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Thursday, 24 February 2022
The Tea Room, QVB
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

Bujari gamarruwa

Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to their Elders, past present and emerging.

One cannot refer to the history of post European settlement of our country without a reference to two powerful Eora Elders.  One was Bennelong. The other was one of his four wives, Cammaraygal woman, Barangaroo.  To describe Barangaroo as a brave and principled woman would be to sell her short.  She refused to don the clothes of the European interlopers and when she was invited to view the flogging of a convict, she became so disgusted she tried to grab the whip out of the flogger’s hand.  It is unsurprising then that the colonists described her to be of “a determined and persuasive character.”[1] 

A century later, Sydney looked very different from Barangaroo’s time.  It was a built landscape.  Its population of some 400,000 in the 40 years since 1850. It was reeling from the effects of serious depression and industrial strife.   No longer seen as the 'working man’s paradise', socialism was on the rise, the Labor Party was founded and, it seems, there was even some republican sentiment.[2]

It would not surprise anyone here today to know that, unless wealthy and well connected, women did not thrive in this Society.   But given a challenge, the female character is not wont to change.  Two women, initially, and then many hundreds of women, in that same tradition as Barangaroo - brave and principled; of a “determined and persuasive character” met.

One was activist Margaret Windeyer,[3] who was instrumental in the Womanhood Suffrage League, the council of Women's College, the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales and the Professional Women Workers’ Association. [4] The other was her fellow activist and writer, Rose Scott founding member of the Women’s Literary Society, and founding secretary of the Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW. 

It was out of discussions between these two and a small number of other women that ‘that meeting’ was called at Sydney Town Hall on 26 June 1896.  

 I have referred to it as ‘that meeting’ because it was from ‘that meeting’, attended by more than 200 women, including suffragettes and leaders of philanthropic organisations, that the National Council of Women, NSW emerged.

Margaret Windeyer wrote at the time that: ‘an organised movement of women [would] best conserve the highest goal of the family and the state … to further the application of the Golden Rule, to society, custom and law’.[5]  The Golden Rule being: ‘to do to others as you would have them do to you’.

Today, 125 years later, we celebrate an organisation with a proud history of advocating for and effecting positive change in the lives of women and, it follows, in the society in which we all live.

The choice of The Tea Room here at the Queen Victoria Building for this celebration is particularly appropriate as I shall explain.  This grand building was nearing its completion in 1896, when ‘that meeting’ was called, just next door at the Town Hall. 

The Council of the City of Sydney resolved in 1897 to name the building the Queen Victoria Markets Building “to mark, in a fitting manner, the unprecedented and glorious reign of her Majesty, the Queen.”[6] Its official opening in 1898 was in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a long reign now surpassed as we celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, but both a celebration of two other strong and determined women.

This room was the original ballroom, but there was a Tea Room here on the premises from the beginning, owned by a Chinese tea-importing entrepreneur, Quong Tart, who spoke with a thick Scottish brogue that he had picked up on the goldfields.[7]  Quong’s Elite Hall, as it was called was a luxurious Tea House which could hold 500 people.[8] 

Quong Tart's story of philanthropy and business acumen in a time of anti-Chinese sentiment is a whole other story.[9]   Today, I mention him for a different reason.  Quong Tart had many Tea Rooms in and around Sydney and these tea rooms played an important role in the feminist movement in Sydney.  His Tea Rooms have been described as:

“providing one of the few respectable gathering places for ladies with public toilets and powder rooms. Women flocked to the new establishments (where) suffragettes would regularly meet. They were the site of Sydney’s first suffragette meetings and other civil and social functions.”[10]

Although the ‘plotting’ for the establishment of the NCW appears to have taken place in Margaret Windeyer’s home at Lulworth, in Roslyn Gardens, it would almost be a surety that Margaret Windeyer and Rose Scott would have frequented these ‘activist dens’ to meet with like-minded women, to discuss the issues that were affecting women’s lives including votes for women and equal pay for equal work.[11]   From the outset, these were two of the issues that  exercised the collective mind of the Council.   Its mission was:

-       “To promote the social, civil, moral and religious welfare of the community;

-       To work for the removal of all disabilities of women, whether legal, economic or social; and

-       To promote such conditions of life as would assure to every child an opportunity for full and free development.”[12]

At a meeting at the Town Hall two months later, 12 organisations became affiliated with the NWC.  These organisations captured the broad remit of its fledgling years and give us a bird’s eye view into the social and economic circumstances of the day, including:

  • The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union;
  • Sydney University Women’s Association;
  • The Infants Home;
  • Womanhood Suffrage League of NSW;
  • Education for the 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.[13] 

 By 1936, the number of affiliated bodies rose to 68.  By 1978, that had grown to 108.  Today, there are 29 member organisations:– mergers have occurred, some organisations have served their purpose, but it is also a reflection that much has been achieved as women have entered the professions in droves, advocating in their own professional organisations.  Today, as we speak, I am sure we all express our support for the members of our three Ukrainian organisations.

The first President (1896-1898) of the National Women’s Council was Lady Hampden, the spouse of the 19th Governor of New South Wales, (1895-99). Although admitting she was not ‘in any sense a politician and took little interest in colonial politics’[14] she found an affinity between the National Council of Women and her various charitable works.  That commenced a long Vice Regal connection which I am proud to continue.

Other determined and persuasive women have led or otherwise been integral to work of The National Council of Women, including:

  • Jessie Street - former Secretary of the National Council of Women NSW, President of the Feminist Club and the United Associations of Women, international peace campaigner and the only female adviser in the 1945 Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held at San Francisco;[15]
  • Constance Elizabeth D’arcy - distinguished obstetrician and gynaecologist, who was committed to lowering the maternal mortality rate and the first woman to become Deputy Chancellor at the University of Sydney;[16]and
  • Jean Arnot - State Librarian, trade unionist and feminist, in whose memory each year the National Council of Women awards the Jean Arnot fellowship.[17]

So when young women ask ‘who are our heroines?’, there are many to be found in the annals of the National Council of Women NSW – women who fought for hard-won rights - the right to vote, in NSW -1902;  the right to be elected to all levels of government or to be admitted as a lawyer or to be a judge, 1918; the right for married women to be employed in the public service (1966 – the same year as decimal currency); the recognition in family law of women’s contribution to the home and to the care of Australia’s future generations – the children (1975).

That is a magnificent 125-year history of achievement. Indeed,  today, most of us would not be ‘in the room where it happens’ if it were not for  the work of these early constituent bodies.  But the job is not yet done.  Domestic violence sits on the doorstep of one in four Australian women.  The national gender pay gap persists at an unacceptable level of 14.2% - or an average of $261.50 per week less than men; the pay gap is 16.2% if overtime is included or $323 less per week.   When part time work is added the pay gap is 31.3% or just under $500 per week - $486.20 to be precise. 

Programmes for women in prison are poor, Aboriginal peoples have the highest incarceration rate as do young juvenile offenders.  And there is much more ...

As we celebrate these past 125 years, we honour the work of the National Council of Women, New South Wales which continues in the hands of brave and principled women, of a most ‘determined and persuasive character’.    

Congratulations, National Council of Women NSW on your proud, effective and hard working 125-years!


[3] 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.

[5] WA Windeyer: Not Idle But useless? Not he! Full quote: “We women of New South Wales, sincerely believing that the best good of our homes and colony will be advanced by our greater unity of thought, sympathy and purpose, and that an organised movement of women will best conserve the highest goal of the family and the state, do hereby band ourselves together in a confederation of workers to further the application of the Golden Rule, to society, custom and law.”


[14]Playing Their Part: Vice Regal Consorts 1788-2019, Royal Australian Historical Society, page 114

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