Society of Women Writers 1925-1935
Heath, Lesley, Australian Literary Studies
THE Society of Women Writers was established in Sydney in 1925 and today continues to operate. Throughout its life, one of its key functions has been to provide a point of contact for women writers. A study of the society's first decade provides an insight into the cultural and social milieu of the founding members, and charts the change in the working life of women writers from casual contributors of articles, stories and poetry to the formative years of full-time paid employment in journalism and, for some, publication in book form. The early years also reveal the growth of support for Australian literature within the membership and practical measures undertaken to foster its growth and recognition.
In the years when literary journals did not exist or were short-lived, and when newspapers and magazines provided the principal outlets for creative writing because publishing opportunities were scarce, a literary career usually meant a career in journalism. The Society of Women Writers brought together a membership whose writing had a connection, overwhelmingly, with journalism. Some of the membership were contributors on an infrequent basis, others were freelance writers who were published more regularly, and some had permanent employment. Writers who had been published in book form, and aspiring playwrights, were also represented. It has been asserted that in order to reconstruct the cultural history of women between the wars, significant value should be accorded to 'non-traditional sources such as committee minutes', 'sensitive to the fact that what passes for gossip and trivia' can be 'profoundly philosophical' (Dever citing Berkinow, 144). Looking at the Society of Women Writers as an entity--and its committee minutes are an invaluable source--rather than at individual writers allows us to observe the dynamics and interaction of a wider social group, and reveals issues considered important to most of the membership, as well as issues of concern to only a few.
The membership of the new society was composed of women from a variety of middle- and upper-class backgrounds, whose connections with other societies placed them within an active social network with a diversity of interests. It was a membership with striking parallels to that of the Society of Women Painters established in 1910. Just as the older women of the Society of Women Painters provided a direct link back to the women's painting societies of the 1890s, of which they had been part, so the older members of the Society of Women Writers provided a similar link to the nineteenth-century women's literary societies of Sydney. The older members of the Women Painters and the Women Writers dominated proceedings in the earlier years when activities included those aimed at social and cultural improvement, a cornerstone of the work of the nineteenth-century societies.
The younger writers and painters were distinguished from the older founders by virtue of greater expectations of a serious career; their participation wrought changes that transformed both societies into more professional bodies, leaving behind much of the older emphasis on social amelioration. The Society of Women Painters has been described as marking a transitional stage in the gradual surfacing of 'gentlewomen's accomplishments from the home into public visibility', and as 'a group caught in the middle of a period of great change, aspiring to the new order but tied very much to the past' (Philp 3, 4). There is a sense of the latter description in the early years of the Society of Women Writers, but the fifteen years which elapsed between the establishment of the two societies, and the greater number of working women journalists in the full-time workforce compared with women painters, probably account for what seems to have been a comparatively painless transformation of the Society of Women Writers from its rather uncertain, hastily-formed inception--externally inspired--into a more focussed and modern institution. It was this transformation, influenced by the younger women and their changing sense of their work, which allowed the Society of Women Writers to prosper in the years when the Society of Women Painters was faltering.
The interest in Australian literature within the Society of Women Writers was in the first instance just one of many causes that received varying degrees of support but, as the eclectic interests of the society became more focussed on writers and writing, so a sense of the society's connection with it strengthened. Support for Australian literature was expressed primarily in the entertainment of local writers and the gatherings of the membership, but it is apparent that in the early years its promotion was not a major preoccupation for all members. This illustrates that, even to those intimately concerned with writing, the notion of creating a national literary culture was rather a novel concept, and not always of great importance at that time to writers themselves. Within the society's ranks, though, were women such as Ruth Bedford, Dorothea Mackellar, Dora Wilcox, Marjorie Quinn, Mary Gilmore, Nora Kelly, Ethel Turner and Zora Cross, who were supporters of the cause of a national literature and whose assistance could be relied on by cultural nationalists outside the society. By the mid-1930s, much more familiarity and ease with the concept of a national literature is evident.
The details of the society's activities found in the minutes reveal the privileged social position of this group--an important factor which applies not only to the women but to the men with whom they socialise, and whose class base is not so obvious in public or private sources because these contain little information about social activities. Various individuals who were active in the Society of Women Writers appear in sources about other literary societies established in the 1920s and the information regarding their privileged social position supports Drusilla Modjeska's assertion that it was only middle-class women who had the time, and the financial and social support, to be able to write. Indeed, it was part of middle- and upper-class privilege that women could write at all (Modjeska 331-32). The membership of the Society of Women Writers supports this observation.
Like the Australian English Association, the Society of Women Writers was influenced by an English model with which it affiliated, and its patrons were from the upper class. The society was established at the time of the 1925 Empire Press Conference held in Sydney, celebrations for which included a Government House garden party for 'the two hundred delegates representing England, South Africa, Penang, Canada, New Zealand, Malta, the Straits Settlements, India and Crown Colonies'. Viscount Burnham, president of the Empire Press Union, oversaw the conference, which his wife attended as the representative of the Society of Women Journalists in London (Quinn 224-25). According to a founding member of the Society of Women Writers, Lady Burnham was invited by prominent Sydney women writers to help establish the society after she had 'pointed out to the Press that Sydney was one of the few large cities in the Empire that was without one' (Quinn 225). The general recollection seems accurate: at the first meeting of the Women Writers, arrangements were discussed for entertaining 'Lady Burnham, President of the Society of Women Journalists in London' (Minutes 14 Sep. 1925; Minutes are hereafter cited by date). At the first committee meeting, Lady Burnham was offered a life membership; (1) and in the drawing room of the Hotel Australia--within a month of the society's establishment--she became the first guest to be entertained by the Society of Women Writers (21 Sep. 1925).
The provisional committee consisted of 'Mesdames Gilmore, Baverstock, Fotheringhame, Wallace and Miss Kelly but Miss Kelly having left, Miss Gullett's name was substituted. Mrs Aronson and Mrs Liddell became ex-officio members of the committee' (7 Sep. 1925). The women of the provisional committee were among the founding membership listed in the Minute Book, and their biographical details provide valuable information regarding the women themselves, the social environment of this coterie, and their relationship to writing and journalism. A list of foundation members and their biographical details is included at the end of this essay. As that list shows and as already noted, this was a society for women writers who had a connection with journalism, which had been expanding slowly as a career for women from the early years of the twentieth century.
At the preliminary meeting called 'to discuss the advisability of forming an organization which would draw together the women writers and women newspaper artists of New South Wales', (2) the provisional committee recommended that membership be open to 'women engaged in journalism, writers, playwrights, black and white artists engaged upon newspapers, magazines, [and] books'; that an annual membership fee of 10/6 and life membership fee of 5 guineas apply; and that a committee of nineteen be formed. Mary Gilmore and Nora Kelly moved unsuccessfully 'That the objects of the society be generally social, the study of Australian literature be concentrated upon at specific meetings'. The society's aims were eventually defined as thus:
The Society in general to be a social body. To promote a knowledge of literature, and go [sic] encourage Australian writers. To strengthen the ties of interest between Australian and visiting writers. (7 Sep. 1925)
These membership guidelines and objectives are almost identical to those of the male-dominated New South Wales Institute of Journalists, which had been established in 1912 and which, from its second year, admitted women (New South Wales Institute). Amy Mack, Ethel Turner, Ada Holman, Zara Aronson, Florence Baverstock, Isabel Gullett, Blanche D'Alpuget, and Miss M. Cox-Taylor were all early members of the Institute who later became founding members of the Society of Women Writers. It's worth noting that in 1956, when the Institute ceased operating, Mary Liddell was still a member and refused the Institute's gift of its residual fund as a mark of appreciation for her longstanding service. Instead, the money was given to the University of Sydney for an annual prize for the 'newly proposed Department of Australian Literature'. (3)
The history of the Society of Women Writers charts a stage in the movement of middle-class and upper-class women away from the duty and service which imbued both their domestic and public lives. The fact that the society's social functions attracted good attendances, while meetings were often abandoned for lack of a quorum, supports the idea that duty and service were starting to wane, and confirms that the number of activists was small. Mary Gilmore and Nora Kelly, the proposers that 'study' be included, appear as supporters of Australian literature in other literary societies, and their attempt to include a more serious approach to the national literature is unsurprising, as is the reluctance of the majority to undertake it: it was the experience of committed activists who battled within other literary societies against a community lacking interest in the project of building a national literature (see Heath).
At the first general meeting of the Society of Women Writers various procedural decisions were taken regarding committee vacancies, nomination and qualifications of intending members, foundation membership, and committee numbers. An executive of eight and a general committee of fifteen was also elected. (4) The range of matters and ease of execution indicates the familiarity of these women with the procedures and requirements necessary for the establishment of a society. The Society of Women Writers had connections through cross-membership and interaction with a number of established women's societies which had emerged from the late nineteenth-century feminist movement, including the Women's Literary Society, the Feminist Club, the Lyceum Club, and the National Council of Women. The premises of the Feminist Club and the Lyceum Club were used for meetings by the society, and the National Council of Women benefited from the Society of Women Writers' affiliation which gave financial support from 1927 to 1935.
Committee enthusiasm waned early, however, reinforcing the perception that the social activities of the society were its drawcard for the majority: the final meeting of 1925 was on 21 December, and although the first quarterly meeting in the new year was scheduled for early February, no minutes were taken until mid 1926, when a general meeting was held 'to amend several clauses of the constitution'. The poor attendance at the committee meetings seems to be the motivating factor behind the amendment 'that at a meeting of the committee five should form a quorum instead of seven as before' (14 June 1926). At the July committee meeting only six members were in attendance, and the committee meeting for August, September, and October lapsed owing to insufficient numbers to make a quorum. (5)
It comes as a surprise, then, that at the first annual meeting Zara Aronson, in her role of secretary, expressed 'much pleasure in emphasizing the success of the undertaking'. Apart from a reference to hopes for improving conditions and benefits--aims not officially stated at the preliminary meetings--the surprise in the first annual report is that the monthly social meetings (reduced in frequency from the fortnightly meetings originally proposed) had attracted an average attendance of thirty members and guests, entertaining 'quite a circle of notable visitors including several from other States'. At the meeting it was announced that membership had reached 65 (13 Sep. 1926). This information lends the new society a health which the minutes don't suggest.
The Society of Women Writers was courted as a possible supporter for an eclectic mix of activities ranging from the entertainment of eminent visitors to social reform; many of the activities reveal the women's links with upper-class society and vice-regal patronage. For instance, in March 1927, Mary Gilmore and Zara Aronson were appointed delegates to the National Council of Women's 'At Home' function for the Duchess of York (Report for year ending 12 Sep. 1927) who was visiting Australia with her husband to attend the opening of the national parliament in Canberra on 9 May (Garran 283). Dora Wilcox, Mary Gilmore and Zara Aronson represented the society at the National Council of Women's reception for Lady MacCallum (wife of the recently-knighted Mungo MacCallum) at the University later in the year (6 Dec. 1927). That same year, Florence Baverstock arranged publicity for a function connected with the University Appeal which was designed to raise 250,000 [pounds sterling]. The appeal was part of the university's 75th anniversary celebrations, and members of the society were asked to co-operate (19 March 1928), some, like Connie Robertson, becoming members of the very large Appeal Committee. (6) Vice-regal and political circles were sometimes joined: there was the matter of which representatives of the society would write in the visitors' book at Government House (9 and 16 July, 20 Aug. 1928); and Lady de Chair, wife of the governor of NSW, sent word that she 'promised herself the pleasure of attending a society social gathering after her return to the State' (16 July and 20 Aug. 1928). Ethel Anderson, poet, essayist and short fiction writer, became a vice president of the society in 1928 and was influential through her husband, General Anderson, a British Army officer who served on the staff of three State governors and the governor-general from 1926 (Wilde 29). It was 'General Anderson' who was asked by the society to arrange a date for the de Chairs' luncheon (8 April 1929). In 1930, a luncheon was arranged for Lady Game, wife of Sir Philip, the succeeding governor of NSW who in 1931 dismissed Jack Lang, the Labor Premier (15 July 1930). Political circles were represented in the membership of Mrs Bavin and Ada Holman, the wives of the current premier and a former premier.
Activities for the social good included those associated with national health, and the Society of Women Writers was directly involved in efforts to this end, some members spearheading campaigns. The response of the society to most requests for support by other bodies seems to have generally been rather poor, except when a luncheon, fundraising dance, card party or some other social event could be held as their contribution to the campaign. The society was invited to send representatives to a meeting regarding the sale of 'salacious literature' in Sydney where it was intended to form a deputation to ask that the law be tightened with regard to the sale of this sort of publication--'postcards etc.'. The campaign was targeted at Australian publications which the RHA (Racial Hygiene Association) Congress sought to suppress, particularly 'Beckett's Budget, The Mustard Pot, Ten Stories, and the White House and French Art Co.'s Dodgers ... which were absolutely disgusting and revolting' (8 July and 13 Aug. 1929). At this time there was no power of censorship over matter printed in Australia, only over imported material (Wyndham and Needham 14, 16).
In 1927, the Society of Women Writers participated in Authors' Day and Authors' Week, initiatives which combined the efforts of the commercial and creative arms of the literary community as well as the Education Department. 'The objects of these movements are to stimulate public interest in and appreciation of Australian writers and Australian books generally' ('Australian Authors' 1). The decision to hold such an event had been taken at the annual conference of the Associated Booksellers of Australia and New Zealand in May 1927 ('Authors' Week') and the speed with which it was established is surprising considering the size of the undertaking.
The Society of Women Writers' growing self-confidence as it evolved into a serious and professional body is demonstrated in its membership requirements which were revised during its early years. The first change to membership requirements took place in 1927 and reduced the number of women eligible by giving a 'stricter interpretation' to 'writer' and eliminating artists and illustrators (Report for year ended 1 Oct. 1928). The distinction between the old and new requirements for membership seems to be in receiving payment for work:
Women actively engaged as journalists, authors, playwrights, and recognised contributors of articles paid for by newspapers and magazines, or, such women not now so engaged who have a literary record of worth and distinction, shall be eligible for membership. (6 Dec. 1927)
A further change appeared in late 1928 in the first issue of All About Books, a Melbourne publication affiliated with publishing interests to which the society subscribed.
This is an association for women journalists, authors, playwrights, etc., and its objects are: (a) to draw together women engaged in these professions; (b) to maintain the status of these professions; (c) to promote a knowledge of literature and to encourage Australian writers; (d) to strengthen the ties of interest between Australian and visiting writers. ('Meetings of Australasian Literary Societies' 41)
What is noticeable is the disappearance of the earlier primary aim that the society be a social body. Also of significance is the twice-used description of writing as a profession.
The changing requirements for membership reflect the transition from a comparatively leisured, casual kind of employment, which the majority of the older generation had experienced, to the structured workday of permanent full-time employment experienced by the younger members. The change was evident by 1931. 'I am sorry to say ... that the younger members of the society are not showing as much enthusiasm as formerly. This may be accounted for by the fact that the majority of them are engaged in active daily or weekly journalism, and it is very difficult for them to find leisure' (Report for year ended 30 Sep. 1931). In 1933, the society's 'objects' categorised 'literature' and 'journalism' as discrete professions: its aims 'to draw together women engaged in literature and journalism, and to maintain the status of these professions; to promote a knowledge of literature and to encourage Australian writers; to strengthen the ties of interest between Australian and visiting writers; to support the aims of world peace'. (7) The clutch of new members at the end of 1933 gives an idea of the professional nature of the 'younger members': Mrs Wigmore (Sheila, daughter of Florence Baverstock) 'a regular contributor of the Sydney press'; Mrs Ramsden of the Sun; Miss Janet Mitchell, Women's College, Sydney University; Mrs Fenstone of the Sydney Mail (and later editor of The Women's Weekly); Misses Freda Young and Marie Marshall, both of the Sunday Sun; and Miss V. Manning of the Daily Telegraph (11 Nov. 1933). Marie Marshall had taken over as 'Cousin Marie' from the 'Chief Sunbeamer' Ethel Turner on the children's pages of the Sunday Sun. Two years on, when planning a function, it was mentioned as a matter of course that the Society of Women Writers had 'access to papers through the members of the Society' (23 Oct. 1935).
By 1931, the issue of clubrooms for the society which had been a concern for some members (especially some of the older ones) in the early years seems to have been replaced by a genuine desire to operate as a dining club; this activity seems to have succeeded in bringing together a fair number of members at the one time. The weekly luncheon, inaugurated in 1927 at the suggestion of Connie Stephens, was held initially at the 'Rendezvous Cafe' before moving to 'Dungowan' in Martin Place. It was not confined to women and was informal, without any obligation for members to attend--its intention was to provide members with a meeting place and the opportunity to meet people visiting Sydney briefly (19 Sep. 1927). This was convenient for the working women journalists who were able to attend during their lunch hour. Overseas and Australian writers and people of interest were invited to these luncheons, which became the most successful and consistent activity of the society (17 Oct. 1927). At the first luncheon on 4 October 1927, Edith Lyttelton, the Australian-born novelist who wrote under the name G.B. Lancaster, attended as the society's guest (26 Sep. 1927). Other Australian writers entertained subsequently at the Tuesday luncheon included Miles Franklin (27 Sep. and 15 Oct. 1928; 30 Sep. 1929); Ruth Bedford and Winifred Shaw, 'poetesses presently in Europe'; Mabel Forrest, novelist and poet from Brisbane; Myra Morris of Melbourne, Katharine Susannah Prichard (Report for year ended 1 Oct. 1928); Nettie and Vance Palmer (4 March 1929); Steele Rudd (30 Sep. 1929); Margery Browne and Victor Rees, winners in the general section and the Australian section, respectively, of Commonwealth government prizes for 'the best scenarios' (25 Nov. 1930); Dorothea Mackellar (Report for year ended 30 Sep. 1930); Amy Mack; Ion Idriess; P.R. Stephensen and Mr and Mrs Charles Chauvel (14 Dec. 1932; 22 Feb. 1933); Mrs T.H. Kelly, a prominent society hostess who had written social columns in earlier days; T.S. Gurr, composer and librettist of Collits' Inn (27 June 1934); Mary Gilmore (18 July 1934); Mary Marlowe, author of Psalmist of the Dawn; William Moore, husband of Dora Wilcox; and William Dakin, Professor of Zoology at the University of Sydney (15 Aug. 1934). By the end of 1930 the luncheons were attracting 'ever increasing numbers' even though fewer guests--particularly those from overseas--were entertained due to the Depression (Report for year ended 30 Sep. 1930). In 1931 the Lyceum Club was abandoned for meetings and various venues used before finally settling at David Jones' 'Blue Room' (17 Feb., 24 March, 14 April and 27 May 1931). The meetings were now held immediately preceding a luncheon, which seems eminently sensible considering the meetings were so poorly attended compared with the luncheons; the new arrangement assured a quorum.
Members of the society were invited to attend performances of Community Playhouse productions written by fellow members Dora Wilcox, Ruth Bedford, Marguerite Dale, and Alys Hungerford (14 Oct. 1930). Carrie Tennant was the mainspring of the Community Playhouse--a self-consciously nationalist enterprise of the early thirties which, in its first year, produced about 30 one-act plays by local authors. Carrie Tennant was strongly supported by William Moore, art historian and husband of Dora Wilcox, and others. The Playhouse was an authors' theatre located in a small venue in Forbes Street and its function was described by its organisers.
The Community Playhouse is maintained primarily for the use of Australian authors. Here is a theatre in Which the Australian playwright may experiment and try out his work with whatever cast he requires, together with settings and effects. Thus the writer is helped to see his work under actual stage conditions. The Community Playhouse members are pledged to foster a national Australian drama. (Rees 127).
The Depression affected the ability of some members to pay subscriptions, and activities designed to assist writers who were struggling financially were initiated. Members represented the society at the Journalists' Ball (6 May 1929), the profits of which were destined for the Australian Journalists' Benevolent Fund (14 May 1928). Most activities continued to centre around the very well patronised weekly luncheons, and a reference to 'ever increasing numbers of members' shows the extent to which many of the membership were protected from the early ill-effects of the Depression. The 1930 Christmas party that included dancing, cards and competitions was held in the restaurant, card room and roof garden of Nock and Kirby's. An attendance of 170 was needed to make it successful financially (25 Nov. 1930). While this may seem a daunting task for the society whose 1930 end-of-year financial statement indicates a membership of approximately sixty and whose nation was in the grip of Depression, it proved to be no problem. In fact, 301 people attended (17 Feb. 1931), indicating that the original aim to be mainly 'social' was supported enthusiastically. It indicates, as well, the relatively comfortable circumstances of the membership's wider circle.
The effects of the Depression were alluded to at the 1931 annual meeting when the president expressed the hope that members would not resign due to financial pressures, but that 'the society should carry on with every member irrespective of ability to pay the subscriptions'. The Depression accounted for the notable absence of overseas guests (19 Oct. 1931) and by 1932 its impact on members of the Women Writers motivated the establishment of their own Members' Friendly Fund, 'a general fund for calls upon the society'. An improved economic position nationally is suggested at the end of 1934 when the Fund was in a prosperous condition, no calls having been made on it during the year. (8)
The highlight of the Women Writers' Depression years was Ink, their highly successful publication produced for Christmas 1932 release. The project was suggested by Bertha Maxwell and edited and managed by Connie Robertson (6 July; 14 Dec. 1932). Ink was a single-volume collection of short stories, articles and poetry by Australian writers and included various genres of visual art. Contributors of the 84 items which make up the volume included A.G. Stephens, Brian Fitzpatrick, May Gibbs, Kenneth Slessor, David McKee Wright, Pixie O'Harris, S. Elliott Napier, Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston, Lennie Lower and Katharine Susannah Prichard, in addition to almost all of the Society of Women Writers' membership. While a study of the contents of Ink would illuminate various issues of the day, many of the offerings show these women writers in a more intimate light than do the records of the society itself: they are shown as sophisticated and having a lively sense of humour. To give a few examples, there is an amusing story by Zora Cross which compares The Sentimental Bloke with Homer's The Odyssey, parodies of contemporary overseas poetry, and a sketch which pokes fun at the society's luncheons--during the guest of honour's speech, some of the women whisper unflattering comments to each other and roll their eyes, metaphorically, at the cliches.
The annual meeting in October 1933 was held as a High Tea at David Jones. The secretary's report noted that although the year had been a quiet one, many guests had been entertained and spoken on their special subjects--'literature, journalism, music, travel, etc.'. Membership remained at between 60 and 70. A recommendation was made by the secretary, Bertha Maxwell, who is notable for her suggestions for practical efforts to encourage Australian literature (it was Maxwell who had suggested Ink):
that the Society should institute a short story competition, and also investigate other possible ways of encouraging new writers and original work. There is no reason why this Society should not become a powerful force in this matter--one whose approval would be well worth possessing by aspiring writers. (Secretary's Report for 1932-33, 20 Oct. 1933)
The years 1933-34 saw more young, working women elected to the committee, this time under the presidency of Isabel Gullett. (9) A notable exodus of members to England and Europe seems to herald improved economic conditions: Nora Kelly (13 March and 26 Oct. 1934), Blanche d'Alpuget (18 April 1934), Jessie Urquhart (13 March and 27 June 1934), and Violet Roche (27 June 1934) were among those entertained at luncheons prior to their departure. Towards the end of 1934 the forthcoming Melbourne Centenary celebrations were discussed, and members reminded that the overseas press representatives provided potential guests for the luncheons in October and November.
The year marked the end of an era within the Society of Women Painters due to the increased influence of the younger generation and the waning influence of the older women. This change very likely had its catalyst in the social ferment and politicisation of members during the Depression and mirrors the impulse for change within the literary culture of Sydney. This was most evident in the Fellowship of Australian Writers' more public and controversial sea change at the end of 1934 when the president, George Mackaness, was ousted by a radical, younger faction of the membership. Within the Society of Women Writers, however, 1934 seems to have brought the members harmoniously into a stable routine where the main activities of the society were predicated on the energies and interests of the younger working journalists and the attention to the notion of an Australian literature became part of its intellectual life. At year's end, the secretary's report nominated 1934 as having been 'one of the most eventful' of the society's existence. The membership now stood at 78. Bertha Maxwell's suggestion that the society support Australian writers was recalled, with the secretary expressing her own hope that the society would investigate new ways of encouraging local writers and their work. (10)
In early 1935 Book Week--an event organised by the Fellowship of Australian Writers and contributed to by most of Sydney's writers--was held. Two articles written by members of the society shared the same newspaper page, and record the changing experience of women writers in Sydney. Zara Aronson's 'The Early Days' deals mainly with the older writer-journalists; the few women writers published in book form mentioned were Dorothea Mackellar, Ruth Bedford and Zora Cross, all younger writers. Zora Cross's article 'Australian Women Who Write' focussed on contemporary writers, and the difference between the generations in respect of publication is remarkable: many of the women writers were among those she mentioned as having been published in book form, such as Ethel Turner, Mary Gilmore, Miles Franklin, Louise Mack, Ada Holman and Dora Wilcox, and 'a younger generation of writers' including Dulcie Deamer, Vera Dwyer, Ella McFadyen, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Helen Simpson, Dorothy Cottrell, Eleanor Dark, Georgia Rivers, Jessie Urquhart, Mary Mitchell, Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw, Henry Handel Richardson and Winifred Birkett. (Barnard and Eldershaw had joined the Women Writers in 1929, see Report for year ended 30 Sep. 1929.) Cross's description of the women's leisure activities reinforces the claim that they belonged to middle- and upper-class circles, just as the references to 'this national literature' reinforce the assertions of the self-conscious creation of Australian literature by members of the nationalist network:
All of our women writers are well read, none very keen about sport though golf and tennis and sometimes dancing play a part in their leisure moments. All are earnest, sincere workers.... Our women aim at truth in writing just as the men do; and this is characteristically Australian. We do not need to read Russian literature to inspire us to realism. Our country, born of suffering and hardship, has shaped our character, and out of it is coming a literature entirely different from any other. Women are doing their share in the building up of this national literature just as they did their share towards the making and shaping of the nation itself.
In terms of illuminating the wider literary culture of the time, the Society of Women Writers shows the movement of women in journalism from contributors to full-time employees, and the accompanying growth in publication opportunities for women poets and novelists. The social circles and associated activities of the women are revealed as being decidedly middle- and upper-class, and this class base was vitally important to their efforts on behalf of Australian literature because it is due to their relationships and contacts that they were able to wield the influence that they did.
Checklist: Foundation Members of the Society of Women Writers
Mary Salmon: Born 1848. Former English teacher who wrote historical articles for the Sydney Morning Herald Ladies' Page and regular columns for the Sunday Times, the Sunday Sun and the Evening News from early in the twentieth century. Focused on the suburbs and buildings in Sydney. Prominent in movement to preserve buildings under threat of demolition such as the Mint Building and Hyde Park Barracks by writing articles highlighting their historical importance. A contemporary of Mrs Todd. (12)
[Florence] Baverstock: Born 1861, daughter of journalist and politician David Blair, first editor of the Melbourne Age. Started writing in early 1880s as casual contributor to newspapers; wrote leaders as well as features for the Argus. In 1896 became editor of The Bulletin's Women's Letter, 'regarded as the 'blue ribbon' job of its kind in Australia.' Left The Bulletin in 1898 prior to her marriage. Editor Daily Telegraph's women's page from 1907. Editor of the women's section of the Sydney Morning Herald from 1914-1918. After her retirement she continued to contribute to many publications. (Clarke 231-33).
P[ercy] Hunter: Lily, sister of Florence Baverstock. In Melbourne, had written for a weekly, Bohemia. Also casual contributor to the Melbourne Argus (Clarke 231-32).
M[ary] Gilmore: Born 1865. Poet and journalist. Began contributing to newspapers in 1887 while teaching in NSW. Transferred to Sydney in 1890 and continued writing. Spent some years in Paraguay with William Lane's community, returning to Sydney in 1902. Edited the Women's Page of the Worker from 1908 to 1931 (Clarke 225).
[Mary W.] Liddell. Journalist with Evening News in 1926. Committee member of the NSW Institute of Journalists; appointed in 1929 as Lecturer in the Diploma of Journalism course at the University of Sydney along with C. Brunsdon Fletcher, Mungo Lorenz MacCallum, S. Elliott Napier, C.E.W. Bean, A.H. Chisholm, all journalist men-of-letters; and W.H. Ifould, principal librarian of the State Library and chairman of the Henry Lawson Memorial Fund. Mary Liddell's lecture was 'Women's Work in Journalism'. (13)
F[rederick] Aronson: Zara. Born 1864 into a Jewish family in Sydney. Taken to Europe in 1867; returned to Sydney in 1879, marrying at the age of 18 in 1882. Founding member of the Women's Literary Society and a founder of the National Council of Women. Encouraged to write by Lucinda Gullett. Already well-known for her work for charitable organisations and prominent in feminist and literary circles when she joined the Sydney Mail in 1897 to write the 'Ladies' Page'. Also wrote for Town and Country Journal, Illustrated London News, Western Mail, Sunday Times, Sydney Morning Herald, and Brisbane Telegraph (Clarke 243-46).
H[erbert] Curlewis: Ethel Turner. Born 1872 Doncaster, England. Arrived in Sydney 1881. Wrote the children's pages of Illustrated Sydney News and the Town and Country Journal. Contributed verse and stories to The Bulletin. In 1893 published Seven Little Australians which attracted immediate success. In 1896, married Herbert Curlewis, a Sydney barrister. During her career wrote nearly thirty children's books and several plays (Rolfe 75, 123; Clarke 246-48). In 1926, first Patron of Junior Literary Society.
[Brian] Gaynor. Mary. Journalist. (14)
A.E. Wallace. Theodosia, n6e Britton. Born 1871 Melbourne. Moved to Sydney following her father's appointment as chief sub-editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Graduated BA from University of Sydney in 1891. Began contributing to the Melbourne Argus and Australasian, and Sydney Morning Herald. Wrote in support of temperance and feminist causes. Appointed editor of the women's page of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1905. Wrote The Etiquette of Australia, worked on several papers while her children were young, and later wrote syndicated letters for country papers (Clarke 242-43).
J. Fotheringham[e]. Pattie. First woman journalist employed by The Bulletin for its new women's section in 1886. Sister of W.H. Traill, manager and co-owner of The Bulletin. Founder and editor of Young Australia, a children's paper which published one of Marjorie Quinn's stories written when she was about eleven, that is, about 1900 (Clarke 182, 227, 264; Greenopp 176-77; Quinn 64).
[Walter] Armitage. Florence. Lyceum Club member. (15)
Scott. Rose. Cousin of David Scott Mitchell who bequeathed his library and funds to establish Mitchell Library. Prominent social reformer, who died later in the year (1927).
[William] Moore. (Dora Wilcox). Poet. Born 1873, NZ. Taught in NSW. Travelled overseas, married in Europe, was widowed during WWI. Returned to Australia and in 1923 married William Moore, writer, journalist, and art historian. Winner of competition sponsored by the Sydney Morning Herald for ode to commemorate opening of Parliament in Canberra in 1927 (Adelaide 203).
[Alys] Hungerford. Playwright. Her work was performed in a program at the Community Theatre with that of Dora Wilcox and Marguerite Dale, both members of this society.
Wilkinson (B.G.) Possibly Beatrice M. 'B' grade reporter with Consolidated Press until 1939 (AJA Membership card).
F[lorence] Gordon. Journalist closely involved with the late nineteenth-century feminist movement in Sydney. Later prominent in the formation of the Country Women's Association. In 1894 published a lengthy report, 'The Conditions of Female Labour and the Rates of Women's Wages in Sydney' in the Australian Economist (Kingston 92, 100).
[Mary] Roche. Published poetry in newspapers (see Roche).
[Julia] Glasheen. Journalist with the Telegraph (Quinn 343a).
M[arjorie] Quinn. Born 1889. In 1949, in a letter to the Prime Minister Ben Chifley, appealed for support for her application for a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension. Quinn's uncle, poet Roderic Quinn, described her as 'a free-lance writer of prose and verse of more than average merit', whose work as a foundation member and first secretary of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, foundation member of the PEN Club, and secretary of the Society of Women Writers had 'helped to create that atmosphere of culture in Australia without which few books of enduring account would be read and relished, and few written' (Stone 95-96; Quinn 21).
[Abigail] Clancy. Journalist. In 1922, began career as cadet with the Daily Mail, later general reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald and first female reporter to serve regularly as Gallery reporter in State Parliament (Walker 163).
M[ary] Jay. Member, Lyceum Club.
M[arjorie] Wells. Journalist with the Sunday Times in 1925. (AJA Membership card).
[Helen] Bennett. Junior grade journalist with South's Newspapers Ltd in 1926. By 1935 working for Smith's Weekly. (16)
Nora Kelly. Editor of The Bulletin's 'Women's Letter', and poet who wrote under the name Nora McAuliffe; one of a number of contemporary 'imaginative women writers immersed in journalism' (AJA membership card; Cross; Quinn 253).
[Vera] Dwyer. Novelist. Born in Tasmania. Worked in journalism, contributing to the children's pages of newspapers. Wrote her first book when still teenaged, with the encouragement of Ethel Turner. Spent some years travelling overseas, returning to Sydney in 1933 (Adelaide 58; Quinn 302).
[Dulcie] Davison. Friend of Marjorie Quinn and later a committee member of Fellowship of Australian Writers. Sister of Frank Dalby Davison (Quinn 251).
Graham. Possibly Mrs M.E. Registered with AJA until 24 Sep. 1923. (AJA Membership card; incomplete).
[Ethel Beatrice] Cowan. Social reporter with the Sun in 1931. (AJA membership card).
D[orothea] Baverstock. Daughter of Florence Baverstock. Joined Sydney Morning Herald in 1926 to assist social editor Jean Williamson, who had succeeded Florence Baverstock. Women's editor of the Daily Telegraph from 1938 (Sourer 128; Walker 164).
[Constance] Stephens. Born 1895. Daughter of A.G. Stephens. Nineteen years with Sun Newspapers as reader, social editress, editor of women's pages, editor of Woman's Budget and Woman. Women's editor of the Sydney Morning Herald from 1936-1962 (Lawson 18, 59; Souter 155,386; Walker 164).
[Gertrude] O'Connor. Journalist. Wrote newspaper articles in the 1920s and author of a memoir held in the Mitchell Library on her brother Henry Lawson and mother Louisa. Social writer Daily Telegraph 1926 (Daniels 189, Item 1560; Prout 17, 36, 48).
Jean Hull. Editor Daily Telegraph children's section (AJA membership card). Later a patron of Junior Literary Society.
I[sabel] Gullett. Journalist. Member of the Women's Literary Society in 1893. Described as 'very grand, did the movie reviews' (for Woman in 1934); 'once so intolerant and so narrow in outlook'; reference to her 'experiences in connection with the studios both in London and in Hollywood'. One of the four daughters of Henry and Lucinda Gullett, both prominent socially--he for his work as newspaper editor in Melbourne and then Sydney; as MLC 1908-1914; and as president of the Shakespeare Society of NSW. His bequest funded the Mackennal Shakespeare memorial statue now located between the Botanical Gardens and the Mitchell Library. Lucinda was the 'Humming Bee' of the Daily Telegraph, a feminist prominent in many philanthropic movements in Sydney until her death in 1900, and a committee member of the Women's Literary Society. Her sister Amy, married Thomas Heney, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald 1903-1918, Brisbane Telegraph 1920-24, and Daily Telegraph 1924-26. (17)
Mrs W. McLeod. Conor O'Brien. In Melbourne a frequent contributor of short stories to the Argus, the Australasian, and the Evening Standard. Took over the women's page of The Bulletin when Louise Mack left in 1901. Married William Macleod, manager of The Bulletin, in 1911 and later wrote Macleod of 'The Bulletin', published 1931 (Clarke 238).
Miss J[ean] Williamson. Journalist who succeeded Florence Baverstock as social editor of Sydney Morning Herald in 1918. In 1928, she and Dolly Baverstock were the only two women members of the Sydney Morning Herald's editorial staff of 45. Moved to the Women's Weekly in 1933 and the Daily Telegraph in 1936, where she was hailed as 'the best-known woman journalist in Australia' (Sourer 128, 155, 160).
[U]na Kidgell. Sister of Ada Holman who was born in 1869 and was a journalist until her marriage in 1901 to William Holman, Labor politician and NSW Premier 1913-1920. Ada Holman became a member of the Society of Women Writers in 1926 (Adelaide 96; Clarke 216-67; SWW Annual Report 1926).
R[uth] Bedford. Born 1882, Sydney. Poet, playwright, children's author. Niece of Randolph Bedford and granddaughter of Sir Alfred Stephen. Worked as freelance writer and journalist. Lived at 'Carromar', Jersey Road, Woollahra, not far from Dorothea Mackellar, her friend and collaborator in two works of fiction. Co-founder with Mackellar of PEN in Sydney. (Adelaide 13; Quinn 119).
J[osephine] Fotheringham[e]. Sister-in-law of Pattie Fotheringhame. Referred to as a journalist by Zara Aronson (Clarke 264).
D[orothea] Mackellar. Born 1885. Poet, novelist. From wealthy, establishment family who lived in 'Rosemont', a well-known house in Woollahra; her father was a knighted Macquarie Street surgeon. Mackellar was in England from 1927-30 and in 1931, co-founded PEN with Ruth Bedford. (W.H. Wilde et al 445; Clarke 128; Quinn 119).
F. Marley. Possibly F. Marlay. 'D' grade journalist with Sun Newspapers--1931 (AJA membership card).
Fisher. Mary Lucy (Lala) (1872-1929). Journalist, poet, friend of Henry Lawson and Mary Gilmore. Edited the Sydney Theatre Magazine and an anthology of Australian prose and verse, By Creek and Gully, 1899 (Wilde and Moore 382).
Agnes Mowle. Employed by the Sydney Mail. Retired in 1929 after 27 years in charge of the women's pages (Clarke 220; 4 March 1929; Aronson).
Cox-Taylor. Miss M. Employed by The Bulletin. Mentioned as convenor of the Lyceum Club Literary Circle; published articles in the Sydney Morning Herald. (18)
[Blanche] D'Alpuget. Journalist with The Bulletin. (19)
[Ella May] McFayden [McFadyen]. Born 1891(?) NSW. Poet, journalist, children's author. Worked as journalist for the Sydney Mail from 1918-1938 (Adelaide 125).
Mrs G. Taylor. Florence. Australia's first woman architect, engineer, town-planner. With her artist and writer husband, George A. Taylor, (of Those Were the Days fame) founded a commercial printery, the publications of which included Building, Commonwealth Home, Building and Engineering, Construction, Australasian Engineer, and Building, Lighting and Engineering (Macleod 52; 'Florence Taylor'; Souter 426).
Mrs. [R.H.] Todd. Ellen Joy. Journalist on several Sydney papers including Dawn, Echo, Illustrated Sydney News, and first editor of Women's Budget. Author of Looking Back: Some Early Recollections of Mrs R.H. Todd, published in 1938. Member Women's Literary Society (Clarke 167, 230).
Mrs Kettlewell. Agnes Storrie (9 Aug. 1933). Journalist. Daily Telegraph 1933. Included in Alice Henry's 1937 bibliography of Australian women writers (Clarke 188).
(1) Minutes, First Committee Meeting, 17 Sep. 1925; Society of Women Writers of New South Wales Constitution and Rules. This document shows Viscountess Burnham as Hon. Life Member of the Society of Women Writers and President of the Society of Women Journalists (London). Mitchell Library Pamphlet File A820.6/S.
(2) First Minute Book, unpag. Minutes, Preliminary Meeting of Society of Women Writers, 7 Sep. 1925. Mitchell Library MSS 4222.
(3) NSW Institute of Journalists Annual Reports 1912-35. Circular 2 July, 1956. The circular is filed with the reports at the Mitchell Library.
(4) The election of officers resulted in a committee headed by Florence Baverstock as President: Mary Gilmore, Pattie Fotheringhame, Mary Liddell, and Isabel Gullett as Vice-Presidents; Agnes Mowle and Blanche D'Alpuget as Hon. Treasurers; and Zara Aronson as Hon. Secretary. The 15 committee members were Mrs A.E.N. Wallace, Mrs Brian Gaynor, Mrs D. Moodie [AJA Card states: Social editress, Sunday Times. Left journalism 18 June 1928], Mrs Mary Salmon, Miss Jean Williamson, Miss May Dexter, Miss Abbie Clancy, Miss Mary Roche, Miss Nora Kelly, Miss Helen Bennett, Miss G. O'Connor, Miss F.S. Marley, Miss Vera Dwyer, Miss Constance Stephens and Miss Cox-Taylor. Dorothea Mackellar was originally listed as a member of the general committee but her name was crossed through; Miss Cox-Taylor took her place.
(5) Minute Book 12 July 1926, and following page.
(6) '75th Anniversary Appeal Circulars--Sydney University.' Constance Stephens and Jean Williamson were part of the 200 strong General Committee. Q378.944S/L35 Fisher Library.
(7) 'The Society of Women Writers of NSW, Sydney, 1932', an advertisement for the society in Ink 1932. There are no other references to the issue of world peace, and no record of the discussion which resulted in it becoming one of the society's aims.
(8) Report of the Hon. Sec. of the Society of Women Writers of NSW for the year 1933-34. Presented 26 October 1934.
(9) Minute book following Secretary's Report 1932-33. Vice Presidents were Dr Sandford Morgan, Mesdames William Moore and Fotheringhame, and Miss Blanche d'Alpuget; Secretary Jessie Urquhart; Treasurer Agnes Mowle; Committee: Mesdames E.M. Bailey, John Barlow, L. Goodisson, W.K. Robertson, T. Wallace, I. Clarke, Misses Cowan, de Loitte, C. Grant, G. O'Connor, J. O'Neill, D. Payter, V. Roche, M. Wells, and M.A. Robertson. The position of secretary was assumed later by Megan Sharpe when Jessie Urquhart left for overseas, with Connie Robertson resuming these duties when Sharpe regretfully found they 'interfered with her work' (Minutes 13 March and 27 June 1934).
(10) Report of the Hon. Secretary of the Society of Women Writers of NSW for the year 1933-34, read 26 Oct. 1934.
(11) The stylistic convention of the period for recording the names of members put the married women first; if their husbands were still alive, the women carried the partner's initials; if widowed or divorced, they reverted to their own initials. Therefore, Mrs. William Moore, but Mrs Mary Liddell. (Mary Gilmore was more difficult to categorise: she is always Mrs Gilmore or Mary Gilmore; although not divorced, Mary Gilmore and her husband lived in different states). The unmarried women were then listed. The list of the incoming committee for 1929/30 (Minutes 30 Sep. 1929) is notable for applying a strict alphabetical order (with one exception), without separating married and unmarried members.
(12) Reference to 'Miss Wright, afterwards Mrs Salmon' as a journalist who assisted the writer. Cited in Todd 11-12 and Fletcher 98; 131-32.
(13) Australian Journalists' Association: Annual Report and Balance Sheet for year ended 30 June 1926. List of members; Letterhead showing office-bearers of NSW Institute of Journalists used in letter from A.H. Chisholm to JLGB 2 May, 1930 (ML MS 281/4); and Calendar of the University of Sydney for the Year 1930, pp.904, 905; UR 18 April, 1929, p.50.
(14) Australian Journalists' Association membership card. Incomplete, but notes 'resigned 13 December 1926--left Commonwealth'. This fits with SWW Report for year ending 12 Sep. 1927 in Minute Book, which notes she 'sailed' early April 1927.
(15) All About Books 14 Aug. 1934:167 refers to her as President of the Pioneers' Circle of the Lyceum Club.
(16) AJA membership card; Australian Journalists' Association--Annual Report and Balance Sheet for year ended 30 June, 1926. List of members.
(17) Women's Literary Society: List of members 1893; Lawson 128, 156; Secretary's Report since June 1936; Henry Gullett ADB; Clarke 207-10; Souter 608, 624; Quinn 88.
(18) NSW Institute of Journalists Annual Report and Balance Sheet 1914-15; and AAB, April 12, 1935: .70.
(19) AJA--Annual Report and Balance Sheet for Year ended 30 June, 1926. List of members.
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Publication information: Article title: Society of Women Writers 1925-1935. Contributors: Heath, Lesley - Author. Journal title: Australian Literary Studies. Volume: 21. Issue: 3 Publication date: May 2004. Page number: 362+. © 1999 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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