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The United Associations of Women (1929 - )

From
18 December 1929
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Occupations
Feminist Organisation
Alternative Names
  • United Associations
  • United Associations of Women Workers

Summary

The United Associations of Women (U.A.) was one of the most radical feminist groups of the mid twentieth century. It was formed in Sydney, New South Wales, in 1929 by women who perceived a need for a more politically forceful alternative to the range of Australian women's organisations already in existence. Concerned that groups like the National Council of Women and the Feminist Club had become, by the late 1920s, social clubs rather than political lobby groups, Jessie Street, who had been an office-bearer of both the aforementioned organisations, but had become increasingly frustrated by their conservativism, took action. A series of meetings late in 1929 involving Street and other like-minded women such as Linda Littlejohn, Ruby Rich and Adela Pankhurst Walsh culminated in the establishment of the United Associations on 18 December 1929. The UA was extremely active throughout the 1930s and 40s, and played a major role in organising the Australian Women's Charter Conference in 1943.

Details

The interwar period saw Australian women establishing clubs and joining organisations at an extraordinary rate. The battle for woman suffrage had been won, but there was still much to be achieved by and on the behalf of women. By the late 1920s, however, many committed feminists felt that the existing women's organisations were too conservative and not forceful enough in their attempts to achieve gender equality. Inspired by the activities of a group of similarly dissatisfied English feminists (The Open Door Council), whose singular aim was to focus on women's economic needs and their rights to equal work for equal pay, regardless of marital status, a number of prominent Australian feminists joined forces to form the United Associations of Women Workers (UA). Jessie Street resigned from the Feminist Club in 1929 to become the UA's first president. She was joined by the presidents of three other important New South Wales women's organisations: Mrs. A Roberts of the Women's League; Mrs Dougall-Laing of the Women's Service Club and Mrs. Linda Littlejohn of the Women Voters' Association. Jessie Street was elected president, with the leaders of the other organisations becoming vice presidents. In quick time, the membership of the organisation grew to well over 200. Mary Bennett, Ada Bronham, Dymphna Cusack and Ruby Rich were all members at one time or another.

The new association operated under the motto 'For freedom and equality of status and opportunity' and had a wide range of objectives. They aimed to:

1. Achieve by legislation, administration, organisation or any other means considered advisable, a real equality of status, opportunity and liberties for mean and women.
2. Secure equal pay for men and women and equality in all laws, rules and regulations.
3. Secure economic independence for married women.
4. Improve the legal status of mothers.
5. Promote an equal moral standard for men and women.
6. Support the candidature of qualified women for public office, who shall have pledged themselves to support constitutional methods and who shall be endorsed by the Council.
7. To promote the welfare of children.
8. To promote the study of social, political and economic questions.
9. To promote international peace and understanding.
10. To secure an amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia to provide that men and women shall have equal rights in Australia and all territories under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Government.

The women of the UA campaigned vigorously to achieve these aims in the 1930s and 40s. The highpoint of this political activism, arguably, was seen when representatives of over ninety women's organisations met in Sydney, Australia, in November 1943, at the Australian Women's Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace. Organised at a time when planning for peace was a politically bi-partisan priority, the conference focused on one over-riding question: how would women's interests be advanced in the planning of post war reconstruction? An important outcome of the conference was the development of a charter of rights for women in the post-war world. The Australian Women's Charter, regarded as a land-mark feminist manifesto, was endorsed by the conference and represents a moment in time when Australian women prioritised the single category of gender over other political categories.

Once the war was over, however, this fragile unity was shattered as the politics of the cold war came to impact upon the politics of postwar feminism. Many of the more conservative women's groups were confronted by Jessie Streets communist sympathies and chose to break ties with the U.A. For instance, the U.A.'s relationship with the Australian Federation of Women voters was harmed to breaking point by Cold War tensions. Furthermore, as time progressed, some of the U.A.'s causes were taken up my other political groups: the trade union movement, for instance, took up the struggle for equal pay. In the 1960s many of its objectives were met, as married women entered the workforce and some women achieved equal pay. A victim of it's own success, the organization continued to assist with the major campaigns of the 1970s, however, its membership and financial base had by the late 1970s could no longer support it as an independent entity.

Sources used to compile this entry: Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999, 316 pp; Mitchell, Winifred, 50 years of feminist achievement : a history of the United Associations of Women, United Associations of Women, Sydney, [1979?], 106 pp; Radi, Heather (ed.), Jessie Street : documents and essays, Women's Redress Press, Broadway, N.S.W., c1990, 293 pp; Saunders, Kay and Bolton, Geoffrey, 'Girdled for War: Women's Mobilisations in World Wat Two', in Saunders, Kay and Bolton, Geoffrey (eds), Gender relations in Australia : domination and negotiation, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Sydney, c1992, pp. 376-397.

Related entries

Foundation member

  • Littlejohn, Emma Linda Palmer (1883 - 1949)

    In 1928 Littlejohn launched the NSW League of Women Voters to support female candidates for public office and to press for feminist reforms. While she was president the league became a foundation affiliate of the United Associations of Women

Related Cultural Artefacts

Archival resources

Mitchell and Dixson Libraries Manuscripts Collection, State Library of New South Wales

  • Kathleen Sherrard Papers, 1918 - 1975, ML MSS 2950; Mitchell and Dixson Libraries Manuscripts Collection, State Library of New South Wales. Details
  • United Association of Women - Records, c. 1930 - 1970, MLMSS 2160; The United Associations of Women (1929 - ); Mitchell and Dixson Libraries Manuscripts Collection, State Library of New South Wales. Details
  • United Associations of Women Records, c. 1930 - 1978, ML MSS 2160/ML MSS 2160 ADD-ON 427/ML MSS 2160 ADD-ON 1317; Mitchell and Dixson Libraries Manuscripts Collection, State Library of New South Wales. Details

National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection

  • Papers of Jessie Street, 1914 - 1968, MS 2683; Street, Jessie Mary Grey (1889 - 1970); National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection. Details
  • Records of the Australian Women's Charter, c. 1944 - 1967, MS 2302; Australian Women's Charter (1943 - ); National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection. Details

Nikki Henningham

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