Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Respectable Radicals – Launch Speech by Marilyn Lake

Respectable Radicals: A History of the National Council of Women of Australia 1896–2006
By Marian Quartly and Judith Smart
Launch 11 October 2015
Professor Marilyn Lake, FAHA, FASSA,
Immediate Past President of the Australian Historical Association and Professor in History, The University of Melbourne.

Professor Marilyn LakeWhat a grand occasion this is! What pleasure it gives me to launch this very important book on the history of over a century of women’s activism in Australia, undertaken under the auspices of the National Councils of Women in Australia. When Judy and Marian asked me if I might like to do this I didn’t hesitate long, because although I spend most of my time these days declining invitations to speak – I had declined 15 already this year - I knew this was different. I already knew enough of Marian’s and Judy’s work to know that this book would be well-written, well-researched, lively, informative and cheerful. It is all of these things and more. It has been beautifully produced by Monash University Publishing with a clear open easy to read text divided into thematic sections by images of the elegant ladies’ hats worn by these Respectable Radicals at least until the 1970s, when women’s liberation effected radical changes, not just in political aims and methods, but also in sartorial style.

This book is the real thing: an original work of historical scholarship based in generous engagement with an extensive secondary literature, national and international, an immersion in the archival sources across the country, long periods of thinking and re-thinking their meaning and import and scrupulous attention to detail (for example, the need to get all those royal titles right – my favourite is Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, the wife of the Governor General of Canada and president of the ICW from 1893). The book combines attention to detail with a broad sweep and it achieves that difficult balance necessary to a project such as this between deep respect for the women whose lives, aspirations and experience it records and the clear sighted analysis necessary to the development of critical historical argument. In this way the book provides a model for all historical writing, combining an ethical duty to the past with a public obligation in, and to, the present and future.
How many times I have encountered Judy and Marian over the last several years poring over papers in the National Library in Canberra or heard about their latest inter-state interviewing trip I can’t honestly say. Judy was especially bemused that in little Tasmania – my home state - the Launceston and Hobart branches of the National Council of Women jealously guarded their separate identities and organisations and didn’t communicate with each much at all.

But in this seeming parochialism, they reflected, as Judy and Marian outline in the book, the strong local loyalties that made it so difficult for the different colonial Councils – the first established in New South Wales in 1896 - to act together, to cooperate federally or form a national organisation, an event that didn’t finally occur until 1931. During most of these early decades, delegations to international meetings were headed by the formidable Tasmanian Emily Dobson, who by 1932, had made an amazing 33 trips overseas. My personal connection to Dobson goes beyond the fact that I too hail from Tasmania: my very first publication in women’s history was a review article in Hecate called ‘To be Denied a Sense of Past Generations’ that focussed on the many achievements of Emily Dobson.

The New South Wales National Council of Women was the first in Australia, formed in 1896 by Margaret Windeyer after she had returned from an overseas trip to Chicago as a delegate to the Congress on Women at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 – the largest women’s conference ever organised to that date – where the International Council of Women (ICW) under the leadership of May Wright Sewall undertook further planning for the future of the ICW formed five years earlier in 1888.

Thus was the NCW born in a spirit of ‘new internationalism’ – with ideals – not country or nationality - humanitarian, social, educational and moral ideals - as the basis of identity.  It aspired to achieve ‘a unity of thought and sympathy and purpose’ despite the evident differences between women. One of the many tensions Marian and Judy explore throughout the book is that between local – colonial or state or nation-based loyalty and interest – and the international commitment represented by the ICW. One of the seeming paradoxes they note is that the development of the Australian National Council of Women’s national identity was a product of the internationalism of its early constitution: the ICW required the Australians to get their act together if they wanted proper international representation on the same terms as organisations in other countries.

A related set of tensions highlighted in this fascinating book were the personal and political rivalries between various ambitious women who aspired to become national leaders: the preeminent Emily Dobson, Vida Goldstein of the Women’s Political Association in Victoria, Bessie Rischbieth from Western Australia, who formed a rival national organisation, the Australian Federation of Women Voters and Jessie Street, who formed the United Associations of Women in New South Wales, organised the very large Women’s Charter Conferences of 1943 and 1946  and represented Australia at the founding United Nations conferences in 1945.  As a set of parallel structures enabling women’s engagement in public life – parallel to the men’s political parties - women’s organisations had to manage and mediate political ambitions and rivalries as did the men’s parties. Of those women just mentioned only Dobson was a major figure in the NCW, the others dedicating their energies to other organisations.
Throughout the book, mini-biographies in break-out boxes provide us with the life stories and areas of activism and achievement of a variety of NCW leaders: Emily Dobson, Lillias Skene, Mildred Muscio, Adelaide Miethke, May Moss, Ruby Board, Elsie Byth, Ruth Gibson, Thelma Metcalfe, Ivy Brookes, Ada Norris, Dorothy Edwards, Gracia Baylor, Maureen Giddings, Laurel Macintosh, Anne Hamilton, Jessie Scotford, Joyce Mc Connell, Margaret Davey, Diane Alley, Necia Mocatta, Yvonne Bain, Judith Parker, Leonie Christopherson, and Hean Bean Wee.

There are also a number of photographs that help to bring the individuality of some of these usually hatted and respectably dressed ladies to the fore. Many of the women actually wore many hats: they were active in a number of affiliated organisations. By the time of the 1988 photograph featured in the book, the hats are gone, although in a further section of illustrations of ‘leaflets and pamphlets’, a woman is pictured in an advertisement in Italian sponsored by the Asthma Foundation of Victoria wearing a straw sun hat. This history of the NCW also suggests a larger history of the changing meanings attached to hat-wearing in Australia.

The 25 short biographies included in Respectable Radicals remind us of the diverse range of interests and backgrounds of those who comprised the NCW. The great strength of the National Council of Women derived from its status as an umbrella organisation that attracted a range of different women’s organisations to affiliate, thus empowering the Council to speak for hundreds of thousands of women. These representative claims also necessitated the organisation’s consultative method, its moderation and caution, but in its ‘heyday’ the number of affiliated organisations increased from around 490 in the early 1950s to more than 600 in the early 1970s. This period also saw hundreds of women join individually as associate members. The National Council of Women enjoyed its greatest influence in the Menzies years, when its version of liberal feminism focussed on ‘women, home and family’ together with equal rights in the public sphere matched so well the dominant liberal values of the age. Just as its aristocratic and elite connections were important to its growth in the early decades, so were its liberal sympathies and anti-Communist impulses central to its orientation in the decades after World War 2.

In this context the campaign for equal and uniform divorce legislation – framed in a language of equal legal rights – was one of ‘concrete achievement’, as the authors note, when uniform national marriage and divorce legislation was introduced into federal parliament in 1957.  In pursuing this cause, the NCW always had to balance the priority they accorded to protecting home and family life with their belief in the equal status of men and women.

In the case of the very long campaign for equal pay, the authors tell us that this victory is celebrated by the NCW as a tale of obstacles overcome and principles vindicated. ‘Less remembered’, they add, ‘is the fact that obstacles existed within the councils as well as without’. Some of the religious-based affiliated associations saw the presence of women, especially married women, in the paid workforce as a threat to family life. Neverthless, together with other women’s organisations – such as the Union of Australian Women, the Australian Federation of Women Voters and Federation of Business and Professional Women – the NCW made successive presentations to Arbitration Court hearings on the subject of equal pay.

Long time activist and president of the United Nations Association’s Victoria division from 1961 to 1971, Ada Norris, who herself wrote an earlier history of the Council in 1978, called Champions of the Impossible, opened the NCW case at the 1969 equal pay hearings with a ‘battle cry’:

My council would submit that the fundamental argument in support of the principle of equal pay for equal work is simply that of justice. If two people do the same paid work, whether two men, two women or a woman and a man, they shd receive the same financial reward for that work.

But they would learn soon enough that it wasn’t as simple as that. Few women did exactly the same work as men. In 1972 they sought equal pay for work of equal value. And in 1974 the same adult minimum wage as men. By the time of the 1970s Arbitration Court cases, another more explicitly feminist organisation was on the scene: the Women’s Electoral Lobby. But despite their combined labours over many decades we now witness in our own more deregulated times women’s pay rates declining in relation to those of men. Only this year has that trend been halted whether temporarily we don’t know.

The advent of women’s liberation, the growth and diversification of the women’s movement together with the election of the radical Whitlam government inaugurated a more difficult and complex scene in which the NCW had to operate. The appointment of women’s advisers to governments, most notably Liz Reid, and then Sarah Dowse, the expansion of a femocratic bureaucracy at state and federal levels, the emergence of national advisory committees and new models of funding women’s organisations all challenged the traditional role of the NCW, in representing the interests of Australian women to government.

At the same time, however, the organisation’s international links became more important as members became actively engaged with ICW committees and initiated projects in our region. In 2003, the President of the NCW, Judith Parker brought the ICW General Assembly to Perth, the first time it had ever been staged in the southern hemisphere. Elected to the executive of the ICW during that meeting, Parker was assigned responsibility for managing thirty four international projects to improve the lives of women and girls in the Asia Pacific over the next six years.

Respectable Radicals presents an honest assessment of the challenges faced by the NCW, its internal disputes and the larger contradictions in which it was caught, contradictions, for example, between women’s continuing responsibility for child care and their commitments to paid work and public life. The lives of my postgraduate students and my daughters attest to the continuing salience of these contradictions.
But Respectable Radicals is also, as I suggested earlier, a cheerful account. In the ‘Afterward’ the authors write:

One can argue that much of what the founders dreamed has been achieved, and that the Australian councils have been significant players in that achievement. The movement of women into public life, into the workforce, into all levels of education and training, into the professions and legal system and the executive levels of business – none of this is fully achieved, but the achievements thus far owe much to the National Councils of Women.

Theirs is an achievement – at the individual and organisational levels - to be celebrated.
But so, too, should we celebrate the publication of this new and enlightening history of the National Councils of Women of Australia. It is a landmark work in the history of feminism in this country that also transforms our understanding of Australian history, politics and society more broadly. I congratulate the authors on what must surely be their magnum opus.