HomeStudent Archival EssaysInterwar Feminism in Australia and the League of Nations

Interwar Feminism in Australia and the League of Nations

by Margot Holt

Delegates, League of Nations General Assembly
Australian League of Nations Union members 1938
Delegates, League of Nations General Assembly, Geneva

The League of Nations (LONs) was integral to the development of interwar feminism because it was this political body that served as a model for feminist organisations, which sought legitimation through their alignment with the League. The LONs aimed to “promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security” however it found its success largely in the establishment of voluntary societies across Europe and the Pacific.[1] The interwar years were a period of crucial expansion and accomplishment for international feminism and were comprised of three modes of progress.[2] Firstly, civic ritual was imperative for the operations of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which utilised religion and activities such as sport to rouse their membership body into receiving an education that would prepare them for post-war employment and womanhood. Secondly, popular education was enacted through Australian feminists’ participation in the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association (PPWA) which was centred on developing connections between Australia and its Pacific neighbours, destabilising the Asian ‘other’ during the period of the White Australia Policy and teaching equality and understanding between cultures. Thirdly, public protest was essential to the politicisation of women in the interwar years and suffrage groups such as the British Commonwealth League (BCL) sparked fervent debate amongst feminists about the treatment of indigenous women. Activists operated within the framework of citizenship where their attempt to redefine their own identity as citizens was enhanced by lobbying to reinvent Aboriginal citizenship. These three facets of interwar feminism demonstrate that the LONs was successful in inspiring a rich and participatory culture in Australia just as it was in Britain.[3]

The YWCA utilised civic ritual to provide women with a definition of the emerging figure of the ‘girl citizen,’ the ‘international citizen’ and the juncture of these dual identities, which women were gradually embodying as a result of their social modernisation during the war years.[4] It was concerned primarily with preparing girls for employment rather than marriage, sharing skills to cope with womanhood and providing an education that would allow girls to flourish into civil minded, influential individuals who could occupy post-war employment positions.[5] In the meeting minutes of the National Girls’ Work Committee (a branch of the YWCA) of June 1926 Leila Bridgman outlined the core functions of the organisation: “to consider ways of extending girl citizen movement within the association and the community generally,” “to consider our work in relation to other movements for girls,” “to help plan citizens conference,” and “to take initiative in stimulating local associations to make investigations or take action with regard to any matter that concerns the welfare of girls generally.”[6] The repeated references to developing the scope of the organisation illustrates the desire of the YWCA to expand and include as many girls as possible in their program which combatted social isolation and disenfranchisement. Bridgman recognised the necessity of the YWCA as she had joined in a time of personal crisis. Having occupied herself with traditional gendered expectations, the death of her fiancée in World War I left her without financial and emotional support thus she joined the New Zealand branch of the organisation and later travelled to England and the United States eventually accepting the Australian position of National Girls Work secretary in 1924.[7] 

British historian Helen McCarthy argued that the success of the LONs was largely dependent on “public opinion” thus organisations such as the YWCA were integral as vehicles for public discussion.[8] In conjunction with their engagement in the dialogue of international forums, early feminists’ were focused on establishing regional branches of the organisation, which devised these lines of communication. The National Industry secretary Jean Stevenson argued that every branch of the YWCA had the capacity to reach hundreds and because of this women were “becoming the government”; it was the duty of both men and women to embrace their citizenship in order to achieve “industrial, municipal and social developments.”[9] Through directing political discussion both on the home front and with other nations these women were enacting a form of ‘Commonwealth feminism,’ which was developed through the identification with other female dominions of the British Empire.[10] The YWCA were crucial to the politicisation of women during the interwar period because they stringently followed the issues being discussed in Geneva and saw the distribution of this information as one of their core responsibilities. The organisation helped to mould female public debate and encouraged women’s participation whilst this close alignment with the LONs legitimised the activities of the YWCA.[11] Prominent member of the association Amy Snelson argued in relation to the LONs “do we want to be out of the world’s running? Has not the war taught us that the cause of womanhood everywhere is our obligation?”[12] It was exactly this factor, women’s contributions during the war, that had aided female modernisation and industrialisation; it caused more girls to live away from home and explore career paths as opposed to domesticity and these were the journeys the YWCA was so eager to support.[13]

Whilst this association with global politics and the activities of the LONs did grant the YWCA legitimation it is crucial to acknowledge that these were individuals operating in conflict with conservative notions of women in the interwar period.[14] The YWCA demonstrated its commitment to women’s learning through the establishment of sexual education forums, which were comprised entirely of female staff.[15] The Girls’ Work Committee meeting minutes of August 1927 demonstrate that the acquisition of qualified female sexual educators was a difficult task: “A letter was received from Dr Buchanan…She was willing to give an informal talk on the sex education question, but did not want to give an address.”[16] Despite this hurdle the YWCA with limited professional assistance strove to promote sexual equality and stressed the importance of men and women subscribing to a singular moral standard.[17]

Paramount to the shaping of interwar feminism was the issue of maternalism; this emphasis on motherhood in conjunction with the feminist desire to remould women’s national identity resulted in interwar activisms’ radical and pro-Indigenous stance.[18] The concept of “nation-making” resulted in the construction of colonial women as predominately mothers whilst their Indigenous counterparts were “ineligible” to partake in the role of motherhood.[19] White feminists adopted a pro-Indigenous stance because embedded in the patriarchal framework was a polarised misogynistic undercurrent. On one hand society imposed motherhood on white females characterising womanhood only by its connection to childbearing. Contrastingly societal restrictions were denying Aboriginal women the right to fulfil their biological inclination to procreate and subsequently nurture their offspring. A core feature of female internationalism was that maternity was sacrosanct and the YWCA argued that the rights of women and their children should be universally protected. Australian feminists appealed to mothers in the community, as the bearers of life, to oppose war, which echoes the intentions of the League to effect world peace.[20]

An emerging trend can be identified in the relationship that popular education produced between feminist, pacifist and internationalist discourse where it was female activists who sought to aid in the reconstruction of female citizenship whilst promoting strong international ties specifically in the Pan-Pacific region. However the complex political context and the government policies pertaining to race and immigration weakened their efforts. Nationalist sentiment effectively constructed fences between Australia and Japan however the work of the PPWA began deconstructing these blockages and advocated for an open dialogue of mutual support, international education and pacifism. These ideals demonstrate the strong connection between the PPWA and the LONs. [21] Constance Duncan was a prominent Australian delegate in Japan, fulfilling a secretariat role in the LONs as well as providing a valuable internationalist perspective in the United Peace Council.[22] Duncan also devoted her skills to vulnerable women and refugees however relied heavily on the LONs to assist in the fight for the rights of the disenfranchised.[23] Similarly activists who formed the PPWA perpetually lobbied the League about their response to humanitarian and social violations; during the interwar period issues of individual citizenship and equality were not considered to be temporally of greatest necessity, it was in these areas however that the League effected the biggest change.[24]

Demonstrating the chain of female communication the Australian Women’s Weekly reported on the first PPWA conference in Honolulu in August 1928 “such a large and important gathering of women from countries bordering the pacific basin had never before been held…they were to learn from each other by exchange of ideas.”[25] Women were able to gain a greater understanding of their foreign counterparts as evidenced by the statement of Australian delegate Marjorie Fricke who noted when reflecting on a Tokyo conference “the barometer marking our opinion of ourselves as white people had taken a sudden and violent nose dive…we had seen how wonderful other people were, the capacity they had for learning.”[26] Interwar feminism in Australia gravitated towards Pan-Pacific feminism; Angela Woollacott argued that this awareness in the region was uncommon in the 1920’s thus it can be understood as “politically progressive.” Especially given the Australian government’s position on immigration, which was explicitly designed to prohibit Asians yet these were women who sought to gain an understanding of the lives of their Asian neighbours thus they “were consciously at odds with their cultural context”.[27]

Dr Georgina Sweet, a highly influential academic, internationalist and feminist in the Interwar period was elected president of the PPWA in 1934.[28] A Melbourne University Graduate who specialised in biological and botanical research, Sweet’s concern for gender equality is evident as early as 1912 from a series of testimonies written by her peers in response to her teaching application to the University of Western Australia. Leading educationist Isabel Henderson asserted that Georgina was “particularly careful that her pupils should be trained in such a way as to develop and strengthen their womanly qualities.”[29] This correspondence mirrors the chain of communication to and from women demonstrated by the YWCA and echoes Sweet’s later assertion that to become an international activist women first had to be engaged in national rhetoric by speaking for the women of their own country. [30] Similarly Professor W. Baldwin Spencer stated that: “Dr Sweet…has taken a very active interest in everything that concerns student life. She has been a very prominent worker in the women’s students club.” This demonstrates Sweet’s preoccupation with social cohesion a value that aligned her plight with the LONs.[31]

Despite dominating LONs meetings men were much less engaged in political protest and internationalist dialogue. This period was highly gendered and men did not need to rely on protest movements because their involvement in the LONs was generally an extension of their formal career. Contrastingly women’s relationship with internationalism was developed through their participation in social organisations such as the YWCA and the PPWA.[32] The voluntary nature of their engagement with the league is illustrative that women were more able to comprehend the necessity of a global community. Growing internationalism in the 1920s in Melbourne in particular could be linked to ‘cosmopolitan culture’; to be an international citizen was to be anti-isolationism and against racism. It became more than a political stance, women embraced this doctrine as their identity transforming into progressive, reformist, socially aware figures.[33]

Internationalists were strongly opposed to the period’s policies on racial and biological assimilation and sought the creation of humane Indigenous law reform, which included citizenship; these women aimed to construct a new era of racial cohesion as their male counterparts had failed to do so.[34] They sought enfranchisement from the international community and turned to the global arena in an attempt to shame the government into action; evoking the notion that female citizenship spanned the boundaries of class and race.[35] The British Commonwealth League, an Australian suffrage organisation, was concerned with this issue as well as supporting other colonial women of varying ethnicities.[36] Delegate for Perth Bessie Rischbieth asserted that the establishment of the BCL was inevitable because the LONs irrevocably altered international relations and the status of women both as citizens and as subjects of the British Empire.[37] The BCL established white colonial women as a culturally emancipated group thus appointed them as ‘protectors’ of their native counterparts enacting a form of ‘Commonwealth feminism.’[38] This organisation was primarily concerned with illuminating to the international community the racial politics of the nation rather than letting them fester in Australia’s backblocks. They used Indigenous lobbying to enhance their own position as flourishing, limitless citizens.[39] Despite these genuine contributions to the emancipation of doubly stigmatized Indigenous women, activists referred to the Aboriginal community as the “less forward race.” In conjunction with this, the role of ‘protector’ problematized feminist internationalism because it placed colonial women in the dominant position whilst native women became the cause and lacked autonomy.[40] Despite these factors the BCL operated as a space that produced feminist agendas for the Commonwealth and the British Empire. The structure of the ‘motherland’ and the ‘daughter-lands’ produced a dialogue that assessed the issues facing women and attempted at least to effect change.[41]

The LONs was not an alternative for the political sovereignty of the world’s most powerful nations, it was adjunct to it, just as groups such as the YWCA, PPWA and BCL were an appendage of the League.[42] The LONs developed and strengthened in response to the popular mobilization roused by women’s organisations in Australia, as the interwar period was the height of female internationalism.[43] The YWCA provided women with a sense of civic ritual through their education and recreation programs; because of the dedication of women like Leila Bridgman, Dr Georgina Sweet and Constance Duncan, every member of the organisation was provided with a nurturing, ‘homely’ environment that allowed them to flourish into capable young women.[44] In the PPWA pacifism was a central feature of their ideology and peace was enacted through an interaction with foreign nations, which bred understanding as opposed to fear and demonstrated a form of popular education.[45] Interwar feminists in Australia were heavily impassioned by their cause of equality, dedicated to achieving their own emancipation as well as illuminating the doubly stigmatized nature of Indigenous women’s lives who were both racially and sexually oppressed. Popular protest in the interwar years was a gendered entity out of necessity and it was the mutual support amongst members of the BCL, as well as the support of the global female community that allowed for the politicisation of women. Ultimately the LONs was successful in inspiring a rich and participatory culture in Australia just as it had been in Britain, particularly amongst feminist groups who used the LONs as a model for their own organizations and sought legitimacy through this alignment.


[1] “The Covenant of the League of Nations’, in The Aims and Organization of the League of Nations (Geneva: Secretariat of the League of Nations, 1929) 15. Helen McCarthy, The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism 1918-45 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011) 2. Susan Pederson, “Back to the League of Nations,” The American Historical Review 112, 4 (2007): 1093.

[2] Angela Woollacott, “Inventing Commonwealth and Pan-Pacific Feminisms: Australian Women’s Internationalist Activism in the 1920s-30s,” Gender and History 10, 3 (1998): 425.

[3] McCarthy, The British People and the League of Nations, 1.

[4] Ellen Warne, “These Forces are in our Midst: YWCA ‘Girls’ and Challenges of Transnationalism Between the Wars,” Australian Journal of Victorian Studies 18, 1 (2013): 66.

[5] Margaret Dunn, The Dauntless Bunch: The Story of the YWCA in Australia (Victoria: YWCA, 1991) 69, 79.

[6] Minutes of the National Girls’ Work Committee, 18th June 1926, coll. 1984.066, National Girls’ Work Committee, University of Melbourne Archives.

[7] Margaret Dunn, The Dauntless Bunch, 69.

[8] Warne, “These Forces,” 68.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid., 66.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Ibid., 71.

[13] Ibid., 68-67.

[14] Ibid., 67.

[15] Ellen Warne, “Sex Education Debates and the Modest Mother in Australia, 1890s to the 1930s,” Women’s History Review 8, 2 (1999): 311.

[16] Minutes of the National Girls Work Committee, 12th August 1927, coll. 1984.066, National Girls’ Work Committee, University of Melbourne Archives.

[17] Warne, “Sex Education Debates,” 311.

[18] Alison Holland, “Wives and Mothers Like Ourselves? Exploring White Women’s Intervention in the Politics of Race 1920s-1940s.” Australian Historical Studies 32, 117 (2001): 293-294.

[19] Marilyn Lake, “Feminist History as National History: Writing the Political History of Women,” Australian Historical Studies 27, 106 (1996): 157.

[20] Marilyn Lake, “Women’s International Leadership,” in Diversity in Leadership: Australian Women, Past, and Present, eds. Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein and Mary Tomsic (Canberra: The Australian National University Press, 2014) 76.

[21] Ellen Warne, “Constance Duncan: Translating Women’s Leadership and Internationalism in Asia and Australia 1922-1958,” in Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth Century Australia, eds. Fiona Davis, Nell Musgrove and Judith Smart (Melbourne: The University of Melbourne eScholarship Research Centre, 2011) 294.

[22] Ibid., 292.

[23] Ibid., 292, 295.

[24] Ibid., 295.

[25] Julia Rapke, “Women’s World Conference in the Pacific,” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 28th July 1934.

[26] Renate Howe, “The Australian Student Christian Movement and Women’s Activism in the Asia-Pacific Region, 1890s-1920s, Australian Feminist Studies 16, 36 (2001): 321.

[27] Ibid., 321.

[28] Lake, “Women’s International Leadership,” 79.

[29] Written Testimony of Isabel Henderson, 9th September 1912, box. 3, coll.1992.0172, Sweet, Georgina, University of Melbourne Archives.

[30] Fiona Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific: Cultural Internationalism and Race Politics in the Women’s Pan-Pacific (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2009) 35.

[31] Written Testimony of Professor W. Baldwin Spencer, 26th August 1912, box. 3, coll. 1992.0172, Sweet, Georgina, University of Melbourne Archives.

[32] Lake, “Women’s International Leadership,” 74.

[33] Ibid., 77.

[34] Fiona Paisley, “Citizens of their World: Australian Feminism and Indigenous Rights in the International Context, 1920s and 1930s,” Feminist Review 58, 1 (1999): 66.

[35] Lake, “Women’s International Leadership,” 82.

[36] Angela Woollacott, To Try Her fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 128.

[37] Ibid., 128.

[38] Ibid., 99.

[39] Ibid., 133-134.

[40] Ibid., 134.

[41] Ibid., 136.

[42] Zara Steiner, Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 349.

[43] Susan Pederson, “Back to the League of Nations,” The American Historical Review 112, 4 (2007): 1096. Leila Rupp, Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997) 34.

[44] S. C. Booth, Dinna Forget: Stories From Real Life (Sydney: George Robertson and Co., 1908) 18.

[45] Paisley, Glamour in the Pacific, 12.