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A history of the League of Women Voters of South Australia 1909-1976

This history was an unpublished thesis by Vivienne Szekeres, presented as part requirement for the Honours Degree of Bachelor of Arts in The University of Adelaide 1976 and held in the Mortlock Library of South Australiana. Adapted and reprinted here with kind permission from Viv Szekeres.

"On the 19th July 1909, a group of informed and politically active women met together at Bricknell's Cafe in Rundle Street Adelaide. Each member of this group knew that although the franchise had given women basic political rights in 1894, there was still no material improvement in the status of women in South Australia. They wished to discuss and confront the fact that although women had been voting for fifteen years, much more had to be done for women's equality. It was therefore decided to form an association to work for the "removal of all social, economic, and other inequalities which still existed between women and men." This grand objective must be understood clearly within the context of its time and place—in South Australia, in the city of Adelaide, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

The name they chose—The Women's Non-Party Political Association—was significant. It was to be exclusively a women's society, an independent association without a male affiliate. It was to work from the assumption that women who had personally experienced inequalities either directly or indirectly were the best qualified persons to formulate positive reforms. The Non-Party aspect of their name shows their dislike of party politics, which they felt was becoming an increasingly divisive and retrogressive force in democratic politics. They hoped they might encourage women of every political persuasion to join them and work together in the best interests of all women. They would then promote the feminist ideal that "the things which unite women are greater than those which divide them". The new association was unique in one other respect. Government did not, as far as they could see, yet take responsibility for social welfare work. The League intended to sharpen its objectives and its direction to achieve what had not been achieved by previous indirect methods."

Among the founders were Catherine Helen Spence, Lucy Morice, Elizabeth Nicholls and Isabel McCorkingdale of the WCTU. Other pioneer members were Dr Helen Mayo and Ms Hornabrooke who founded the School for Mothers. Mary Kitson and Adelaide Miethke who were active in founding the Women's Teachers Association. Dr Violet Plummer "who in 1900 was the first woman doctor to practice in Adelaide". Kate Cocks who became the first police woman in 1915. These pioneers could be seen as "the cream of Adelaide women". The particular fields of interest or expertise of these women came together and were framed into the basic aim of the League, to work "to educate citizens to appreciate the value of non-Party political and industrial action, and to promote the interests of women and children and the home under municipal, state and federal government".

When the franchise was granted, success renewed the women's confidence in their legislators as progressive social reformers, and they awaited the inevitable change and improvement in their status. Only very slowly did they become aware that as parliamentarians did not suffer, or realise the depths of inequality, they could have no conception of the need for reform. The task of the League was to make parliamentarians understand.

Ms Vida Goldstein was in particular responsible for the resurgence of interest in women's position in Australia. She was a Melbourne feminist who had spent some time in England working for the WSPU. In 1899 she founded the feminist paper Women's sphere and in 1903 founded the Women's Political Association in Victoria. She toured Australia lecturing on the need for women to activate to improve their status, and in May 1909 visited Adelaide and suggested the formation of the League. Vida Goldstein was a charismatic and beautiful woman who destroyed the stereotyped image of the feminist as "disappointed childless creatures" and gave women in Australia and in Adelaide a sense of personal identity and purpose.

When the League began its work the prevailing climate of opinion deterred women from becoming active in public life in South Australia. There were neither women in politics nor in any position of power or authority. The task was to try to remove the legal discrimination which barred women from participating, and then to encourage women to enter politics as a profession, in large enough numbers to become an influential force.

In the early years of the League there were over three hundred members, with committees Parliamentary; Municipal, Aboriginal welfare, electoral. Between 1913-1929 temporary committees to give input to Royal commissions and on topics such as State Marriage Laws, Legal Adoption, Women on Juries, Child Endowment, Women's' Work and Wages, Health, National Insurance. There was a Debating Circle which gave members the opportunity to learn the skills of public speaking needed for public meetings and election campaigns. The League supported women candidates for elections, and were convinced that each time they supported a woman for an election they were getting the community slowly accustomed to the idea that women could, and should be involved in politics-a most extraordinary idea at that time. Between 1930-1950 issues included Equal Parental Guardianship, Equal Status in Work, Juvenile Delinquency, Household Employment, Local Government. They also embarked on a public education campaign.

In 1972 the Women's Electoral Lobby was organised in Adelaide and drew considerable numbers of young women. Deborah McCulloch was one of the founder members.

The emergence of Women's Liberation in the late 1960s as another wing of the women's movement, had a tremendous impact on the League of Women Voters, for it called into question both the ideology and the tactics of the older movement.

In the last 100 years the whole concept of equality has changed. Over the years the League chipped away at the formal restrictions and helped to remove some of the obvious inequalities. They constantly articulated their confidence in women's abilities and their belief in women's right to make important contributions to the welfare and progress of society. The significant and crucial change in the concept of equality which was introduced largely by the Women's Liberation movement, is the idea that women will not be able to attain real equality of opportunity until we have changed the sexist nature of our society.

The League was a source of free research for the Government, keeping Government informed of all aspects affecting women. Perhaps the appointment of a Women's Advisor to the Premier in South Australia in 1976 was a recognition of the value and importance of this function of the League's work.

It is also certain that the women of the modern movement have had the freedom to develop largely due to movements like the League who were prepared to persevere for forty years at a time with very little outside support in order to get one reform made. Surely much of our ability to question and attack the system now, is based on foundations that they laid, both in legislative changes and the authority of their research. This encouraged women to take themselves seriously and work methodically for improvements in their status. But history cannot draw up a balance sheet, it can only celebrate the fact that the women who met at Bricknell's Cafe on the 19th July 1909 and became the League of Women Voters, were, and are, a remarkable group of women. For in spite of a culture which constantly denigrates women, they respected themselves, and had confidence in their own abilities, which is perhaps one of the most valuable legacies they could give to the new generation of women activists.


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