History - Women's Electoral Lobby

HOW IT BEGAN

This article is adapted from Joan Bielski’s 1997 Article ‘WEL Celebrates 25 Years 1972-1997′

In 1972, Beatrice Faust, a Melbourne academic and abortion law reform advocate, addressed a meeting in Sydney at the house of Julia Freebury, the Sydney organiser of the Abortion Law Reform Association, about forming a women’s lobby for the purpose of interviewing all candidates for the 1972 federal elections about their attitudes to issues being enunciated by the Women’s Liberation Movement.

After discussion, Caroline Graham, June Surtees (now Williams) and Wendy McCarthy agreed to become co-convenors of the lobby. The founding members were already connected through their involvement in childbirth education, women’s health issues, abortion law reform and Women’s Liberation. They were able to contact other women through these networks.

Wendy McCarthy, June Surtees, Gail Radford
Wendy McCarthy, Gail Radford, June Surtees (now Williams) in 1972. Source: Wendy McCarthy and WEL History Project

The first public meeting of the new women’s lobby was held on 17 June, 1972 with 40 women attending. Within six months the attendance at meetings in Sydney was over 100 and WEL branches were established in every State and in many regions. WEL had become a national organisation.

Women from all walks of life quickly joined. They tended to be in their early thirties, married, many with small children and working in and trained for ‘feminine’ white collar occupations such as teaching, nursing and office work. A few were academics, whose research skills were later to ensure that WEL’s submissions, such as that to the Poverty Enquiry in the early 1970s, were accurate and well argued.

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Women and their children march at International Women's Year in 1975. Source: WEL NSW and WEL History Project

A few older women, such as Edna Ryan, had been activists in education and union circles. The latter brought to the organisation their expertise and their well developed political skills. Others quickly developed the political skills necessary to make submissions on policy issues, organise meetings and conferences, write media material, address public meetings, and to speak on the radio and TV. They also quickly learned to trust one another and to trust the skills and expertise which members brought to the organisation.

All felt for the first time an excitement never experienced before, that of working with other women for their own and their sisters’ betterment.

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A group of WEL women in Darwin. Source: Lenore Coltheart and WEL History Project

Neither side of politics welcomed WEL, each hinting that it was a front for the other side. WEL was also constantly criticised as anti-family and by some in the women’s movement as ‘middle class’ and ‘reformist’. Anti-family we were not, just advocates of equality between spouses and partners. Middle class in part we were. Reformist we were and proudly we still are.

Making women count

The history of the Women's Electoral Lobby is very well documented in the book “Making Women Count” by Marian Sawer with Gail Radford. The book can be purchased from UNSW press HERE.

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ANU WEL History Project

A History of the Women’s Electoral Lobby has also been prepared at the Australian National University, Canberra, with the assistance of a 3 year grant from the Australian Research Council.

This site is a wealth of information, including many photos of WEL, their activities, submissions, policies and other work.

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Kirsty McEwin and Meredith Hinchliffe with screen-printed WEL T-shirts in the 1970s. Source: Chris Ronalds and WEL History Project

As the ANU project says, WEL is the “women’s organisation most often referred to in parliament, the media and books on Australian politics. Many university theses have been written about it.”

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Women march at International Women's Day in 1980. Source: Val Marsden and WEL History Project

History by Joan Bielski

In 2004 Joan Bielski wrote The History, Organisation and Achievements of WEL NSW.

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