The Tasmanian Women’s Non-Party Political League first met in January 1922. It’s striking to stop and consider the campaigns that were carried out by the women who gathered on that day. They battled for better and healthier communities on multiple fronts: doing whatever was necessary to have their voices heard on committees; continually lobbying politicians for a social safety net and for a range of measures which would ease the burden of families; pushing for greater educational opportunities for young women; running female candidates for political office; raising funds and educating and encouraging families that were often faced with great hardship.
The battles fought by these women, in the 1920s and 30s, had a more direct and lasting impact on contemporary Australian life than most military battles that were fought on foreign soil but these women are hardly known today and they have no place of remembrance and we are all diminished by that absence.
The newly-formed Tasmanian Women’s Non-Party Political League has declared that its objects are: (1) To put forward a woman candidate at the next election; (2) to obtain full civic rights for women; (3) to improve the conditions of education and public health and obtain firmer consideration of social and moral questions; (4) the immediate bringing into force of the Mental Deficiency Act.
Advocate (Burnie), 31 January 1922
The idea of a “non-party league” reflected their ideal that solidarity among women, in making their views heard and in gaining greater opportunities for civic participation, should have precedence over any party political allegiances.
The women of the league could be found, throughout the 1920s and beyond, lobbying state and federal ministers about a broad range of issues including: issues related to the plight of war widows and their children; the poor state of public schools and hospitals; the lack of resources for poor families; the need for a social welfare safety net and improved access to education particularly for young girls.
Their aspiration did not end with making their voices heard through lobbying. They wanted to see women in positions of power where they could be directly involved in the debates, judgements and legislative processes that had a direct bearing on the nature and direction of the Tasmanian community.
Mrs F. B. Edwards, who presided at the recent meeting in Hobart when the Women’s Non-Party Political League was formed, said they were not out to abuse men. They remembered that their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons were men. Men had given them the right to equal responsibility with them in the government of the State, a little slowly perhaps, but all the more appreciated for that. And they were already asking for more. They now wanted full civic rights, that was to say, the right to sit on Hospital Boards, the State Children’s Board, Charitable Grants Board, Municipal Councils, and to hold such positions as justices of the peace, especially in children’s and similar courts. All those positions were open to women in England long before they were allowed the right to sit in Parliament.
Advocate (Burnie), 31 January 1922
The league had a particular concern related to the composition of juries. Women were not included on juries, at the time the league was formed, and the women of the league saw that the entirely male judicial status quo resulted in leniency particularly in matters related to rape, domestic violence and men financially abandoning their families. Some of the prominent women in the league were also members of the Women’s Criminal Law Reform Association which was specifically focused on legislation to improve the situation for women and children:
Regarding the recent case of alleged indecent assault on a little girl, the president and secretary (of the Women’s Criminal Law Reform Association) interviewed the Attorney General pointing out the need for these cases being heard by a judge without a jury and the more pressing need for women being on juries.
World (Hobart) 28 March 1922
Mrs Edwards stated at the first meeting of the Women’s Non-Party Political League, regarding finding a candidate to run for the next state election, that they did not expect to find a candidate of some exalted type of superwoman, but rather just an average person, as the greater share of the work of the world was done by the average person.
Edith Alice Waterworth was the league’s first candidate. She may not have been a superwoman but she was certainly more than average. Edith was born in Lancashire in 1873 and emigrated, with her family, to Queensland where she was educated at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. She and her husband, John Waterworth, moved to Hobart in 1909. While John unsuccessfully ran for parliament, Edith created her own forum, for communicating with Tasmanian women, in the Hobart Daily Post.
The first columns of “Woman and Home” in the Daily Post, in early 1911, were of a predictable nature: recipes were shared and advice was given regarding running a house well and attending to one’s health. The column was written by Edith under the pseudonym Hypatia. Hypatia was an Alexandrian woman was a leading mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, in ancient Alexandria, so taking her name as a pseudonym suggested an aspiration beyond simply sharing recipes and home hints. By July 1911, in the midst of those shared recipes and household hints, “Woman and Home” started engaging readers on the issue of women and politics:
Many estimable and well-intentioned women when asked why they do not take any interest in politics say they do not think women should mix themselves up in it, but leave it to men. One has a hazy idea that they desire to give the impression that there is something unbecoming and unwomanly in showing an interest in politics. I have heard some of the best of women speak thus, who in other respects fulfil their duties conscientiously and well. Now, to be a good daughter, sister, wife, or mother is a truly excellent thing, but whether a woman realises it or not, and whether she will admit it or not, the fact remains that she has a further duty outside her home— to the community of which she is a member, and to the race.
Daily Post (Hobart) 11 July 1911
“Woman and Home” provided updates on the suffragette movement in England and the Continent as well as introducing readers to contemporary ideas such as those expressed in Olive Schreiner’s book “Woman and Labour.” The column was not only a vehicle for Edith to express her views. It provided a forum for women, around the state, to engage with these ideas and express the impact it was having on their lives.
I have always read your column with interest and quite agree that women should take an interest in politics and social reform, as well as all matters pertaining to the wellbeing of the human race. I am pleased to hear others share the objection to corsets; without doubt, by discontinuing them, health would be greatly improved.
Daily Post (Hobart) 12 August 1911
Town Girl (Hobart) writes – I like your column in the Daily Post very much. It is so interesting and helpful. As to the question of greater freedom for women, it seems to me our age is the “between the stools age.” We are not content with the old order – dependence on men – nor yet can we find perfect happiness in independence. Yet I think we should have a much wider choice than even the present day system permits. Our intellect entitles us to an equal place with men, and when they recognise this with us, first as fellow-workers then as wives, surely our positions will be bettered.
Daily Post (Hobart) 16 September 1911
The writing of “Woman and Home” stands alongside other publications of the era such as Vida Goldstein’s “Woman Voter” newspaper which not only conveyed news of the European suffragettes but also maintained a strong and controversially pacifist agenda during the First World War.
The men who do not see that the day of women’s work in the world has dawned are wilfully or stupidly blind. When the fact is forced upon their notice they are irritated and retaliate by saying the most unpleasant things they can think of, “Woman is turning herself into a man” and “Only hysterical unmarried women take these matters up.” But the day has gone by when such observations can either ruffle or deter us.
The truth is that the scales have fallen from our eyes, and at last we see the world as it is. We are daring to think for ourselves, with the natural consequence that we are criticising and judging men’s management of the outside world.
“Hypatia” Daily Post (Hobart) 10 July 1915
Edith Waterworth was unsuccessful when she stood to represent Denison, in the Tasmanian Parliament, in both 1922 and 1925. Despite this lack of success her work continued both in the Women’s Non-Party League and, at an international level, in her attendance at the 1924 Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Washington and the 1929 International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Berlin.