Women’s Grass-roots Activism

A decade ago, I began researching Millicent Preston Stanley (1883-1955), the first woman elected to the NSW parliament (1925-1927). My initial focus was on the dramatic strategies of her feminist campaigns such as the ‘Horses Rights for Women’ demand for a Chair of Midwifery at Sydney University and the equal custody rights for mothers campaign organised around a Vice-Regal opening night for the production of her propaganda play, Whose Child.

Millicent Preston Stanley. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite her innovative approaches, her activism ─ like that of other early twentieth century conservative women ─ has attracted scant scholarly attention. Historian Marilyn Lake’s explanation for their invisibility in the historiography is that ‘Women’s Liberationists’ viewed them as ‘an embarrassing legacy to be overcome, rather than a tradition with which to connect’. Millicent’s Australian Women’s Movement Against Socialisation (AWMAS), which aimed to free the nation from the insidious effects of socialism, has been ignored, glossed over or ridiculed by historians. Warwick Eather and Drew Cottle, for instance, deride the campaign’s use of ‘hysterical tactics’ in ‘aggressive public rallies’, a criticism that puts a narrow lens on the women’s ideological position devoid of examination of their strategies, or the political context. 

Millicent’s concern with the potential threat of socialism to the nation began as a young member of the Women’s Liberal League in 1905. Her life-long opposition was reinforced in 1947 by Prime Minister Chifley’s bank nationalisation policy, which, she asserted, would be ‘the key to a totalitarian organisation of society’. She was not alone in this view as evidenced in the many like-minded women who willingly answered the call to join the AWMAS to help free the nation from the government’s introduction of socialism by stealth.

The AWMAS campaign (1947-1949), which Millicent characterised as a ‘crusade for liberty’ ─ an apt metaphor for the women’s missionary zeal ─ drew on a range of dramatic and performative elements. To explore and explain the campaign’s dynamics, I co-opted concepts from scholars in several disciplines. Sociologist Ari Adut’s focus on the ‘main event’ in the public realm as ‘spectacle’ rather than rational political discourse provided a sound foundation. Although Adut does not specifically deal with gendered space, his concept in conjunction with political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s explication of the ‘visibility of actors’ and their ‘potential for collective action’ in the public realm proved useful in examining the AWMAS spectacles in the gendered spaces they occupied. In addition, philosopher Aristotle’s conceptualisation of spectacle as including dramatic elements such as sets, costumes and props threw further light on the campaign’s modus operandi. Iconic sets such as Sydney Town Hall and Canberra’s Albert Hall emphasised the campaign’s national significance, while costume and prop choices such as flag-bedecked pinafores and a camel burdened with string shopping bags accentuated the message of loyal women bearing the national burden. Political historian Chris Wallace’s notion of the importance of advertising being ‘directed at the right target’ along with political scientist Sean Scalmer’s view of the value of ‘political gimmicks’ further illuminated Millicent’s targeted use of tricks and gimmickry in publicising her two-year long campaign.

Applying these concepts to an examination of the AMWAS campaign allowed me to formulate a nuanced explanation of the ‘crusade for liberty’. It was a mammoth enterprise that began with Millicent’s invitation (by means of ‘a pencil, a phone and a brain’) to women to join the cause, followed by her emotional appeal (‘Let CHIFLEY know what you think of this threat to your individual freedom’) to attend the first rally. Thereafter, there were multiple repeat ‘performances’ in towns across the nation, an audience with Prime Minister Chifley at Parliament House Canberra, and the campaign’s climax with Millicent’s public plea for a live camel to attend the Sydney Town Hall grand finale, where women bedecked themselves in flags demonstrating they would not succumb to socialism, and participated in a variety show extravaganza comprising a ‘Mum’s Quiz’, songs and speeches. This was targeted theatrical spectacle with a serious purpose. 

In reviewing the campaign in 1950, journalist Joan Pilgrim opined that AMWAS women played a ‘big part’ in the 1949 election outcome, which saw the Chifley Labor government replaced by a Liberal government under Prime Minister Robert Menzies. While the campaign’s contribution is unquantifiable, historian Cathy Jenkins suggests it ‘helped defeat the federal government’s attempt to nationalise the Australian banking system’, the initiative the women firmly believed would be the first step towards the socialisation of the nation. 

This examination demonstrates the potential of a national grass-roots women’s organisation to influence the political agenda. We have recently witnessed the potential of another women’s campaign ─ the Women’s March4Justice ─ initiated not by a phone call but by a tweet from Janine Hendry; ‘Is it possible to form a ring of people around the perimeter of Parl Hse’. Like Millicent, Hendry swiftly ‘put together this amazing team of women’ and gave birth to a national movement that continues to reverberate throughout Australia. This analysis of the AWMAS crusade for liberty arguably offers insights into strategies that Hendry’s campaign can deploy to sustain the momentum of the Women’s March4Justice.

Wendy Michaels OAM is a Conjoint Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle where she researches in Australian women’s political history. She has published articles on Millicent Preston Stanley’s life and career including ‘The Final Factor: What Political Action Failed to Do’, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, 19 (2013), ‘Child Custody and the Father-right Principle’, Encyclopaedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies (Wiley Blackwell, 2016) and ‘When the Political Becomes Personal: Millicent Preston Stanley’s Embrace of Eugenics, 1915–1927’, Review: Idealism, Beliefs and History, Independent Scholars Association Australia (2017). Her biography of Millicent Preston Stanley has recently been submitted to a publisher.

You can read the full-length version of this article in the 2021 open-access edition of Lilith.

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