Academic journal article Hecate

The Feminist Club of NSW, 1914-1970: A History of Feminist Politics in Decline

Academic journal article Hecate

The Feminist Club of NSW, 1914-1970: A History of Feminist Politics in Decline

Article excerpt

The Feminist Club of NSW was formed in 1914 by Mrs. Barker-Young, as a small club where women could meet for regular discussions in politics, economics and sociology, and establish a library. Little is known of these formative years as the surviving records of the Feminist Club begin in October 1929. However, a brief history of the Club printed in the Sydney Morning Herald women's page in 1930 notes that in 1914 Mrs. Barker-Young was "a girl recently married" and that she resigned from the presidency after three years, in order to maintain her husband's business during his enlistment. From the first meeting it was decided to cooperate with any group sharing similar aims. As a result, the twenty members of the Feminist Club took part in "movements for the amelioration of social conditions."(1) In the ensuing years, the Feminist Club continued to grow and enlarge its aims and objectives to the extent that there was seemingly little resemblance to the intellectual `salon' envisaged by Barker-Young. From its inception to its closure in the early 1970s, the image projected and the issues pursued by the Feminist Club depended largely upon the personality and the political interests (if any) of the various Club presidents. This paper is concerned with the reformist activities of the Feminist Club and the Club's transition from a political power base to an essentially social institution.

The earliest recorded public action taken by the Feminist Club involved the lobby for the introduction of the Women's Legal Status Act. Members of the Feminist Club joined the initial deputation to the Attorney General, D.R. Hall in 1915, which led to his introduction of a Bill in the 1916 parliamentary session.(2) However, there is evidence to suggest that the initial impetus for the Bill, which removed barriers to women's entry to the legal profession, parliament and other public offices originally came from women in the labour movement, most notably Annie Golding.(3)

It was not until 1918, the year in which the Bill was passed, that the Feminist Club took a more prominent role. In 1918, Mrs. B. Dale, President of the Feminist Club, addressed the third delegation to approach the Attorney General. Although it was organized by Annie Golding, this delegation was led by Lady Helen McMillan of the conservative National Council of Women and included other non-Labour feminists, notably Rose Scott and Laura Bogue Liffman. Along with other speakers, Dale was critical of the failure of the Bill to provide for women conveyancers, the limitation of the jurisdiction of women J.P.s to the Children's Court and the failure to accept women as jurors, despite admitting them to the legal profession. D.A. Hall could not accept the latter demand, because he believed that too few women could meet the £300 property qualification to make a viable list. It is evident from the lack of protest about the property qualification itself, that by 1918, the labour feminists had lost their dominating influence over the women's movement in Sydney.(4)

Twenty years later, Nerida J. Cohen, a barrister associated with the Feminist Club and later the United Associations of Women, noted with regret the impotence of the Women's Legal Status Act. She accepted that the field opened to women by the Act was largely professional, and by implication, of value only to middle class women. While the Act did little or nothing to widen the opportunities of working class women, the professional ambit of middle class women was also narrow. As Cohen points out, the Women's Legal Status Act entitled women to sit as magistrates on the Children's Court Bench. It did not, however, admit them to the section of the Justice Department from which Children's Court Judges were selected. Thus, the formal entitlement to practice law did not confer upon women a substantive right to a full and equal professional life.

The power and reputation of the Feminist Club was enhanced under the forceful leadership of Millicent Preston Stanley (later known as Mrs. …

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