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WEL: Women's Electoral Lobby

WEL has been encouraging women to be politically active across the Australian community since 1972. A commemorative celebration of WEL's achievements is the book WEL: 21 years in South Australia 1972-1993 edited by Elizabeth Sloniec (Adelaide, WEL, 1993) and held in the State Library of South Australia. This publication includes reflections by many of its participants over the years, such as political figures Anne Levy, Jennifer Cashmore and Rosemary Crowley, whose words are adapted and reprinted below with their kind permission, as well as that of the Women's Electoral Lobby.

The State Library holds the WEL Archive (SRG 405) from its beginning in 1972.

A key publication of the Women's Electoral Lobby is its monthly newsletter WEL read, which is held in the Mortlock Library of South Australiana from its first issue in December 1972 to the present day, and is available for general use.

Extracts from WEL: 21 years in South Australia 1972-1993.

Anne Levy says in her opening address—

"In July 1972, Beatrice Faust called together a group of women in Melbourne to form the Women's Electoral Lobby to ensure that women had their say in the coming Federal election. Very quickly, similar groups sprang up all over Australia, including here in Adelaide.

The 1972 election was the one which saw Gough Whitlam and the Labor Party take over the governing of Australia after 23 years of Liberal rule. It was also the election where growing numbers of South Australian women found that they could knock on doors, argue their case, and have an effect; they were discovering the latent political power of women.

I was an ALP candidate in that election, in a safe Liberal seat. I knocked on innumerable doors and only had two men say to me that they couldn't vote for a woman. There were, however, large numbers of women who expressed surprise and pleasure at a female candidate, admittedly after checking that my children were at late primary and high school. Clearly, mothers of young children were not supposed to be in politics!

WEL interviewed every candidate for that election, using a questionnaire which focused on issues for women. I remember my delight as I filled it in, answering honestly and knowing I was giving the right answers. At least I was being asked sensible questions!

Then WEL produced a Formguide for each electorate, reporting in detail what each candidate had said on each issue, and stamping them as either WEL chosen or WEL ignored. (I got a WEL chosen grade, and came equal top of all South Australian candidates at that election.) This was potent non-party politics and, for the first time in many years, male politicians were forced to listen to women's views and needs.

Things have changed considerably since then. While no-one could claim that equality has been achieved, at least there are women in all political parties, and women's groups within party structures now have input into policy development.

Looking around today, women are still often portrayed badly in the media, are poorly treated in the legal system, and their employment situation is often precarious. They often find themselves struggling to cope with a working world which doesn't recognise their child raising responsibilities, and a family which assumes that they will do most of the work around the house as well as being employed.

WEL's 21st birthday celebration gives us a chance to step back and recognise that things have changed. There have been a number of real advances in the last 21 years.

Young women often take for granted many of the things WEL has fought for because they make sense. They are reasonable and have become a part of women's lives. Yet, a few years ago, there were those who argued against such changes. I doubt if anyone today would argue against equal pay, so embedded is it in our culture—it's hard to realise it is only as old as WEL!

Once change occurs, people recognise its value. Women, like those in WEL, are the change agents, pushing at the boundaries of society to make things better for all of us, women and men. This gives courage and support to those of us working within the system.

There have been successes but also failures over the years. Some things take more time than others. Some people don't accept that incremental change can lead to fundamental changes in women's status.

Some women have been less advantaged by these advances than others. In particular, Aboriginal women and women from non-English speaking backgrounds have missed out.

There is much more to be done. Looking back, it is clear that WEL has proved over the years, that it is possible to work the system WEL. Long may it continue to do so."

Jennifer Cashmore says—

"Belonging to the Women's Electoral Lobby has always seemed to me to be mandatory for women politicians, whatever their political affiliation. There has been a political energy about WEL which enables members to tap into both long-standing and emerging issues which are of concern to women. WEL's energy levels today, however, cannot compare to its powerful impact in the early 70s when male political candidates for the 1972 federal election were forced to become aware of the needs and views of a new generation of women. This was when I first became involved in party politics and I remember it well.

The high point for me was the Women in Politics conference in Canberra in 1975 where WEL was at the forefront. I attended with my daughters, then aged fourteen and twelve. We marvelled at the intellectual stimulation, the anger and the feeling of common purpose that was generated there.

I must admit, however, that I have always felt ambivalent about WEL's claim to be non-partisan. WEL has always seemed to me to be an essentially left-of-the-centre organisation. It is rare to see praise and common to see criticism of Liberal policies in WEL newsletters. Recognition of the achievements of Liberal women is unusual. Nevertheless, the newsletters are a valuable source of information and insight. They tell a story of two decades of determination and political commitment which has had an influence for good on Australian politics and politicians."

Rosemary Crowley says—

"My first memories of WEL go back to that first time women started asking male politicians what they thought about women’s issues.

The answers, particularly when some of the men were so unguarded that they actually said what they thought, provided the basis for very lively discussions about both the answers and the effect of asking the questions. Women’s issues had made it onto the political agenda.

Not too long after that, I was a candidate and found myself being questioned by other members of WEL about my attitudes. It was a fascinating exercise to be on the other end of the questions. What I most valued was the importance now being placed on women’s political issues.

WEL was a critical part of putting women on the political agenda and remains important because it keeps women there. WEL has represented every women's issue you can think of and then more.

WEL has also represented women of every political persuasion, of all ages and shapes, of height and weight. Over the years, WEL has enabled many to complain, to lobby, to resolve, to solve, to argue, to debate, to rage, to laugh, to dance and to sing in the company of other marvellous women.

From time to time we may have wondered, as members of WEL, about where we were going or what we were doing. Right now we are clear. It's women together into the future, no longer able to be removed form the political agenda.

WEL is also an important part of women's history and the memory of women and women's activities of the past."

Adelaide social historian and writer Helen Jones sets WEL in its broader South Australian perspective in her book In her own name: a history of women in South Australia from 1836 revised and updated edition (Adelaide, Wakefield Press, 1994), held in the Bray Reference Library and the Mortlock Library of South Australiana. Extracts are adapted and reprinted here with kind permission of Helen Jones.

"From the late 1960s and early 1970s the upsurge of the women's movement ... was part of an international phenomenon that resulted in strong political pressure against all kinds of injustices which women suffered. In South Australia the movement built on a solid heritage of women's public involvement, and this made it easier for governments to take some new initiatives. The first main branches of the women's movement were not completely separate, but differed in methods and in membership.

The Women's Liberation Movement, which began in South Australia in 1969 and was based on feminist ideology, frequently responded to causes concerning women's status by direct public action, including demonstrations.

The second main group was the Women's Electoral Lobby, established in 1972, which worked in a more structured way and through traditional political techniques. Its South Australian mentor was the League of Women Voters; the two bodies developed a close relationship in which the older group co-operated with and sometimes advised the younger group in its methods. Both shared aims and ideals of reform through organized political avenues, including carefully prepared questions on policy to parliamentary candidates. Members of both worked for some common issues, such as the need for women's shelters."


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