A Brief History of WEL in South Australia

Marilyn Rolls

Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL SA) formed in South Australia in July 1972 when the late Dr Deborah McCulloch AM, a feminist and member of Adelaide Women’s Liberation, held a meeting of 13 like-minded women at her home in Adelaide. In their determination to achieve greater equality for women, this independent, non-partisan women’s lobby group had a double purpose: to make elected and aspiring parliamentary representatives aware of the views and needs of women voters, and to inform women voters of political candidates’ attitudes to women’s issues. 

Their initial strategy was to survey all political candidates for the 1972 Federal Election. In order to ascertain and publicise their views on key issues affecting women’s lives, 14 questions were prepared about fertility control, child day-care, abortion, equal pay, education, and on the status of women generally. The announcement of a public meeting to launch this campaign gained wide media publicity. A focus on the daily lives and concerns of women from all walks of life immediately appealed to women who saw no real representation of themselves and their interests in the powerful decision-making sectors of society. By late September, membership had grown to over 100.

WEL SA members sent out their brief questionnaire to the political candidates in August 1972, and 50% replied. Small WEL groups were immediately set up in the North-East, Southern and Hills suburbs and trained to campaign and lobby political candidates and parties in Federal Electorates over the following 5 months. They conducted in-depth question-answer interviews designed by a professional psychologist member. Further publicity in the major Adelaide newspapers about the preliminary results of the interviews (and refusals) attracted large numbers of women, so membership soared, peaking at 1,000. Two weeks before the election, results of the survey interviews were published in The Advertiser in an election form guide that rated individual candidates according to their answers to the questions, and the slogan: ‘Think WEL Before You Vote!’ was adopted. It is unsurprising that Anne Levy AO, as the ALP candidate for Boothby, was one of those rated ‘most recommended’. She subsequently became the first female President of the SA Legislative Council and Life Member of WEL SA.

A monthly newsletter was produced, and teams met to discuss lobbying tactics. Action Groups formed to lobby State and Local Governments about women’s right to work and equal pay. A few older women who had been activists in education and union circles, mentored other members in making submissions on policy issues, organising meetings and conferences, writing letters and media releases, addressing public meetings, and speaking on radio and TV. WEL’s submissions were accurate and well argued, so they formed the basis for subsequent State Departmental writing of legislation. Hundreds of individual letters were written about sexism in many aspects of education, as well as discriminatory practices in industry and government. The experience of being able to shape the political agenda had an immense, positive impact on members’ lives. They felt an excitement never experienced before, of working together for their own and other women’s benefit. It should be remembered that this was a time when all the voluntary work was done by hand, on typewriters, use of ‘phone trees’, manually folding and posting newsletters, notices and invitations, and hundreds of face-to-face meetings! Archived records of the dedication, determination, and commitment of those early WEL SA members is impressive, almost exhausting, to read and think about!

1975 was the United Nations International Year for Women, leading to the United Nations Decade for Women. This provided many opportunities for lobbying and submissions to Federal, State and Local Governments. In their advocacy for women, WEL SA members played a significant role, successfully lobbying for the appointment of a Women’s Adviser to the Premier in November 1975. Deborah McCulloch was appointed by Premier Don Dunstan in May 1976 with the brief ‘to eliminate sexism in the SA public service.’ This led to a focus on major structural, cultural, and systemic change in employment and education, and ongoing Government funding support of key community-based services for women, such as Women’s Emergency Shelters, and the Rape Crisis Centre. WEL SA successfully advocated for the establishment of the Women’s Information Switchboard, later named the Women’s information Service, and for other community-based services such as the Working Women’s Centre, Women’s Community Health Centres, and the Women’s Studies Resource Centre. The North-East group successfully lobbied Premier Don Dunstan to establish the St. Peters Women’s Centre, now known as the Women’s Community Centre.

In 1976, the Premier introduced the SA Sex Discrimination Act – the first anti-discrimination legislation in Australia. This provided an opportunity for significant legislative and structural changes, including equal opportunity being a key factor in interview panels for promotions and appointments. He appointed a Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and four years later, Women’s Advisers were appointed in a number of Government Departments. WEL SA continued to lobby, research, publicise, conduct campaigns, and participate in public debates. Action groups held workshops, ran seminars, and focussed on a vast and expanding array of sexism and discrimination in society – far too many to list here. WEL SA organised a WEL National Conference, networked with other organisations, collaborated with several State Conferences, and in June 1979 became legally incorporated. Women MPs and other women leaders were invited to speak at monthly general meetings. This two-way process of listening, learning, discussion, and feedback was very effective: at one stage, all but one of the women MPs in State Parliament were members of WEL SA.

During the following years, WEL SA set up an office and continued to make submissions on many other legislative and policy reforms, including the age of consent, the needs of women on welfare (particularly Aboriginal women), teaching of English to migrant women, divorce and abortion law reform, rape within marriage, prostitution, domestic violence, sexual harassment, environmental and consumer issues, peace, and women’s election to Parliament. In 1986 WEL SA’s Right-To-Choose Group held a phone-in survey. The results were a major contribution to a Working Party Inquiry into abortion services, and after a six- year campaign, the Pregnancy Advisory Centre was finally established. Women of diverse political persuasions uniting together in non-partisan campaign were so powerful and effective, that one awe-struck male MP was heard to say ‘Gee, you women are solid on this!’ WEL SA also initiated the planning for the year-long celebrations of the 1994 Centenary of Women’s Suffrage in South Australia, being officially represented on its Steering Committee and on the inaugural Women’s Advisory Council to the Minister for Women.

The recent ‘Me Too!’ Movement, and the recent successful campaign to remove abortion from the South Australian Crimes Act, have seen a revitalisation of WEL SA. Almost 50 years since its inception, WEL SA is maintaining its commitment to change social attitudes and practices that discriminate against women. WEL SA aims to influence and shape the political agenda for the upcoming State and Federal Elections, so that the best outcomes for women and gender diverse people affected by women’s issues can be achieved.

Marilyn Rolls is a longstanding member of WEL in South Australia. This article first appeared in the South Australian branch’s publication, LABOUR HISTORY NEWS, Summer 2021/22.  

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 57-58.