HOW IT BEGAN
This article is adapted from Joan Bielski’s 1997 Article ‘WEL Celebrates 25 Years 1972-1997′
In Carlton, Victoria in February 1972, Beatrice Faust, a Melbourne academic and abortion law reform advocate, called a meeting of ten feminists to discuss an article by Gloria Steinem for the first edition of Ms Magazine and originally published as an insert in New York Magazine: How women see candidates for the White House. The first public meeting in April was advertised in The Age and Nation Review and the plan for a survey of Federal Election candidates on their attitudes to equal pay, equal opportunity, child care, abortion and family planning was born.
Faust, the founder of WEL in Victoria, came to Sydney to set up WEL in NSW. 'Bea' 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 Sydney branch of the lobby, becoming the founding Convenors of WEL in NSW. 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, 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.
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.Image: Women and their children march at International Women's Year in 1975. Source: WEL NSW 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.
Image: A group of WEL women in Darwin. Source: Lenore Coltheart and WEL History Project
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Founded in 1972, WEL is proud of its many years of feminist advocacy and its significant wins for women in Australia. We have played a role in important policy changes such as the:
- The introduction of the equal pay for work of equal value principle in 1972, which said women should be awarded the male rate of pay, no matter what job they performed;
- Legitimisation, policy development, legislative reform and community education programs on issues such as equal opportunity, sexual harassment and domestic violence;
- Drafting and implementation of state anti-discrimination and federal sex discrimination legislation; and
- Rape law reform, which has gradually led to significant amendments to the NSW Crimes Act.