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 significant role in important policy changes such as the:
- Passing of equal pay legislation in 1972, which saw women 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.
How it began
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. Such a lobby group had already formed in Melbourne. 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.
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.
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. Initially the unions saw us as ‘meddling in their business’, ie., meddling in matters they had not solved satisfactorily for their women members for over a century.
This article is adapted from Joan Bielski’s 1997 Article ‘WEL Celebrates 25 Years 1972-1997′
Making Women Count
The history of WEL is very well documented in the book “Making Women Count” by Marian Sawer with Gail Radford. You can read the first and last chapters of the book at: http://wel.anu.edu.au/Ch.1.pdf and http://wel.anu.edu.au/Ch.8.pdf
The book can also be purchased from UNSW press.
The first 40 years of WEL–ACT
A brief history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby–ACT prepared by Gail Radford, with Marian Sawer and Erica Fisher, for the Australian Women’s Archives Project’s exhibition From Lady Denman to Katy Gallager–A Century of Women’s Contribution to Canberra. Read the full history here.
ANU’s WEL History
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.
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.”
For good reason.