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An interview with Ellinor Walker

An interview with Ellinor Walker was conducted by the State Library's Beth Robertson in 1979 for the project South Australian women's responses to the First World War. The 22 pages of transcript, and tapes of this interview are available from the State Library's J.D. Somerville Oral History Collection (OH31/5). In the extracts included here, she discusses her political development as a young woman and her interests in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Women's Non-Party Political Association which became the League of Women Voters, and more recently the Australian Local Government Women's Association, South Australian Branch.

As well, Ellinor Walker described her youthful experience in the Girls' Social and Political Union and her subsequent involvement with the Women's Non-Party Political Association and its activities in an interview with Mary Hutchison, April 1981, of which an extract is included here, as 'World building'.

Women's Voters' League during the first world war
Woman's Christian Temperance Union
Early political awareness
State of politics in the first world war years
Women in local government
World building

Women's Voters' League during the first world war

You say that your experience mirrors the experience of a lot of other women. I think you and your friends were a little more involved than some of the women I've spoken to. Would you have a few more words to say on the question of the Women's Voters' League? How this organisation responded and yourself in the context of the war?

Oh well, I should say the same as all the other women's organisations did. We felt-. Well, I shouldn't speak for others, but I just, you know, what I noted around. But as far as the League goes, what we felt was that the things we stood for were just as important as ever they were and they were not to be abandoned. Because our very first aim was the removal of all inequalities between men and women and that became more important than ever when so many men were going away and being taken and so on. It was a principle not to be abandoned because there was, for the time, some terrible world happening. And the other special aims we had which were all tied up with that, more or less, so that we didn't halt in our work at all. We carried on our meetings and we became stronger and stronger, and it was during the war-because it was in 1917 that we started having our own club room-and really, you know, were very busy and did a great deal of work in our own way. The war didn't stop that or didn't interfere with it. So it was as individuals we did this or the other outside, and as a League we would sometimes have a gather up perhaps for a parcel or something, and we'd give notices out to members and different members were doing this and that, but as a League the work didn't stop. I think you could say the same of any of the other standing organisations like the YWCA and so on. They wouldn't be stopped in their work because of the war. They'd feel there were lots of things that really made it perhaps more important.

Woman's Christian Temperance Union

Was your involvement with Woman's Christian Temperance movement at this time or later?

No, I didn't actually join. I didn't join the Woman's Christian Temperance Union till later on. Actually, at the time of the war-up till 1918-I hadn't really made any decision about the temperance question. I thought about it a good deal, but it was actually in the year 1920 that I did, as result of thinking and what I'd heard and so on, I did make a personal decision that I would become a total abstainer. But I didn't join the WCTU for some years after for the simple reason that I was so terrifically busy by that time with the League work and my school and things like that, that I thought, oh, I just couldn't join another society. But the time came when I had some closer connection with them and I felt, "Oh, I must be standing behind them in this thing. I believe in it," and so I did join and have been a very keen member ever since, though I haven't been one of the most active ones, but I have helped in my more active years, and been steadily behind them.

Early political awareness

Obviously you were politically aware in those days. Would you like to tell me, do you have any outstanding memories on the state of Australian politics as it affected you?

(laughs) Oh well, now you're asking me a very big question with a very big answer to it. I can only just mention a few things. I awoke to an interest in such matters as soon as I got old enough to really think seriously about things at all, which would be about I suppose when I was about seventeen. Then by the time I grew up—of course in those days you definitely did grow up. You were a teenager with your hair down until you put your hair up and let your skirts down. I'd always said I'd put my hair up on my nineteenth birthday and I did, and I had my long skirts all ready and up went my hair and my new skirts came on, and I was then grown up, you see.

Well, round about that time and the next year, I really did begin to think very definitely, with a consciousness of the duties that democracy brings with it. I knew that when I was twenty-one I would have a vote and it seemed to me that that was a very important responsibility to have. And of course one has influences in one's life and I met a friend who was a very clever girl, a few years older than myself and very delightful and we had a great deal in common—a love of music and books and so on. She helped to lead my mind a bit more in that direction too. She thought the same and she was more experienced than I. It was really when I had got to the age of twenty that I really got very seriously concerned with these things, partly, as with a lot of women here, through sympathy with the British suffrage movement. You see, the suffragettes were going then, and they were right to the fore and they were in all the newspapers and having a great deal of abuse hurled at them, and people like myself, and friends and the friends that I made then and so on, were extremely sympathetic. For one thing, we knew a great deal more about it than most people did and that the women had worked for many, many years constitutionally without any effect. When a crisis came and they decided they would use a few more violent methods, the press of the whole world came running after them for publicity and, of course, there was only that side of it which was ever publicised.

So that I was enthusiastic about that and that helped, of course, to strengthen my feelings about political affairs. But from the first beginning that I ever began to think about them, I always felt that I wouldn't want to tie myself up with any political party. I didn't like the idea of parties, and in those early days I went-with my friend-I went to meetings of both Labor and Liberal people. What struck me among them all was that they spent a lot of their energy in calling the other side names, and that didn't appeal to me at all. I felt strongly against it, so that I was always thoroughly what you call non-party. And it was when I heard about the League of Women Voters-which in those days was called by what is now its sub-title, the Women's Non-Party Political Association; that was a society that was working for women's rights-and that it was non-party, I thought, "My word, that's the ground for me". So I was very happy to go along there, very young and shy, and was kindly welcomed. I went to several rneetings and when I came of age I joined it. It's non-party attitude has always been particularly dear and precious to me-or among the precious things-because I've always remained a non-party woman. I've never joined any party. I've had quite a lot of sympathy, mostly with the Labor side, but never to tie myself up or to swear that they're all the angels and the others are all the fiends and all the rest of it. I just could never take that attitude.

The League has worked all those years on the non-party basis. Well, on the basis that, as our great leader, Bessie Rischbieth of Western Australia used to say so often, "The things that unite women are greater than the things that divide them". On those grounds we proved that to be true because we've had women of all parties or none working together side by side for the things that matter to all women. In the course of our work and the years we did prove that we were truly apart from the party differences, and people grew to trust us for that and we could get Liberal and Labor people along on our grounds together to discuss things that matter to all of us, because they knew it was really neutral ground-that we were honestly non-party and it's been quite an advantage in that way. So you behold in me a non-party woman (laughs) and I've always worked along those lines.

But, of course, it's a terrible irritation how people mix up the word "party" and "political". They'll say "non-political" when what they mean is "non-party". They're as political as they can be, like we were. We were quite political, and you can't have anything to do with Parliament and democracy without being political, but you needn't be party, you see. As a matter of fact, in our early days we got so sick and tired of people referring to us as the Women's Non-Political Association, that we actually changed our name, and for very many years we were known as the Women's Non-Party Association, and that was the name that we held over years that are very dear in my recollection, and that name was dear to us. We gave it up as our chief name as a sort of duty to our federation, the Australian Federation of Women Voters, which had been formed and which had asked its societies if they wished-if they would-to change to League of Women Voters to emphasise the link, and we felt that that was a reasonable request and we did. But we regretted the dear old name and it's still dear to us-Women's Non-Party Association. When we had one of our anniversaries and some celebrations and got some of our older members along, it was lovely to hear them talking about the Non-Party. The Non-Party-it was known as the Non-Party to quite a lot of people. It was very familiar to people who were interested in those things. However, as I say, we have the old name as our sub-title.

That looms large to me in all the work I've done of a political nature, because it's-. I've been quite happy to work with people of all parties or none, and that's how we have been working along through the years. Our first President was Catherine Helen Spence, who of course was one of the great South Australian women, and her great subject was proportional representation and the people who first formed the League were most of them already proportionalists and the others very gladly accepted it because they felt that was the right way. And so it's been on our platform always and we've worked for it. In due course a proportional representation group was formed, which now calls itself the Electoral Reform Society, and the Leaguers have always had delegates there and so on. I was very active in getting it formed.

And that's one of my personally strong beliefs, that we should have what is technically known as the quota preferential system, but we like to just call it that dear old name of proportional representation, which would result in the Parliament really representing the people in their proper proportion, and then to have elected ministries and have the Parliament electing the ministry as is done in times of terrific crisis. They have coalition governments and because it matters so much they drop their fighting and they work together. Well, why can't they do it always? After all, we all belong to the same country and we all want to do the best for all the people, and this division and fighting and wasting their time in quarrelling-people are getting more and more disgusted with it. Personally I'm very keen on that particular reform. But whether it'll come, or when it'll come, I don't know. It's just one of the things I am keen about and the League has always stood for it.

State of politics in the first world war years

Would you like to venture a few opinions about the state of politics in Australia during the war years?

Well I don't know that I'm really fitted really to do that. As I say, I was in the League. I had joined it just a few months before the war came. Of course we had our-. I don't think it was our first Labor government, but it was an early Labor government in, and they did some very good work. For instance, it was they that started the women police, which the League was very keen on and did a certain amount to push along and give support to and so on. One of the things that-. In those early days we had a Parliamentary committee and I went on to that and we used to go down, you know, and listen to the debates. I always remember one of my earliest trips there-very thrilled to be there in Parliament and seeing what was happening. Mr Coneybeer, the Speaker, he recognised one of our women and afterwards we were invited to afternoon tea in the Speaker's room. I was very interested, of course, in meeting sorne of them personally, and I always remember that I was very pleased at the way they spoke about things in general. There wasn't any of that sort of violent anti-party business. In fact I was particularly struck, and was-I think it was Mr Coneybeer-in giving a word or praise to the former Liberal Premier in connection with something or other. He said-I think it was Mr Peake, I think it has been-he said, "Oh yes, Peake was very good, you know, about so-and-so". Giving some little word of praise for his cleverness and so on, and I thought, with my non-party feeling, I liked that very much.

Those little things just stand out in my memory. It was more my general interest in learning about the whole set-up of Parliament. Actually, I came to it with some knowledge, because I haven't mentioned the fact that before the time came of my actually joining the League-and for some time afterwards too it ran on-the friend that I've mentioned that was keen about these things with me, she and I started a girls' club for learning about politics, and we had quite a lot of girls, as we called them-you know, young things from perhaps eighteen or nineteen to twenty-two or so-to learn about these things and study them so as to bring a more informed mind to the use of our votes and so on. So that I didn't come to it all quite ignorant, but it was all of great interest to me in those early years and I've been-of course since then, down the years-I was very often in the Speaker's gallery listening to the debates.

But I wouldn't have anything specially to say about the general political picture because you might say people were getting used to the idea of Labor governments, which had been a very strange idea to begin with. And of course we were eternally pushing for the need for women in Parliament. In our early days, well that was, oh, a wild idea, you know, and so on. We were regarded as rather terribly advanced, of couse, but gradually we did get people used to that idea.

Women in local government

There again, we didn't stop, of course, at women in Parliament. We wanted women in local government too. It was in 1916 the League nominated and ran the first two women that ever stood for local government in South Australia for a couple of the districts for the Adelaide City Council. Of course they didn't get in, but it woke people up, because it was regarded as important enough for the newspaper to have a leader on the subject, and it first roused people up to the possibility of women going into local government. We continued that. For several years we ran women for the Adelaide Council. We weren't ever successful, but we got people more and more accustomed to the idea and eventually Mrs Goode did get into the St Peters Council. Mrs Benny got into Brighton Council quite early. It just made a start and after that there were a few and a few and few and so on. So that we were interested in that aspect as well as the Parliamentary one, you see.

Later on—about 1963 or so—we had another look at that subject, and we felt that although women in local government were accepted, and there were a certain number of them, there weren't nearly enough. There ought to be a lot more, and so we made a fresh start on that subject. We had a seminar, and out of that grew a committee which developed into an independent society which is the Australian Local Government Women's Association, South Australian Branch, which is extremely alive. As a result of that work, of course, the numbers of women on the councils have increased tremendously. Still not nearly enough, but the very definite start has been made and every year more women stand and more women get elected, so that that has really been-really got started, and that was one of our jobs that we were always interested in. I am the delegate to that Society and it's very alive indeed.

World building

Ellinor Walker described her youthful experience in the Girls' Social and Political Union and her subsequent involvement with the Women's Non-Party Political Association and its activities in an interview with Mary Hutchison, April 1981.

... when I was 18, I met a friend who was a little older than myself and a very clever girl, and who thought a lot about these things, and of course, she responded to my interest, and the end of it was that between us - a year or so later - we started a club for girls to study political matters, and to learn how to use their vote ...

We had speakers, and it was good preparation, and it was not long before it came to our knowledge that there was in existence this Women's Non-Party Political Association ... which was aiming at exactly the sort of things that we were all feeling keen about; and I remember it was my friend who got their programme - their constitution - copies of it, and passed it around, and then some of us went to some of their meetings, and of course, they were very delighted to welcome a few young things ... but it was not until I had my 21st birthday that I definitely joined that society, which I then remained in for the rest of its life.

Perhaps I might, at this point, just put into words the conviction which had developed in me at that early age and which I have always felt, which has affected a great deal of my life work: that those qualities which particularly belong to the mother half of the race are most essentially needed in world-building, and that the world will never be set right until women are taking their equal part in that; and it was that feeling that was behind my very strong support of what is known as the woman movement ... It is brought home to you in all sorts of little ways in life, that the women do have a special personal way of looking at things, and that is often brought up - against them ... forgetting that the whole world is made up of persons, and if you think about persons, well, you will find yourself in a hole and doing things wrongly, and that is what you see on all sides. It was that feeling - that the women's point of view was needed so tremendously; just as tremendously in public life as in private life - that had driven us on in this movement ... we wanted to get the laws right, to see that they set down definitely that women were citizens, and particularly our particular care was that women and the children were properly protected and had a fair go. It was in the statute books of our country.

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