Theme Consumer Movements

Written by Jane Elix and Kate Moore, Australian National University

Political consumerism is on the rise. It is a form of activism in which women have played a significant role since at least the 18th century. They continue to do so today.

Political consumerism means choosing or rejecting producers and products for political reasons, to bring about a change in practices. At one extreme, it has bred anti-consumerism (Humphery). Political consumerism is a form of activism that appears to be increasing, and it seems from the limited research in this area that women have a stronger preference than men for this form of participation (Stolle et al., 245-69).

Before women had the vote and significant access to independent financial means, political consumerism in the form of boycotts and bread/food riots mobilised the power and leadership of women. For example, in the late 18th century, abolitionists in the United Kingdom organised a boycott of sugar produced using slave labour. Female anti-slavery associations were centrally involved in the boycott and included feisty female leaders like Elizabeth Heyrick who criticised the (male) anti-slavery campaigners as being overly cautious and slow. She published an anti-slavery pamphlet that sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Britain and the USA, and was instrumental in persuading a quarter of the population of Leicester to give up sugar (Grundy).

Many early forms of political consumerism were directed at producers and retailers who cornered markets, created artificial shortages and caused inflated prices, or who used exploitative employment practices. Edward Thompson and Olwen Hufton have written of food riots in 18th-century Britain and France as legitimated by a traditional notion of 'moral economy', a popular consensus about the proper economic functions of particular parties in the community with regard to marketing, and they have both noted the roles of women in leading protests against malpractices (Thompson, 79; Hufton, 94-5). Some elements of this tradition of protest also featured in the women-led cost of living demonstrations in Melbourne in 1917, alongside the more modern socialist and feminist-inspired claims to political and economic justice and power that inspire their leaders (Smart, 1986, 125-7). Trade union, socialist and feminist ideas and influence were also evident in early 20th-century consumer activism in the United States, when Florence Kelly, leading the National Consumers League, campaigned to use women's purchasing power to improve conditions for working-class women. In the 1930s, Esther Petersen, a union organiser for textile sweat shop workers in the USA, developed close alliances with the women's movement and the emerging consumer groups in order to gain better conditions for the women workers she represented (Baldry, 62). In all these cases, women were asserting the importance of consumer justice and power alongside the claims of labour and capital.

Political consumerism was used throughout the 20th century. In addition to protests, tactics such as cooperativism, preference and boycotts have been employed. The workers' cooperative movement in Australia, while never as strong as in Britain, was nevertheless of some significance in the 20th-century labour movement's attempts to undermine capitalism and has recently received the attention of Australian labour and consumer movement historians, for example in the journal, Labour History (Balnave & Patmore, 2006, 1-12; Balnave & Patmore, 2008, 97-110). Preference was early employed by women's organisations, such as Housewives' Associations, to favour small retailers who gave discount for cash, in order to challenge the growing dominance and control over prices exercised by large department stores (Smart, 2010, 42). The boycott has also been a common political tactic. Barroux has pointed out that some campaigns in the latter part of the century targeted businesses in order to criticise governments, such as the boycotts by American business of French products, in protest against the French government's opposition to the US-led war in Iraq (in Stolle et al., 246). In the 1970s and 1980s, boycotts of South African products and sporting events were successful in pressuring governments, including in Australia, to stop support for the apartheid regime in that country.

At the end of the 20th and into the 21st centuries, growing number of citizens have turned to the market to express their political and moral concerns (Stolle et al.). Recent advances in communications technologies such as email, Facebook and Twitter are being used by consumer activists to gain support for actions against producers who behave unethically. In Australia, the successful on-line campaign in 2012 to persuade companies to stop advertising on the Alan Jones 2UE radio program is a recent example. Women were in the forefront of this campaign, which focused attention, in part, on misogynist behaviour (Nicholson, SMH, 9 October 2012).

The Modern Consumer Movement

The modern consumer movement has been largely neglected in the social movement and public policy literature. It developed alongside other movements that used political consumerism as part of their repertoire. These included anti-racist, feminist and environment movements in addition to self-help and support-group movements.

Apart from the co-operative movement, largely an outgrowth of the labour movement in late 19th-century Britain and Europe, the earliest organised groups dealing specifically with consumer issues were formed in the first half of the 20th century in the USA (Baldry, 61). And, as unions came to recognise themselves as representing consumers as well as workers, they joined forces with organisations of housewives during the Great Depression to challenge exorbitant prices for essential items and poor quality products.

With the growth of affluence by the mid-1950s, middle-class women and professional men demanded better quality control and some form of redress over badly made goods and dangerous products (Baldry 61). This led to the formation of the modern consumer movement, characterised by a range of small and large groups campaigning for better products and services. The focus of this phase of the movement was initially on product testing and provision of information for consumers.

A leading example of an organisation emerging in this period is the Australian Consumers' Association (ACA), which was formed in 1959 and, in 1960, began publishing Choice, disseminating the results of product testing, following the example of its American and British counterparts. Shortly afterwards, the International Organisation of Consumer Unions (IOCU) was formed, with the organisations from Australia, the USA, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium as founding members. The American consumer activist, Florence Mason, was at the forefront of efforts to involve developing countries in the international movement and to 'shift the consumer movement internationally away from a consumption oriented "western" attitude-and to focus on basic human needs such as clean water and housing' (Baldry, 68).

Women's Leadership in the Growth of the Organised Australian Consumer Movement

In Australia, in the late 19th and early 20th century, women's organisations were a driving force behind the fledgling consumer movement that emerged within the broader social reform and women's movements (Brown, 8).

The Housewives' Cooperative Association was formed Melbourne in 1915, in response to spiralling prices, and aimed to bring the consumer and producer into direct contact. The formation of the New South Wales association followed in early 1918, South Australia and Western Australia in the 1920s and, after a couple of false starts, the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and Queensland in the 1930s. The formation of the Federated Associations of Australian Housewives (FAAH) was mooted in 1923, the first national conference occurred in 1926, and, by the 1934 meeting, all six states were represented. During their early years before 1930, both the Victorian and NSW associations experimented with cooperative buying and selling but, for most of their history, the associations focused on lobbying and education and on preference and occasional boycott campaigns, as well as on women's rights. By 1940/41, the FAAH was the largest women's organisation in Australia with a membership of 115,000 in a population of only 7 million (Housewife, July 1940 & 1941, in Smart, 2006, 15; Brown, 3). It reached its peak of about 175,000 in the late 1960s before declining rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s with the advent of second-wave feminism and the widespread entry of married women into the paid workforce. The associations had appealed both to female economic interests and to altruism. For the leaders, altruism in the form of a secularised Christian ethic and moral duty was the dominant imperative, although ambition and the desire for political influence also played a part (Smart 2006, 13, 16, 21-3). The Housewives' Associations were the only dedicated consumer-watch organisations in the country until the formation of the ACA in 1959. Among the associations' leading lights in the period up to 1950 were: Eleanor Glencross (Victoria and NSW) (Foley, ADB; Carey & Heywood, 'Glencross', AWR); Cecilia Downing (Victoria) (Smart, ADB; Carey & Heywood, 'Downing', AWR); Agnes Goode (South Australia) (Edgar, ADB); and Portia Geach (NSW) (Wright, ADB; Carey, AWR).

The National Council of Women, which had fostered the first Housewives Association in Victoria (and later in other states), was also organised at the national level in the interwar period (1925-1931) and its agenda included a range of consumer issues-health, nutrition, food safety, pricing, marketing, tariffs, shopping hours and inflation (Brown, 18). The Country Women's Association, also founded in all states in the interwar period and established at a national level in 1945, has likewise taken on many consumer campaigns in its advocacy for services for rural families.

In Australia currently, the largest individual consumer organisation is Choice (formerly the Australian Consumers' Association (ACA)) whose foundation membership listed many women's organisations, including the Housewives' Associations and NCWs. Ruby Hutchison (Black, ADB; MacKinney, AWR), the first woman member of the Western Australian Legislative Council and a member of the Labor Party, was active in the early stages of the ACA in 1959/60 and fought for the basic consumer rights to protection, information and participation in decision making in Australian society (Baldry, 93), as well as for women's rights generally. She was also active in early health consumer forums as founder (1962) and president of the Western Australian Epilepsy Association. Women have continued to play important and high-profile roles in its senior executive and board positions ever since.

The Australian Federation of Consumer Organisations (AFCO) was founded in 1974 as a peak body for state groups, as well as for the more specialised consumer advocacy organisations. It gave the consumer movement a national profile and voice, which, in its early days, was predominantly male but, since the early 1990s, has tended to be female. Between 1974 and 1996, AFCO grew in strength and influence, and was renamed the Consumers' Federation of Australia (CFA) in 1994. However, in 1996, one of the first actions of the incoming Liberal-National Party federal government was to defund the CFA. In 2012, CFA was a shadow of the earlier organisation, with no paid staff and a volunteer board of ten, of whom seven were women.

One of the key functions that AFCO performed in the 1980s was to encourage the development of independent specialist consumer groups, which have now grown to take on advocacy in a range of specialised consumer policy areas. Women played a key leadership role in the early days of these emerging organisations; they included Phillipa Smith and Louise Sylvan in the Consumers Health Forum, Elizabeth Morley and Edwina Deakin in the Consumers' Telecommunications Network, Carolyn Bond in the consumer credit legal services, and Kate Harrison and Anne Davies (Henningham, AWR) in the Communications Law Centre.

Volunteers and Professionals

The contemporary consumer movement retains a focus on equity and social justice, and targets a range of products and services, including food, product safety, financial services, insurance and legal and health services. However, the relationships between the different parts of the movement have changed considerably. For example, legal and financial services advocacy organisations have grown and become less reliant on volunteers in representing consumer interests as they receive funding from a variety of sources, particularly a range of government agencies. These organisations now provide women with employment as lawyers, financial counsellors, advocates and managers, and many of them have predominantly female staff. They invariably grew out of the broad consumer movement as an initiative of individuals and small groups with a concern about consumer injustice but now form part of a network of professional service providers and advocacy organisations. It would be fair to say, therefore, that the broad consumer movement has become professionalised and that it is now a totally different entity from what it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

The one consumer area where women's participation has increased and strengthened not only through their employment as paid professional leaders, but also, more significantly, as a result of their work as volunteer activist leaders, is the health consumer sector. The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s support-group and self-help movements, which are at the core of the strong health consumer movement that we see today, grew and proliferated. These have predominantly comprised and been led by women.

The Health Consumer Movement

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the growth of a number of social movements, including the labour movement and movements for the emancipation of women, led to increased activism by women around their health care (Bastian, 10). The National Councils of Women, for example, appointed health standing committees, typically headed by women doctors, that lobbied governments for reforms to improve the health of women and children in particular and for representation of women on hospital boards.

In the 1960 and 1970s, women's health groups such as the Nursing Mothers Association, Parent Centres Australia, and the Childbirth Education Association advocated for women's right to have control over the way they gave birth and nurtured their children (Baldry, 110). The emergence of second-wave feminism in these same decades gave rise to a substantial women's health movement that is one of the foundations of today's health consumer movement and has been well documented (Baldry, 1992; Gray, 2012). The movement was part of a much broader international health reform push that included the 'new' public health movement, the community health centre movement and, in Australia, the Aboriginal health movement, all of which were critical of the way medical systems had been organised during the 20th century. By the early 1980s, groups across many spheres of health were actively challenging established models of care and mobilising to redress inequities of access to care and inequalities of power between the medical profession and the lay population (Löfgren et al., 177). However, there was little national coordination between these groups.

The major consumer organisations, Choice and the CFA, service organisations such as the Australian Council of Social Service, as well as some state-based consumer and community health organisations, were also raising health issues. But the scope of the issues and the division of responsibilities between federal and state governments meant that many matters of concern could only be tackled in a somewhat piecemeal way (Baldry, 144).

Louise Sylvan has described how those concerned about this problem initiated a process in 1985, which was led by Phillipa Smith of Choice and resulted in moves to create a formal mechanism to represent health consumers (Baldry, 146). The then federal health minister, Neal Blewett, supported these moves to provide a strong community voice on health issues and, in 1986/87, the federal budget provided funding for what became the Consumers Health Forum (CHF). It was led by a general committee, chaired by Philippa Smith, and was broadly representative of the women's, service provider, environmental, consumers and health movements. It elected a smaller executive committee with six of the seven members being women.

The creation of CHF was pivotal to the development of the health consumer movement. The new national organisation provided a focal point for federal activism and enabled a range of organisations with a common interest to come together. While many of the groups that instigated the establishment of CHF had a focus on broad public health issues such as tobacco marketing and use, environmental health, equity, and social services, others were concerned with specific issues such as the medicalisation and disempowerment of women in childbirth and other aspects of reproductive health. After much debate, there was broad agreement that the Forum should initially focus on the health issues that were the responsibility of the federal government: financing of health care, medicines policy, consumer rights and mental health (Baldry, 173). Underpinning their work was a commitment to ensuring that consumers, whether as citizens or recipients of health services, should play a major role in determining how health services should be delivered.

The emergence of CHF was met with hostility from the medical profession but is now largely accepted as part of the health policy landscape. Engagement of consumers in health policy, planning and service delivery is resulting in significant changes to the way that health care is provided. The health consumer sector continues to grow. As well as the national body, there are now peak health consumer groups in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, all of which receive support from state or territory governments. In Victoria, the Health Issues Centre has provided a voice for consumers since 1985.

The sector's leadership was, and continues to be, predominantly female. However, men now play a more significant role, possibly attributable to factors such as the rise of the men's health movement, the activism by gay men around HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s expanding to an interest in the broad health system, and a greater awareness of men's health issues such as prostate cancer. But CHF has largely been led by women, who have held the role of CEO for all but four years of the Forum's existence; the position of chair was held by women until 2000, after which men stepped into the role. In 2012, Karen Carey was elected as chair of the governing board made up of half men and half women. Carol Bennett was CEO. Throughout the history of the organisation, a large majority of the staff has been female. Among the sector's most significant activities are the consumer representatives programs, which have both nurtured and provided leadership of the sector. These operate at both national and state/territory level and represent a large, voluntary workforce-predominantly female.

Consumer Leadership

Much of the leadership literature relating to formal organisational hierarchies in commerce, industry and the services sector does not adequately describe the richness or complexity of women's leadership in the consumer sector. In the community and consumer sectors, leadership is seen as a more inclusive concept, operating in different ways and at different levels (Victorian Quality Council 2007, 15). As Amanda Sinclair has recently elucidated, this means that leadership can be exercised by people without formal authority, as much as by CEOS or prime ministers. In contrast to understandings of leadership that focus on the ongoing control of resources and tasks, leadership within the consumer movement, as in other social movements, involves challenging the status quo and bringing about changes in attitude and behaviour.

This reconceptualisation is helpful in understanding governance in the consumer sector, where leadership is not dependent on hierarchical structures. Rather, it emerges from within a community of interest and does not rely on formal leadership positions. As well, consumer leadership focuses on challenging and changing established practices and processes, not within the organisation from which the leadership has emerged, but rather within the sector targeted by that organisation as the focus of its advocacy (Victorian Quality Council 2007, 17). This can, in turn, mean that women lead change within those organisations that comprise the sector targeted. It is a function that is not recognised in the formal literature and yet is an important factor in social and economic changes that affect all our lives.


The consumer movement in Australia has grown and changed in the past fifty years. During this time, it fostered the development of specialist consumer groups that have now grown to take on advocacy and leadership in a range of specialised consumer areas. Women's leadership in the development of the various elements of the consumer movement has been crucial but largely unrecognised. It will only be by reconceptualising leadership, and by understanding that leadership takes different forms and is exercised in many different ways, that the work of the many women in this sector will be recognised.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Humphrey, Kim, Excess: Anti-Consumerism in the West, Cambridge Polity Press, Cambridge, England, 2010. Details
  • Jamieson, Gwendolyn Gray, Reaching for Health: The Australian women's health movement and public policy, Australian National University (ANU) E Press, 2012. Details
  • McKenzie, Anne; Hanley, Bec; the University of Western Australia, School of Population Health and Telethon Institute for Child Health Research., Consumer and Community Participation in Health and Medical Research: A Practical Guide for Health and Medical Research Organisations, Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Subiaco, Western Australia, 2012. Details

Book Sections

  • Micheletti, Michelle and Stolle, Dietlind, 'Concept of Political Consumerism', in Sherrod, Lonnie R (ed.), Youth Activism: An International Encyclopedia, Greenwood Press, Westport, United States of America, 2006. Details
  • öfgren, Hans; Leahy, Michael; and de Leeuw, Evelyn, 'From Activism to State Inclusion: Health Consumer Groups in Australia', in Löfgren, Hans; Leahy, Michael; and de Leeuw, Evelyne (eds), Democratizing Health: Consumer Groups in the Policy Process, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Sinclair, Amanda, 'Not just 'adding women in': Women Re-making Leadership', 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, 2011, pp. 15-34. Details

Edited Books

  • Löfgren, Hans; Leahy, Michael; and de Leeuw, Evelyne (eds), Democratizing Health: Consumer Groups in the Policy Process, Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details
  • Marsden, Fiona (ed.), A History of the Australian Consumer Movement/ from a paper by Jane Brown, Brown, Jane, Consumers Federation of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1996. Details

Journal Articles

  • Balnaves, Nikola and Patmore, Greg, 'The Politics of Consumption and Co-operation: an Overview', Labour History, vol. 91, November 2006, pp. 1-12. Details
  • Balnaves, Nikola and Patmore, Greg, '"Practicle Utopians": Rochdale Consumer Co-operatives in Australia and New Zealand', Labour History, vol. 95, November 2008, pp. 97-110. Details
  • Bastian, Hilda, 'Speaking Up fo Ourselves: The Evolution of Consumer Advocacy in Health Care', International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care, vol. 14, no. 1, 1998, pp. 3 - 23. Details
  • Hufton, Olwen, 'Women in Revolution 1789 - 1796', Past and Present, vol. 53, no. 1, November 1971, pp. 90 - 108. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'Feminists, Food, and the Fair Price: The Cost of Living Demonstrations in Melbourne, August - September 1917', Labour History, vol. 50, May 1986, pp. 113-131. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'The Politics of Consumption: The Housewives Associations in South-eastern Australia Before 1950', Journal of Women's History, vol. 18, no. 3, 2006, pp. 13-39. Details
  • Smart, Judith, 'The Politics of the Small Purse: The Mobilization of Housewives in Interwar Australia', International Labour and Working-Class History (ILWCH), vol. 1, no. 77, 1 March 2010, pp. 48-68. Details
  • Stolle, Dietland; Hooghe, Marc; and Micheletti, Michele, 'Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a form of Political Participation', International Political Science Review, vol. 26, no. 3, 2005, pp. 245 - 269. Details
  • Thompson, E. P., 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenh Century', Past and Present, vol. 50, no. 1, February 1971, pp. 76 - 136. Details



  • Baldry, E, 'The Development of the Health Consumer Movement and its Effect on Value Changes and Health Policy in Australia', PhD thesis, The University of New South Wales (UNSW), 1992. Details

Online Resources