Our History
Our History

Beginnings abroad | Australian beginnings | A national council of women for NSW | Women as full citizens | Domestic sciences | Equal pay for equal work | Liquor selling hours | Care of young children | Migration and settlement | International relations and peace | Social welfare | Women and domestic violence | Affordable housing and refuge centres | Women and politics

More than 120 years on, who were our founding women? NCW NSW is investigating.
Beginnings abroad

In 1840, when the great World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London, four women arrived as members of the American Delegation. The convention organisers declared that the presence of women at all male convention was “subversive of the principles and traditions of the country and contrary to the word of God”. The women were ultimately allowed access but were restricted to a curtained gallery.
When they returned home in 1848 they called the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. These conventions continued periodically in America until 1888 when, in Washington, representatives of seven countries - England, France, Norway, Denmark, Finland, India, Canada and the United States - decided to set up a permanent organisation to be known as the National Council of Women. Each country would establish its own national council and an international council would coordinate the work worldwide.

Australian beginnings

In 1893 Margaret Windeyer was appointed as the NSW Commissioner to the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in that year. Records show that Miss Windeyer was quite an extraordinary person and reportedly the best woman speaker in the Commonwealth. Her father was a judge of the Supreme Court and her mother was a leader in women’s affairs. With their support, Miss Windeyer emerged as a confident and capable woman, championing the rights of women.

Miss Windeyer, along with other women who were involved in their national councils in various parts of the world, met at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in May 1893 - part of the program for the World Exposition. As a result, Miss Windeyer began to develop her plans for the introduction of the concept of a national council in Sydney. 

A national council of women for NSW

Eleven organisations were represented at a meeting at the Sydney Town Hall on 26 August 1896. They included the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; Sydney University Women’s Association; Infants Home; Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW; Education for Deaf, Dumb and Blind; Working and Factory Girls’ Club; Ministering Children’s Fresh Air League; Women’s Hospital and Dispensary; Queen’s Jubilee Fund; Women’s Silk Growing Co-operative and Industrial Association; German Women’s Benevolent Society; and the Women’s Literary Society. The establishment of Women’s College at Sydney University and the Women’s Club are two examples of the innovative foresight of these women. There were a number of women present who were experiencing what we now call 'lived experienced', keen to ensure their rights and the rights of their children were progressed.

Women as full citizens

Since one of the original affiliated organisations was the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW, it was not surprising that one of the first efforts of the Council was directed to obtaining the vote for women. Government social services were unknown. Women’s economic activities were very limited. Teaching and nursing were the only professions considered suitable for women.The number of women working in shops, factories and offices was small and these women generally worked under poor conditions.

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Domestic sciences

One of the first projects was to have 'domestic arts' included in the school curriculum. A deputation was taken to the minister of education on 17 October 1898. A decade later, this resulted in the premier asking the government to set up a Domestic Science College. Finally, in 1944, a request was made to the University of Sydney to establish a Department of Home Science.

At the National Conference in Brisbane in 1994 a resolution was passed to urge the Federal Government to ensure that home economics, which now includes many survival living skills, be included in the national goals of education. With obesity a national health problem the decline in the importance of Home Science in the curriculum is of ongoing concern.

Equal pay for equal work

The question of equal pay for equal work was first introduced in 1896 and has been an ever-recurring subject through the years - pressing equal pay in the teaching service in 1909; women taking men’s jobs during the war in 1915; Basic Wage Commission hearing of 1920; the wage case in Melbourne in 1972; and in later years, supporting any action for implementation of the principle.
Liquor selling hours

Support was given to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s work to reduce hours for the selling of liquors. Although these efforts were successful in the Council's first 50 years, the control of the sale of liquor has almost disappeared. Concern is now being raised about the high levels of liquor advertising in the media and the exposure of children to this advertising.
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Care of young children

In 1908 the care of the very young child and the need for a pure milk supply was being developed. The Alice Rawson School for Mothers (named after the daughter of the state governor who called the first meeting on this topic) was established in 1909. These schools functioned until the end of 1914 when they were taken over by the Department of Public Health as Baby Health centres.

The introduction of kindergartens was also a result of the work done by the founding women of NCW NSW. In 1910 the need for children’s playgrounds in the inner areas of Sydney was raised. Other positive action resulted in the 1910 Girls' Protection Bill, Custody of Infants Bill, Family Maintenance Bill and Equal Guardianship of Children Bill. Other action also brought results: 1918, the provision of nursery schools; 1920, motherhood endowment; 1921, registration and control of midwives; 1922, maternity allowance; 1922, the establishment of a Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Sydney; 1925, Child endowment again, 1926, infant mortality and mothercraft training; 1929, equal guardianship of children with men; 1939, Child Welfare Bill; 1958-9 permissible age of marriage.
Migration and settlement

Beginning in 1911, problems associated with migration began to receive the attention of the Council. In 1915 there was the question of the establishment of hostels for immigrant girls. Assistance has been given to migrant women over many years.

The need to inform immigrant men and women of the different attitude that is held in law in this country with regard to violence and abuse against women is still a subject requiring attention. The International Council of Women accepted Australia’s resolution that the practice of female genital mutilation be recognised as an act of abuse against women and girls and that the United Nations condemn it under the Human Rights legislation. It was agreed that migrants coming to this country need to be informed of our laws and attitudes to this practice. A recent problem has arisen with the exploitation of child brides.The matter of refugee children being held in detention centres is also a recent issue being addressed.

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International relations and peace

The support of the concept of the preservation of peace resulted in the urging for the formation of the League of Nations that eventually became the United Nations. In 1918, as soon as the First World War was over, the International Council of Women requested an audience to present women’s views on the Covenant of the League of Nations then being drafted. The ICW also presented to the Labour Commission of the Peace Conference a program covering the 44 hour week, compulsory school until 15 years of age, equal pay and a minimum wage for piece work carried out in the home. An audience with President Wilson of the USA was achieved on 10 April 1919 when a Joint Delegation formed by the ICW and Inter-Allied Conference of Women Suffragists appeared before a Plenary Session of the Commission.Description of photo here
  1. Eligibility of women to occupy posts in bodies of the League. Accepted.
  2. Nations entering the League to agree to suppress traffic in women and children and license houses. First step was the subsequent establishment of an Advisory Committee of the League on Traffic in Women and Children.
  3. Recognition of the principle of women’s suffrage, with equal consultation of women and men whenever a referendum was taken in regard to changes of nationality. 2nd point immediately accepted.
  4. Creation of International Bureaus of Education. Subsequently achieved.
  5. Creation of International Bureau of Public Health. Subsequently achieved.
  6. The final statement was in favour of the control and reduction of armaments.
Strong connections are still held at the international level where ICW enjoys Category 1 recognition for its universal efforts for women and children. At the local level during 1994 and 1995 a series of workshops were organised in association with two other women’s groups. The series of six seminar/workshops were an effort to assist in the preparation of the women who were interested in attending the 4th UN World Conference for Women that was held just out of Beijing in 1996. One hundred and eighty women from New South Wales registered their intention of attending this important conference. Over 100 of those women attended these seminar/workshops and reported back on the advantage they felt because they had received this preparation beforehand. The National Council of Women is closely involved in monitoring the commitments made by the Australian government at that conference for the advancement of women in this country.
Social welfare

The need for trained social workers was recognised in 1927 with a deputation to the Senate of the University of Sydney requesting such a development. This request was not acceded to, so the Council took the initiative and in 1929 took the first steps in the foundation of the Board of Social Study and Training. This work was eventually taken over by the University of Sydney as the Board of Social Studies. Many initiatives were developed during the Great Depression with caring for unemployed women and girls. A sewing depot and a hostel were part of the practical care given. This later passed to the care of a special committee that later developed into the Big Sister Movement - at that time an affiliated member of NCW NSW. The role of the Council continues to be active in resolving social issues that give opportunities for improvements in the qualities of the lives of women and children. Because of the change of attitudes of governments to the acceptance of social responsibility many of these issues are now addressed within the Department of Family and Community Services.
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Women and domestic violence

The Council raised the matter of violence against women during its first decade. It has been a continuing project. Starting in 1993 a series of three seminars were held at Parliament House under the broad concept of Men and Women Against Violence. We have seen many legislative changes that resulted from the recommendations from the seminars to give women greater protection at law. Two of the seminars were specifically designed to showcase programs in schools that resulted in the lowering of violence and learning of skills in conflict resolution. The department, as part of their support, distributed copies of the papers to all the schools in NSW. 

Affordable housing and refuge centres

A main focus in recent years has been that of homelessness and advocacy for the provision of affordable and social housing to alleviate the present untenable situation. In the light of changes in government policy regarding the funding of women’s refuges and the way in which funds are distributed, this focus has expanded to include advocating for better provision of services in this especially difficult area. The increased awareness of domestic violence and lack of adequate crisis accommodation has led Council and its advisers to examine where our advocacy should be directed. In 2014 a letter was prepared to be forwarded to the relevant state government ministers and shadow ministers regarding the women’s refuge situation. We asked that domestic violence services be reinstated to their former level and that gender-specific refuges be re-funded to enable professional support to be available on a 24-hour basis. 
Women and politicsDescription of photo here

At the International Council of Women’s Meetings in 1898 papers were presented and printed on Women into Politics. This has been an ongoing discussion point. It took 75 years to get 15% representation of women into Australian Parliament. Now all major parties provide training and mentoring opportunities for women in this area. There is still some way to go though!
Thanks to Joan Elliston AM, past president, Hon Life Vice-President NCWA, for the research and compilation of this history

120 YEARS ON ...

For more about our  history, special landmark events and timeline, download our 120TH-YEAR COMMEMORATIVE BOOKLET.

Our founding women ... Who were they?
Last year during our 120th celebrations some of our members have been revisiting the history of the organisation and discovering just what these
remarkable founding women were up to.Description of photo here
The Australian Federation of Graduate Women NSW investigate Louisa MacDonald.

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