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Two lobbying success stories

Two examples of the effectiveness of women's organisations as lobby groups are given in Helen Jones In her own name: a history of women in South Australia from 1836. Extracts are adapted and reprinted with kind permission from Helen Jones, who describes how the League of Women Voters worked to change legislation to allow women to sit on juries, and to allow women equal custody rights to children.

Women on juries

Guardianship of Infants Act 1940

Women on juries

"The principle of women serving on juries had been a lively issue among many Australian women's organizations from early in the twentieth century. It was included in the first platform of the Women's Non-Party Political Association; as early as December 1911 the Association requested it, on the basis of common justice and women's abilities, in a deputation to the Premier, John Verran. Evelyn Vaughan (Crawford Vaughan's wife) spoke for the deputation.

For the next forty years women continued to seek the appointment of female jurors. In 1924, 1927 and 1928, in 1945 and 1946 the League of Women Voters campaigned strongly for the reform. In 1940 the National Council of Women supported the request on the grounds of equality. In the 1950s, the League of Women Voters mounted a sustained campaign for women on juries. Deputations went to the Playford Government in June 1951 and in March 1955. The first was led by Dr Constance Davey and Phyllis Duguid; the Chief Secretary, R J Rudall, in response, agreed that women were 'competent, able and intelligent'. Nevertheless he simply did not favour women jurors. The second deputation was based on extensive and thorough groundwork among women's organizations; support came from the Medical Women's Association, Women Graduates Association, Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Soroptimists' Club, Country Women's Association and the Housewives Association. Again led by Constance Davey, this deputation met the same response. In September 1956 in Parliament, the Premier, Thomas Playford, refused to sanction the introduction of a juries bill. The only argument raised against women's jury service was the old conservative view of women's place.

In 1960 the League of Women Voters renewed its campaign; after careful preparatory work it organized a final deputation in November 1962, led by Roma Mitchell QC. Representatives of seven women's organizations were introduced to Playford by the two LCL women members of Parliament, Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele. It was planned that Roma Mitchell should be the only speaker; she argued primarily on grounds of equity. She was able to assure the premier that the National Council of Women, representing many women's organizations, was in favour. She carefully chose arguments which might convince Playford, one being that as equal pay did not apply in South Australian government positions, women jurors would be paid less. Another point she made, reported in The News was that—

... the inclusion of women on juries would not change any outlooks, but there were questions, such as sex crimes, where women would be able to assess the veracity of young attractive women less emotionally than men.

In a surprising reversal, the premier agreed to the request. The weight of women's opinion in favour, combined with the years of dogged campaigning by the League of Women Voters who were now backed by Roma Mitchell's advocacy, apparently changed his views."

Guardianship of Infants Act 1940

"An excellent example of women's effective lobbying was the 1940 Guardianship of Infants Act, which was both proposed and drafted by the League of Women Voters.

Since its foundation in 1909 as the Women's Political Association, the Women's Non-Party Association had studied the question of guardianship and custody. Their concerns centred on the old common law supremacy of a husband over both his wife and his children. The Association's platform included equal custody powers; its members believed strongly that the mother should have equal powers with the father over children. Cases of inequity sometimes became public, as in 1924 when Mrs Agnes Goode, a justice of the peace, gave the following example:

On the Bench, the other day, we had to decide on a case which concerned a woman who obtained a legal separation from her second husband. By the law, that woman had to hand over her own children to the husband, their stepfather, unless we expressly gave an order giving her their guardianship! And yet, if that woman died, the stepfather, guardian of the children, would not be called on to maintain them a day after her death!

Many women, and not only those immediately affected by such anomalies, were strongly opposed to such laws. Because some were prepared to act for change, in 1932 the Non-Party Association formed a subcommittee to work for new legislation. For some years they corresponded with their counterparts in England and other countries. They examined relevant legislation and worked out the terms for a specific Parliamentary Bill to reform the law of guardianship of children. ... Miss Ellinor Walker, who had been a member since 1913 and who was a teacher with her own Montessori school, took up the painstaking task of drafting a bill. Her draft achieved the legal requirements, for it was then approved by lawyer Miss Roma Mitchell. Backed by many women's organizations, the League took their draft bill in 1940 to the Attorney-General, Shirley Jeffries. He was sympathetic; and the bill prepared by careful and patient voluntary effort went through Parliament with only one minor procedural alteration.

Thus in 1940 the South Australian Parliament agreed to the principle of equality for male and female parents. The Guardianship of Infants Act was the direct result of women's long-held concerns. It included the unprecedented Clause 4 which specifically gave equal custody rights, authority and responsibility to mothers, stating—

The mother of an infant shall have the guardianship and custody of the infant while an infant jointly with the father and each parent shall have equal authority, rights and responsibilities with regard to the infant.

The Government had made here an unequivocal commitment to the rights of mothers in enacting pioneering Australian legislation."

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