Women’s political activism in the Australian Labor Party in the Early 1900s in Western Australia

Part 2

Robin Joyce


 This paper is a section of an article published in Marian Simms , Australian Women and the Political System , Longman Cheshire, 1984.


Although not so prominent as Jean Beadle (see WHN Blog, July 30, 2017 and January 21, 2018) there were numerous women who held significantly political (as opposed to ‘housekeeping’ roles) in the Australian Labor Party (ALP).  These names are found in archives, papers, and theses, but rarely advance into general histories of the labour movement. Such omissions continue the myth that Labor women were housekeepers rather than activists. Some fault lies with the lack of records. However, history should be about delving into fragments to decipher the story (see, for example, WHN Blog November 10, 2017 and May 07, 2017, Katrina Lockwood).

Henrietta Hooten, the Labor women’s representative on the Westralian Worker, [1]union activists, Labor Congress delegate, candidate for Senate pre-selection[2] and pamphlet and article author is a woman whose recorded activities epitomise the fragmentary nature of the available evidence.  She is mentioned fleetingly in many political capacities demonstrating that she probably played a significant role in Labor political endeavour. However, the record of her role is limited, the most important in terms of material being a debate through the columns of the Westralian Worker on her suitability as a Senate candidate. In 1930 she was deemed important enough to be invited to a meeting of the State Executive and Metropolitan Council representatives with the Parliamentary Labor Party. This was a high level of conclave which implies a certain level of capacity about its participants. Again, despite what appears to have been a commendable apprenticeship for parliamentary office, like Jean Beadle, she was unsuccessful in her bid for pre-selection, even for the most popular house for women candidates, the Senate.

Similarly, short biographies of members of the Labor Women’s Organisations show that they reached prominence in a number of capacities in those organisations, and more significantly, in party positions where they had a high profile amongst mixed groups. [3] Elsie McCallum, later known as Mrs WD Johnson (changing her name upon marriage, another device which succeeds in making women invisible) , was a delegate to the 1900 Labor Congress and in 1910 was elected General Treasurer of the State Branch of the ALP. In the same period, Jean Beadle, Madge Cort and Jessie Johnson were delegates to Congress where they sat on committees and were commended by the Westralian Worker as having the skills of trained politicians.

Over the whole period there is evidence in photographs, lists of delegates and Congress Reports and in Labor Women’s Souvenirs that at least several women (no fewer than three and sometimes six or seven) were delegates to most Congresses. That their access to Congresses was through women’s and mixed branches, District Councils and unions indicates that women were accepted, albeit in small numbers, as legitimate activists in this sphere by all organs of the ALP.

Labor women were included in the more important and public aspects of political activism through their work in election campaigns. Mrs Jane Ryan organised the goldfields electorates of Kalgoorlie and Hannans at state and federal elections and other women were actively sought to speak at rallies.  Women were keen to represent the party in parliament also, and there were several instances of women having sought pre-selection or expressing interests in doing so. This indicates that may Holman’s unique success (see WHN Blog, …) as an ALP candidate in 1924 for the south west electorate of Forrest, was not due to women’s lack of parliamentary ambition.

Ballots at other levels of the party were not so difficult to win, elections for state executive and committee positions at branches or councils often returning women. One, Alice Rapley, held positions as President, Vice-President or Secretary in her branch until at least 1933. She was also a delegate to Metropolitan Council for several years, until 1918. Mrs Jabez Dodd , an activist with the Labor Women’s Organisations in later years , was a delegate to State Congress in 1907, a member of a select committee in 1908 and an auditoer to the Eatern Goldfields Council. [4]

From the evidence available it is reasonable to assume that the women’s prominence suggests that they were capable, committed and visible members of the ALP and had served commendable political apprenticeships through the early 1900s in Western Australia. It is also reasonable to suggest that those women who did not contribute to organised Labor Women’s activities and remain invisible because of their concentration in the mainstream were of a similar capacity. The main difference between the two groups of women is that through Labor Women’s activities members were exposed to feminist ideology through contact with overseas and interstate feminists and their publications. Women who were not exposed to such ideas, because they were rarely promoted so thoroughly in mainstream Labor politics, had fewer expectation from their dedication.

[1] The official organ of the party, the Australian Labor Party newspaper.

[2] The section of candidates to represent the ALP in elections.

[3] Labor Women’s Souvenirs 1933 and 1937.

[4] Labor Women’s Souvenirs 1933 and 1937 and Evelyn Wood Papers.