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Historical overview of women's lobby groups

An excellent survey of these groups is given in Fresh evidence, new witnesses: finding women's history by Margaret Allen, Mary Hutchison and Alison Mackinnon (Netley, SA, South Australian Government Printer, 1989). Held in the State Library in the Bray and Mortlock Libraries, and reprinted here with kind permission of the authors.

"It is a widely held belief that women have been fighting for their rights only for the last twenty years or so. In fact, women in Australia have been struggling for well over one hundred and fifty years to challenge society's limited definitions of womanhood. This fact has largely been ignored by historians and, thus, hidden from history.

In South Australia in the nineteenth century there were many women and a number of women's organisations who campaigned to gain rights for women. And, it is Catherine Helen Spence who is most widely known for her work in this field. However, others who have received far less recognition also deserve to be acknowledged. Women such as Mary Lee, Augusta Zadow, Elizabeth Nicholls, Agnes Milne, Mrs Kelsey, Lilian Mead, Lucy Morice and Rosamond Benham also worked hard for the women's cause. So too did the organisations which they created and within which they worked. These organisations included the Women's Suffrage League, the Working Women's Distress Fund, the Working Women's Shirtmaking Co-operative, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Women Teachers Association and the Woman's League.

In 1894, South Australian women gained the right to vote. This was the most significant of the successes achieved by women during this time. Other successes dealt with issues such as non-sexist education, sexuality and better pay for women.

In the first half of the twentieth century, activists such as Agnes Goode argued for the importance of women's special contribution to public life based on her roles as wife and mother. This was typical of the arguments put forward at this time, and other women with similar beliefs also led campaigns for more social rights and powers. Notable among these women were Lucy Morice, Ellinor Walker, Leonora Polkinghorne, Phyllis Duguid, Elizabeth Hanretty and Ada Bromham. Organizations in which they worked included the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (which was still active into the 1930s), the Women Employees Mutual Association, the Housewives Association and the Women's Non-Party Political Association.

In 1975, the South Australian Government passed the Sex Discrimination Act which outlawed discrimination against women on the grounds of sex or marital status. That legislation has since been extended in the Equal Opportunity Act of 1984 which has made it unlawful to discriminate 'on the basis of sex, marital status, pregnancy, sexuality, physical impairment or race'. This was backed up by federal legislation in the same year.

Equal pay has also become an important issue in the last 30-40 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the League of Women Voters vigorously agitated about the level of women's pay. Also, women members of the South Australian Institute of Teachers and in particular, Jean Pavy, Veta Macghey and Miss Tomlinson worked hard for equal pay for teachers which was finally awarded in 1965. Gradually, the principle of 'equal pay for equal work' was won in other areas of public employment and then moved slowly into the private sector. However, despite the Federal Equal Pay case of 1972, women are often still paid less than men for doing work of an equal or comparable value.

In the 1970s and 1980s, new feminist organisations have arisen, in addition to those groups of longer standing. In particular, the Women's Liberation Movement and the Women's Electoral Lobby have pursued issues similar to those which concerned the earlier generations of activists. Issues such as equal pay, sexual harassment, the law of rape, women's rights within marriage, equal educational opportunities and a wider range of career options have all be raised, discussed and pursued by women in the past and today.

Since the 1950s and 1960s, Aboriginal and migrant women have also formed their own activist organisations to forward their interests and the interests of their people in general.

It can be seen then that, over the last century and a half, women have successfully brought many issues to the notice of the government and society. They have had a mixed reception - on some issues they have been successful, on others not so. All this activity by women has culminated in the 1980s in the inclusion of the issue of equal opportunity for women in all political manifestos. The Hawke government's National Agenda for Women can be seen as a sign of the success of all women activists over the past one hundred and fifty years."


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