assistance.

Published Resources


  • Bennett, Mary M, The Australian Aborigine as a Human Being, Alston Rivers, London, England, 1930. Details
  • Curthoys, Barbara and McDonald, Audrey, More than a Hat and Glove Brigade: The Story of the Union of Australian Women, Bookpress, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996. Details
  • Eisenstein, Hester, Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996. Details
  • Fabian, Sue and Loh, Morag, Left-wing Ladies: The Union of Australian Women in Victoria 1950 - 1998, Hyland House, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia; Lake, Marilyn, McGrath, Ann and Quartly, Marian, Creating a Nation, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details
  • Kirkby, Diane, Alice Henry: The Power of Pen and Voice. The Life of an Australian-American Labor Reformer, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1991. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999. Details
  • McCarthy, Wendy, Don't Fence Me In, Random House Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 2000. Details
  • Moore, Eleanor, The Quest for Peace, as I have Known It in Australia, Wilke & Co, Melbourne, Victoria, 1948. Details
  • Paisley, Fiona, Loving Protection: Australian Feminism and Aboriginal Women's Rights 1919-39, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000. Details
  • Paisley, Fiona, Glamour in the Pacific: Cultural Internationalism and Race Politics in the Women's Pan-Pacific, 3rd edn, University of Hawai’I Press, Honolulu, United States of America, 2009. Details
  • Papadelos, Pam, From Revolution to Deconstruction: Exploring Feminist Theory and Practice in Australia, Peter Lang, Bern, Switzerland, 2010. Details
  • Rasmussen, Carolyn, The Lesser Evil? Opposition to War and Fascism in Australia 1920 - 1941, The University of Melbourne: Department of History, Melbourne, Victoria, 1991. Details
  • Sawer, Marian, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • Sawer, Marian and Groves, Abigail, Working from Inside: Twenty Years of the Office of the Status of Women, Australian Government Publishing Service (AGPS), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1994. Details
  • Stubbs, Elizabeth, For Pre-school Children and their Parents: Aspects of the History of Pre-school Education in Australia 1900-1950, Lady Gowrie Child Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000. Details

Book Sections

  • Caine, Barbara, 'International Links', in Caine, Barbara et al. (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Collins, Felicity, 'Film', in Caine, Barbara et al. (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Crook, Karen, ''Stacks of friends": Kathleen (Kay) Gordon Cameron (1899-1987) and the Broadening International Focus of the Country Women's Association of Victoria in the 1960s', 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. 326-337. Details
  • Curthoys, Ann, 'Australian Feminism since 1970', in Australian Women: Contemporary Feminist Thought, eds Norma Grieve and Ailsa Burns, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details
  • Dowse, Sara, 'The Women's Fandango with the State: The Movement's Role in Public Policy since 1970', in Baldock, Cora and Cass, Bettina (eds), Women, Social Welfare and the State in Australia, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1983. Details
  • Grahame, Emma, 'Evatt, Elizabeth', in Caine, Barbara et al. (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, '"Stirring Tales": Australian Feminism and National Identity, 1900-40', in Stokes, Geoffrey (ed.), The Politics of Identity in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1997. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, 'From Self-Determination via Protection to Equality via Non-Discrimination: Defining Women's Rights at the League of Nations and the United Nations', in Grimshaw, Patricia; Holmes, Katie and Lake, Marilyn (eds), Women’s Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives, Palgrave, London, England, 2001. Details
  • Oppenheimer, Melanie, 'Lady Helen Munro Ferguson and the Australian Red Cross: Vice-regal Leader and Internationalist in the early Twentieth Century', 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. 274-291. Details
  • Ovedoff, Rhona, 'Women's International League for Peace and Freedom', in Caine, Barbara et al. (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details
  • Panner, M. Ruth, 'Australian Aid and Women in the Third World', in Grieve, Norma and Burns, Alisa (eds), Australian Women: New Feminist Perspectives, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1986. Details
  • Rea, Jeannie, 'The Feminisation of Poverty: An International Perspective', in Pritchard Hughes, Kate (ed.), Contemporary Australian Feminism, Longman, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details
  • Smart, Judith and Quartly, Marian, 'Making the National Councils of Women National: The Formation of a Nation-wide Organisation in Australia 1896 - 193', in Sulkunen, Irma; Markkola, Pirjo and Nevala-Nurmi, Seija-Leena (eds), Suffrage, Gender and Citizenship: International Perspectives on Parliamentary Reforms, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle on Tyne, England, 2009, pp. 339 - 357. Details
  • Warne, Ellen, 'Constance Duncan: Translating Women's Leadership and Internationalism in Asia and Australia 1922 - 1958', 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, 2011. Details

Edited Books

  • Grimshaw, Patricia; Holmes, Katie and Lake, Marilyn (eds), Women's Rights and Human Rights: International Historical Perspectives, Palgrave, London, England, 2001. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn and Holmes, Katie (eds), Freedom Bound 2: Documents on Women in Modern Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1995. Details
  • Magarey, Susan (ed.), Ever Yours, C.H. Spence: Catherine Spence's 'An Autobiography' (1825 - 1910), Diary (1894) and Some Correspondence (1894 - 1910), Wakefield Press, Adelaide, South Australia, 2005. Details

Journal Articles

  • Loy-Wilson, Sophie, '"Liberating" Asia: Strikes and Protest in Sydney and Shanghai, 1920-39', History Workshop Journal, vol. 72, no. 1, 2011. Details
  • Magarey, Susan and Sheridan, Susan, 'Local, Global, Regional: Women's Studies in Australia', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, 2002. Details
  • Paisley, Fiona, 'Cultivating Modernity: Culture and Internationalism in Australian Feminism's Pacific Age', Journal of Women’s History, vol. 14, no. 3, Autumn 2002. Details
  • Smart, Judith and Quartly, Marian, 'Mainstream Women's Organisations in Australia: The Challenges of National and International Co-operation after the Great War', Women’s History Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 2012, pp. 61 - 79. Details
  • Summy, Hilary, 'From Missionary to Ministerial Adviser: Constance Duncan and Australia - Japan Relations 1922 - 47', Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 54, no. 1, 2008. Details
  • Wright , Clare, '"A Splendid Object Lesson": A Transnational Perspective on the Birth of a Nation', Journal of Women’s History, 2013. Details



  • Summy, Hilary, 'From Hope...To Hope: Story of the Australian League of Nations Union, Featuring the Victorian Branch, 1921-1945', PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 2007. Details

Online Resources