A history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby

A history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby

A history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) has been prepared at the Australian National University with the assistance of Australian Research Council (ARC) Large Research Grant, No. A00104176.

WEL is a feminist non-party-political lobby founded in Australia in 1972. WEL’s role as an advocate for women is recognised in the political and social history of Australia. WEL has been at the forefront of the struggle for equal employment opportunity, access to quality childcare, sex discrimination legislation, reproductive rights and women’s election to Parliament.

The ARC Project

A three-year ARC Large Grant (No. A00104176) provided the funds for the WEL history project. The ANU and a number of individuals also provided financial assistance with publication of the book, while many members of WEL volunteered time and expertise.

The project assessed WEL’s significance as a policy actor and its attempts to shape the public agenda. It explored:

  • WEL’s influence on government policy and how it was achieved; and
  • The meaning of WEL for those involved and its impact on their lives.

WEL–Diamond Valley members marching with Women’s
Liberation, Melbourne, early 1970s.
Photo Sandy Turnbull (Kilpatrick).

Available on this website are:

  • Research reports prepared by the project team, together with a photograph gallery; and
  • A number of publications, papers and presentations. These include information about the book of the project, Making women count: a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia, by Marian Sawer with Gail Radford, which was published by UNSW Press in 2008.

Work continued on the ANU WEL History after the publication of the book. Documents were archived, photographs and information were provided for publications and displays and papers were written. In 2014 the website was updated to include this new material.

WEL-New Zealand

It is important to note that this project concerned only WEL in Australia. While there were WEL groups in New Zealand in the years 1975-2004, their history has been written by Elspeth Preddy in her book The WEL Herstory: The Women’s Electoral Lobby in New Zealand 1975-2002. WEL-New Zealand and Fraser Books published this book in 2003.

WEL–NSW in International Women’s Day march Sydney,
8 March 2014, Photo Peter Boyle.

WEL-Australia’s activities today

For information about WEL’s activities today go to the WEL-Australia website. To receive regular updates by email on WEL’s activities (and other feminist news), you can subscribe to the e-Update by putting your details on the WEL subscribe page. You can also become a friend of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Australia on Facebook and follow the Women’s Electoral Lobby on Twitter (WELA @welaust).


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The WEL history project team in 2003. L to R: Sarah
Gardiner, Erica Fisher, PJ Aguilar, Marian Sawer, Gail
Radford. Photo Ian Marsh.

Research work commenced in 2001/02. The project team was fortunate in being able to draw on the fine array of university theses about WEL, local histories of WEL groups, memoirs published by WEL members as well as the plethora of WEL newsletters and other publications.

Additional information was sought in libraries and archives. Also, WEL members donated documents and photographs that they had accumulated over the years. Particularly important were the many boxes of material donated by the WEL members who were responsible for closing the WEL–Australia office in Canberra, prior to its move to Sydney.

The results of the project team’s photographic research, the survey of WEL members, work on WEL in the media and WEL submissions are on this website. 

Also on the website are a number of short reports by the project team and information about how to access material which has been placed in archives


WEL–ACT members Victoria Green and Margot Snyder
(Collette) screen-printing posters, Canberra, September
1972. (Photo ABC Four Corners Program The Hand that
Rocks the Ballot Box)


The WEL history project has collected photographs from WEL groups, newspapers, libraries and private collections to provide a photographic record of WEL members, their campaigns and other activities, and their memorabilia. Selected items from the WEL history project's collection are displayed in five Photo galleries on this website.

Photo Galleries

Copyright: The photos in these galleries are subject to copyright and must not be used without permission. If you would like to use one of these photos, please contact Dr. Gail Radford at gail.radford@anu.edu.au or T+61 2 61250012 . Thank you. 


WEL history survey

The WEL history survey was conducted in the summer of 2002-2003; there were 550 responses from past and present members of WEL. The findings were presented in the form of a cohort analysis, analysing the characteristics and priorities of four cohorts, according to the date that the member joined WEL: the Founder cohort (1972-75), the Fraser cohort (1976-82), the Hawke Keating cohort (1983-95) and the Howard cohort (1996-2002/03).

The analysis showed that in the early 1970s the typical WEL member was university educated, married with young children and underemployed relative to her qualifications.  Her policy concerns revolved around family planning and abortion, discrimination against women, equal pay and childcare.

In later cohorts the members were less likely to be married or have children but even more likely to have university degrees and be in the paid workforce. Their issues changed along with the policy environment.  They were more concerned about violence against women in the Fraser period and about the need for women in politics in the Hawke/Keating era.  The concern for equal pay re-emerged with the introduction of enterprise bargaining in the Keating era. Childcare was an important concern in the Howard era, although this was the cohort with the fewest children.

You can download the full Report on the WEL History Survey (including Appendix 1 ‘Statistical Tables’) and as Appendix 2 ‘The WEL history questionnaire’ used in the survey.

Respondents were also asked to contribute stories from their time in WEL. Extracts from many of these are in Making women count: a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia, while there are Snippets on the website.

Childcare demonstration, Canberra, 1974.
Photo Chris Ronalds.

WEL in the Media

As the WEL history project team located items that were about WEL or mentioned WEL they were entered into the WEL History Consolidated Media Database. According to the issues covered each item was allocated to one of 10 categories: electoral politics; equality; feminism; social (including childcare); employment (including education); health (including family planning and abortion); women in politics (including women in government positions); law; tax (including budget); and criticism of WEL.

The report WEL in the Media: 1972-2002, which analyses this database, is available on the website. As with the WEL history survey, results are presented for the Founder years, Fraser years, the Hawke/Keating period and the Howard era. This is a detailed report with many interesting observations. It formed the basis for Chapter 4 ‘On Working the Media’ in Making Women Count: A history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia.

WEL History Submission Database

As the project team located submissions prepared by WEL, the details of the submissions were entered into a database.  The database was divided into a number of tables according to the WEL group that had prepared the submission and the date of preparation. 

The short paper The WEL History Submission Database—2006 states that by the end of 2005 there were 892 submissions in the database. A graph compares the number of submissions prepared by WEL–Australia with the total number in the database in the years 1972-2005.

However, submissions continued to be added to the database until mid-2010 and by then there were 937 submissions in the database. Tables in the WEL History Submission Database contains information on submissions prepared by WEL–Australia and WEL groups in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory.

Submissions Prepared by WEL–Western Australia

The report, Submissions Prepared by WEL–Western Australia, analyses the submissions in the WEL history database that were prepared by WEL–WA in the years 1973–2004. It does not claim to be a report on all their activities and successes. The submissions, however, do provide an insight into the important work of this WEL group, their energy and diversity of interests.

The report points out that, “When asking which submissions were successful, it is important to realise that submission writing is just part of the lobbying process. Of equal importance can be visits to politicians and bureaucrats, media coverage and letter writing, or, in the earlier days, demonstrations. Finally, having the right person in the right place at the right time may be what makes the difference between a successful or unsuccessful campaign.”

Three submissions and accompanying campaigns stand out as having achieved notable successes for women in Western Australia. These were the introduction of State equal opportunity legislation and government machinery for women and reform of the State abortion laws. They also highlight the success of the WEL strategy of encouraging WEL members to enter politics and the bureaucracy, as it was WEL members in the WA Parliament and the public service who played an integral role in these changes.

Short research reports

Also on the website are three short research reports by the project team on what might loosely be called facts about WEL. These give information on the location of WEL groups, national conferences and national co-ordinators.

WEL–Darwin members modelling T-shirts, 1974. Photo Lenore Coltheart.

By the end of 1972 there were WEL groups in each capital city, except Perth, where the first meeting did not take place until March 1973. As membership grew separate groups were formed in the suburbs and also in regional and rural centres. This research report includes maps that show the distribution of WEL groups (excluding suburban groups) in 1974, together with some later regional groups.  For further information about ‘WEL in the countryside’ see Chapter 2 of Making women count: a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia, pp. 61-68.

This research report, prepared in 2004, mentions a number of groups that were still active in that year.  However, by 2014 the situation had changed. Only WEL–NSW still had a large and active group and still published a newsletter. Contacts for only two regional groups were listed in the April 2014 issue of WEL–Informed. The Newsletter of Women’s Electoral Lobby NSW - Coffs Harbour and Wagga Wagga.

This report was prepared for the April 2004 issue of Inkwel - The National Newsletter of the Women’s Electoral Lobby Australia Inc. It was one of a number of articles written to keep WEL members abreast of the research activities of the WEL history project team. The report discusses WEL national conferences and lists them: from the exciting first conference held in Canberra in January 1973 to the 17th conference held in Sydney in June 2004. The 17th conference was the last of the big WEL conferences but not the last of the big gatherings of WEL members. 2012 was the 40th anniversary of the formation of WEL and reunions of WEL members were held across the country.

A research report on WEL national co-ordinators was written in 2004.  In May 2014 it was updated and expanded to include more recent information on the national office and office holders.

For a more detailed discussion see Chapter 3 on ‘Organisational dilemmas’ in Making women count: a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia.

Anthology of articles by WEL
members, 1974.

Archiving of research material

Research papers and reports from the WEL history project were given to the National Library of Australia (NLA) on 25 June 2010. The paper Archiving WEL’s History by Gail Radford explains how to locate the material in the NLA.

In 2013 data from the WEL history survey, together with explanatory documentation, was placed in the Australian Data Archives at the ANU so researchers can access it in future.



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The WEL history project has collected photographs from WEL groups, newspapers, libraries and private collections to provide a photographic record of WEL members, their campaigns and other activities, and their memorabilia. Selected items from the collection are displayed in these five galleries.

Information about the people and events in the photos can be found on this website in the Research Reports and Publications, papers and presentations. In addition, the book of the project should be consulted: Making women count: a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia, Marian Sawer with Gail Radford, University of New South Wales Press (2008).

To enter a photo gallery click on the gallery name or the photograph above it. In the galleries the photos are displayed in miniature. A single click on a small photo will enlarge the photo and moving the cursor over the photo will display the caption. (Moving the cursor off the photo will remove the caption.) Double clicking on the enlarged photo, or using the arrows below the photo, will move the viewer to the next item. 

Copyright: The photos in these galleries are subject to copyright and must not be used without permission. If you would like to use one of these photos, please contact Dr. Gail Radford at gail.radford@anu.edu.au or T+61 2 61250012 . Thank you


Publications used in research

Radford, Gail (2014). Researching WEL’s History: short histories, memoirs, newsletters and university theses.

Book of the WEL history project

Sawer, Marian with Gail Radford (2008). Making women count: a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Sample chapters: Chapter 1 and Chapter 8 of the book are available as samples.These are early draft chapters only and subject to copyright. They may not be quoted without permission of Emeritus Professor Marian Sawer, who can be contacted on marian.sawer@anu.edu.au.

Book reviews:

Other publications by members of the WEL history project team

Andrew, Merrindahl (2014). ‘Women’s Electoral Lobby’, in Shurlee Swain and Judith Smart (eds), The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia, Australian Women’s Archives Project.

Andrew, Merrindahl (forthcoming 2014). ‘Getting Pragmatic: WEL on the continuum of radicalism', Australian Feminist Studies.

Radford, Gail & Marian Sawer (2009). ‘Women’s Electoral Lobby’. In Jenny Gregory and Jan Gothard (eds), Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australia. Perth: University of Western Australia Press, pp. 942–43.


Radford, Gail (2010). ‘Reflections of a Feminist’ (includes part of Gail’s speech to WEL–ACT’s 30th Anniversary Dinner, 11 April 2002). In Maureen Anderson et al (eds), Retroactive 2 Stage 5 Australian History, Third Edition. Brisbane: John Wiley & Sons Australia, pp. 323. 

Radford, Gail (2013). My life in Canberra. A Floor Talk on 7 March 2013 held in the Canberra Museum and Gallery’s exhibition on The Women who made Canberra. Items from the WEL history project, which were on display, are discussed.

Sawer, Marian, Jasmina Brankovich & Gail Radford (2006). ‘Generations of Advocacy’. In Louise Chappell & Deborah Brennan (eds), “no fit place for a woman?”  Women in New South Wales politics 1856–2006. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, pp. 200-24.

Sawer, Marian (2010). ‘Women’s Work is Never Done: The Pursuit of Equality and the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act’. In Margaret Thornton (ed), Sex Discrimination in Uncertain Times. Canberra: ANU E Press, pp. 75-92.

Sawer, Marian & Merrindahl Andrew (2013). ‘Hiding in plain sight: Australian women’s advocacy organisations’. In Sarah Maddison & Marian Sawer (eds), The Women’s Movement in Protest, Institutions and the Internet: Australia in transnational perspective. London: Routledge, pp. 87-104.

L to R Pamela Denoon, Ian Macphee, and Susan Ryan
at WEL party celebrating passage of Sex Discrimination
Act, March 1984. Photo Christine Fernon.

Papers and Presentations

Sawer, Marian (2004). Liberal Reformists or Hairy-Legged Stalinists? Writing WEL History. A talk presented at the National Library of Australia on 10 March 2004. (This talk refers to a number of photos that can be found in the Photograph Gallery or in other reports and papers on this website)

Sawer, Marian (2004). The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act: Aspirations and Apprehensions. An address to the Forum held to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, held at the University of Sydney on 3 August 2004.

Radford, Gail (2004). A History of WEL in Canberra. A talk to the ACT Heritage Studies Network in the Canberra Museum and Gallery, 16 March 2004.

Radford, Gail (2004). WEL Women–then and now. A Progress Report on the WEL History Project. A presentation to the 17th WEL National Conference held in Sydney, 12-13 June 2004.

Radford, Gail (2012). Reflections on WEL’s first year. An address to WEL–ACT’s 40th anniversary reunion dinner, held in Canberra on 23 November 2012.

Radford, Gail with Marian Sawer & Erica Fisher (2012).  A history of WEL–ACT. This brief history of WEL–ACT was prepared in 2012 for the Australian Women’s Archives Project’s online exhibition From Lady Denman to Katy Gallagher—A Century of Women’s Contributions to Canberra. It was also handed out at WEL–ACT’s 40th anniversary reunion dinner.

Radford, Gail (2013). Archiving WEL’s history. This paper describes the archiving of material from the WEL history project and WEL–Australia in 2010. These documents were transferred to the National Library of Australia on 25 June 2010 and were allocated the accession number MS Acc10.116. The Consolidated Box List provides details of the contents of MS Acc10.116.

Radford, Gail (2020). Women Against Rape in War (PDF). As part of the exhibition Activism-Forces for Change in Canberra, Gail Radford gave a floor talk at the Canberra Museum and Gallery on Women Against Rape in War on 9 October 2019. 


International Women’s Day, Adelaide, 1970s. Photo The Search Foundation-Tribune,
Mitchell Library State, Library of New South Wales.


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