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Shrill Noise: The Perception of Women during the Great War Anti-conscription Movement in Melbourne, Australia

Stephanie Woodbridge[1], School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies, Monash University



This article analyses the response to and impact of the anti-conscription movement during the Great War in Melbourne, Australia, upon the perceptions of women and their place in society at the time. While exploring the existing literature on women in the anti-conscription movement and socialist movements more broadly, this article will go further in examining how the public felt about women being in such a public role. Letters to the editor as well as editorials and daily news reports from the two major daily papers of the time, The Age and the Argus, have been analysed and contrasted to build a picture of contemporary public opinion of women in society. By doing so this article will demonstrate that the women who led anti-conscription movements were successful in integrating into the public sphere, traditionally a male domain.

Keywords: Gender, Politics, Public opinion, Conscription, Great War, Plebiscite


The issue of conscription in Australia during the Great War caused controversy both in parliament and in the electorate. It split the Australian Labor Party, causing the formation of an entirely new political party. Plebiscites were held twice in the space of two years in an attempt to gain a mandate from the Australian people to conscript fit young men to serve in the European theatre of war alongside the British. The activities of those opposed to conscription saw the rise to prominence of women in the public sphere like never before. Women not only participated in but founded and led anti-war and anti-conscription movements. The Women's Peace Army (WPA), a branch of the Women's Political Association, led the way in Melbourne, holding successful protest rallies and meetings every week preceding the two referenda. Led by Vida Goldstein, Adela Pankhurst and Cecilia John, the Women's Peace Army became the bane of the conscription movement and widely accepted as a part of public life in Melbourne. This article will argue that to do so, the Women's Peace Army did not threaten the status quo of the time; it maintained a view that a woman's primary role should be that of mother and nurturer.

In the years preceding the Great War, Australian women were slowly making progress in employment equality. By no means were women considered equal to men, but they dominated several industries, especially textiles and manufacturing. In 1911, women made up 22.74% of the manufacturing industry (Frances and Scates, 1993: 10). They were forming their own unions and demanding better rates of pay. In 1882 when the Tailoresses' Union went on strike, a cartoon in the Melbourne Punch, 'The Trouser Famine', depicted men wearing skirts as a result of the ongoing action; demonstrating the level of women in the workforce, as well as depicting the fears society held if gender roles were to be reversed (Frances, 1993). In 1902, women were given the vote at the Federal level (Commonwealth of Australia, 1902); Victorian women would be the last to receive suffrage at the state level in 1908 (Parliament of Victoria, 1908). The importance of universal suffrage cannot be understated. Women were finally allowed to take an interest in politics and they did.

Carmel Shute (1995) argues in 'Heroines and Heroes: Sexual Mythology in Australia 1914-1918' that the Great War subjugated women's rights and reinforced the 'dichotomy of the sexes' (Shute, 1995: 30), and that 'the ideological stances of both the WPA and the Sisterhood of International Peace basically reinforced and helped to perpetuate the wartime ideal of the feminine role rather than actually challenging it' (Shute, 1995: 30). This is true in part, but women in the WPA used this very notion to promote women's engagement in the public sphere. In order to have an impact on the conscription vote, the women in groups like the WPA could not be seen to be an insane fringe; the best way to gain support from the masses was to appeal to the views of the masses. Shute's arguments ignore the incredible amount of work done by the Women's Political Association in its labour wing, the Women's Labour Bureau, to seek better employment and welfare benefits for women. It also fails to recognise that several members of the WPA would run for seats in federal parliament, which was clearly seeking to challenge the traditional role of a woman (Brownfoot, 1983 Vol. 9: 43-45).

It is of vital importance to note that these women's anti-war groups did not advocate a change in the roles women played in society but a change of attitude towards women. Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans note that the Women's Peace Army and the Sisterhood of International Peace believed women deserved a voice in the public sphere because of their 'moral superiority' (Saunders and Evans, 1992: 358) and because they had an 'intrinsic relationship ...with peace' (Kruse and Sowerwine, 1986: 51). The WPA believed that a woman's central role was motherhood; it was this ability to create life that gave women a greater responsibility to promote the sanctity of life and oppose the aberration of war. Daryn Kruse and Charles Sowerwine also noted that a woman would still fulfil the assumed role inherent to her sex but could also help to 'steer' the community and nation through her inherent humanity. Women could 'humanise politics' and use their 'intrinsic morality' to guide public policy (Kruse and Sowerwine, 1986: 48-58).This ability to use the context of motherhood to fight conscription would prove very effective; 'domestic' feminism allowed the women of the anti-conscription movement to gain greater acceptance in the public sphere as the men who usually occupied it were not threatened by these women. They went to great lengths to maintain their femininity and their social justice campaigns were aimed at helping women into employment sectors that were traditionally female-dominated, such as textiles.

The three women I wish to examine for the purposes of this article were the executives of the Women's Peace Army: Vida Goldstein as president, Adela Pankhurst, and Cecilia John as secretary. Goldstein was highly regarded by many in the community. A beautiful and feminine woman, she was said to have an 'absence of anything masculine' (Damousi, 2008: 253). Men were not threatened by her as she seemed to embody all the values that a woman should. Her oratorial skills were tremendous and she was respected by many ex-servicemen (Damousi, 2008). But she fiercely opposed the war and conscription. She fought for women to be judged as equal to men, running for a senate seat on several occasions. The great respect that even soldiers held for her was demonstrated at the Bijou Theatre on 19December 1915: soldiers interrupting an anti-war rally were at the point of riot, when Goldstein, with the help of several soldiers, was able to ascend to the stage and talk down the situation, calling for a fair hearing for all and inviting the soldiers to give their perspectives (Bomford, 1993).

Adela Pankhurst came to Melbourne from England already a seasoned suffragette. Banished to Australia by her mother, the famed Emmeline Pankhurst, Pankhurst took up the cause of the Women's Peace Army with gusto. Another powerful public speaker and adept at running non-violent campaigns, Pankhurst was prominent in the organisation of large rallies (Hogan, 1990). Cecilia John was a founding member of the Women's Peace Army and Secretary of the Women's Political Association (Gowland, 1983). She often led the singing of anti-war songs at meetings as she possessed a beautiful voice (Gowland, 1983). Again this obvious femininity was central to her being accepted into the public sphere.

Despite the successes of the anti-conscription movement, the women involved faced vehement opposition by some men, especially ex-servicemen. During more than one anti-conscription rally women were assaulted, verbally abused and intimidated. Those speaking on Yarra Bank would begin to remove the shoelaces from their boots in case of being thrown into the river by opponents (Bomford, 1993). Janette Bomford relates one such incident; a group of soldiers took advantage of a lack of men in the supporting audience and attacked a rally. 'He stood in front of Vida and Adela, using vile language. Clemence said, "If anyone here would do to these women what the Germans did to the women of Belgium, I'd stand by and watch them do it with pleasure"' (Bomford, 1993: 168). Frederick Joseph Riley, an anti-conscriptionist, attempted to protect Goldstein from the soldiers and a scuffle ensued. He was later charged with riotous behaviour (Argus, 27 March 1916). Joy Damousi explains such instances as soldiers interpreting the women's behaviour as 'undermining [their sense] of manliness and their masculinity' (Damousi, 1991: 2).

Damousi agrees in part with the likes of Saunders and Evans, asserting that the women in the socialist movements before the Great War were unlikely to be attacked by men (Damousi, 1991: 2) but once they entered the conscription debate, they began to 'challenge masculinity' (Damousi, 1991: 2) and were 'no longer immune' (Damousi, 1991: 2) to such violence. She contends that once women began to campaign actively against conscription and the war itself, men fought back against this incursion into 'their' space. Space in this context is both private and public, female and male: 'the ideology of separate spheres, which separated public and private space, defined women's sphere as the private world of emotion, the home and children, while the world of politics, rationality, reason, discourse and 'productive works' was constructed as the male domain' (Damousi 1991: 3). This article will argue that despite the opposition to women entering the public dominion, the anti-conscription movement was, at least to a degree, successful in legitimising women participating in public debates and even leading them.

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, boys from the age of 12 had been required to undertake compulsory military training but were not required to serve overseas or, indeed, even join the forces upon completion of their allotted time in training (Commonwealth of Australia, 1909). These men were only to be called upon in defence of Australia, and sending them to Europe to fight was out of the scope of the Act. Initially, when the Fisher Labor government came to power in 1914, a policy of conscription was not to be adopted and the party held a stance against it. (Chifley Research Centre). But when Fisher resigned in October 1915 and Billy Hughes took the leadership, this stance changed; the 1916 plebiscite on conscription led to the first split of the Australian Labor Party (Chifley Research Centre). Britain had asked its colonies to supply more men as its casualties surpassed one million. The Western Front was bogged down and the Gallipoli campaign had been an utter disaster (Bean, 1941, vol II). Finding fresh men to replace those killed or wounded was crucial in the war of attrition that was the Great War. Prior to the referendum, Hughes released a statement demanding that all single, eligible men report for enlistment (Hughes, 2 October 1916). He did so in anticipation of a "yes" vote on conscription, but his hopes for a clear majority in favour of further support for the empire were dashed.

Of the organisations actively opposed to conscription (and in some cases to the war itself), women's groups figured prominently. In Melbourne, most vocally active in its campaign against conscription and for peace was the Women's Peace Army, which emerged from the Women's Political Association (Francis, 2009). Along with the Women's Peace Army, the Sisterhood of International Peace was active in educating women and promoting peace - although it did not oppose the Great War as Australia was already involved and unlikely to withdraw until England did - on 29 April 1915 the Sisterhood released a statement that 'it was considered unwise at this stage to offer any opinion as to the war, but to work unitedly and steadily to promote international peace' (Kruse and Sowerwine, 1986: 53). The WPA, on the other hand, believed 'the root of war lay in the economic and social structures in society and not ... in a moral aberration that would be repaired when the war has ended' (Kruse and Sowerwine, 1986: 55). This belief would see the WPA run a successful public campaign against conscription.

All three of these organisations were very active in campaigning for basic rights for women, in establishing working funds for the poor and promoting education as the chief means of eradicating poverty. It is from this basis of social justice that the opposition to conscription grew. Despite agitating for a change in the status quo, these groups used the idea of a woman as a mother to engage people in anti-war and anti-conscription rhetoric. Perhaps the most well-known is the poem, which became a song I didn't raise my son to be a soldier:

I didn't raise my son to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,
To kill some other mother's darling boy?
(Bryan, 1915)

This addressed mothers directly and encouraged them to consider their role in society as that of nurturer, carer and educator. Cecilia John would often close anti-conscription meetings by singing this song; such was the popularity of her rendition that the song was banned (Gowland, 1983, Vol. 9).

This article will use Joy Damousi's work on 'gendered space' to propose that the anti-conscription campaigns, as led by women, paved the way for an acceptance of women in the public sphere (Damousi, 1991). However, this is not to say that there was not resistance to women publicly fighting conscription, nor do I suggest that women suddenly emerged from the private into the public in merely two years. Instead, this article will explore how women were able to find and maintain the acceptance of the public and build upon two decades of agitating for equal rights for women. Changes in attitudes were already occurring, and the anti-conscription movement was able to seize upon this change and push women into the fore to a point where their presence was not only accepted but expected.

A comparison of editorials, articles and letters to the editor from the two major newspapers of the time will now be made, in order to gauge opinions on women in public throughout 1913, prior to the outbreak of the Great War; and during the 1916 and 1917 conscription referenda. It is important to note the limitations of newspaper sources as the opinion of the editor or owner of the paper may not reflect that of the general public, but letters to the editor and articles do give examples of the opinions and views of the readership of the publication. The Age and the Argus will be used as these were the two major daily papers of the time and were of competing ideologies, with the Argus generally a conservative publication while the Age was more liberal. While there were certainly other publications in print at the time, by using the two major dailies I hope to capture a more accurate portrayal of the opinion of the general public, rather than the extreme views on both the liberal and conservative sides of Melbourne society.

The Women's Political Association's publication the Woman Voter was popular during the time of the referenda. It was heavily censored during the war period, with the writers choosing to leave blank white spaces in protest where the censored had removed 'offending' articles (Bomford, 1993). The WPA was fierce in its opposition to censorship, especially that of peace-promoting materials. Along with the Woman Voter, the WPA was integral in instigating some of the biggest rallies and protest marches that Melbourne has ever seen: "People's Proclamation Day" on 4 October 1916 as a response to Prime Minister Hughes's proclamation which attempted to enforce conscription without a referendum or vote in the parliament. Over 40,000 people attended (Bomford, 1993: 171). The WPA provided seven speakers, four women and three men. Then on 21 October the "Women's No Conscription Demonstration and Procession" attracted a crowd of over 80,000. The march was led by eight-year-old Madeleine Gardiner who dressed in white, held a white dove aloft on a pole (Bomford, 1993: 171). This use of children was another way to use the notion of mother and nurturer to win votes.

In an attempt to understand public perceptions of women in the public sphere, articles and letters to the editor from both the Age and the Argus from 1913 have been analysed to see if there is a major difference before the outbreak of war and after. In the Age, there is very little written about women's participation in the labour movement. There is very little in the way of writing about women in the public sphere at all, except in the "divorce proceedings" column which is not particularly useful. Of note are the articles that do mention women in the public sphere, which are often novelty pieces. One such article published on 5 April 1913 is a light-hearted piece about a woman who has become a solicitor, clearly a man's position. The article does not condemn the woman for becoming a solicitor, but makes light of the situation. The man she is defending asks where his solicitor is thinking she is a secretary. But bemusement rather than outrage is important. Attitudes towards women in the public sphere were beginning to change.

In fact, in a lengthy exchange of letters to the editor of the Age beginning on 9 July 1913 (more than a week's worth of columns were taken up by replies) the public expressed their disdain towards an author known as 'Business Man' who demanded more controls be put on women speaking in public and that generally women should be 'seen and not heard' (Age, 9 July 1913: 6). The overwhelming response was that 'Business Man' should go about his business more quietly (Age, 10-16 July 1913). This exchange is intriguing but not completely unexpected. Women had been steadily entering the workforce for two decades, there was a rising need for more women in the labour market and the war would soon exacerbate this. Public space was still largely occupied by men, but women were tolerated in it when required.

Surprisingly, in 1916 and into 1917, articles and letters about or by women are non-existent. The Women's Peace Army is ignored as a major anti-conscription force in Melbourne. The Age was incredibly biased towards the 'yes' vote and Hughes himself. An editorial on 4September 1916 went so far as to declare that 'no stone must be left unturned to counteract and defeat their [the anti-conscriptionists] machinations' (Age, 4 September 1916: 6). Women listening attentively to pro-conscription speeches, or holding meetings to promote the 'yes' vote were reported and letters by women supporting the cause were occasionally published, but only if they exuded the patriotic fervour deemed appropriate (Age, 1 September 1916; Age, 23 October 1916). Even these articles are sparse. Until the final few weeks leading up to the referendum, articles addressing women or about women were few and far between.

Articles that do report on anti-conscription gatherings were almost universally negative. Adela Pankhurst was mentioned several times, but only in passing as a speaker during the large Yarra Bank rallies. Men were seen to be the instigators of the rallies, women merely being 'hecklers' (Age, 6 October 1916: 6) who 'howl down' reasonable pro-conscription speakers with 'shrill noises' (Age, 11 October 1916: 8). According to the Age, women were illegitimately invading public space usually occupied only by men. During the Women's Peace Procession, the scenes as described by the Age (23 October 1916: 8) are of 'disorder and violence'. Why the Age decided to run with such negative reporting is indeed an interesting question. The Argus reported on the same events but managed to remain mostly neutral, despite having the same pro-conscription editorial position as the Age.

In one of the first editorials of 1916, the Argus published a piece encouraging all single men to enlist, entitled 'Men's Work Calls For Brave Men. Will You Respond?' (Argus, 6 January 1916: 7). It derided 'shirkers' and 'cowards' with passionate calls for pride in the empire and patriotic sacrifice. It also refuted claims of a 'class' war and rejected the socialist view that the war was being waged as a means for capitalists to exploit workers and increase profits (Argus, 6 January 1916: 7). This editorial sets the tone of the paper for the following two years of battle along the contentious issue of conscription. Throughout the year editorials were published that reiterated this view and extended it, declaring that Australia is 'firmly conscriptionist at heart' (Argus, 30 October 1916: 6) and that there should not even be a referendum. The paper's view was that anti-conscriptionists were shirkers and 'shirkers' relatives' (Argus, 30 October 1916: 6).

Despite this view, women do not seem to be singled out as illegitimately inhabiting the public sphere in the majority of articles. While many articles in the Argus during 1916-1917 do negatively portray the anti-conscription movement as 'shirkers' and 'cowards', the participation of women in the movement is seemingly accepted as normal. In fact there are even a few positive articles written about the WPA, especially with regard to Goldstein and her work with the underprivileged. One of the most startling articles discovered was a report on an anti-conscription meeting that was interrupted by a crowd of soldiers. One called out asking why the women were not at the front being nurses (Argus, 27 March 1916). This one man flips Damousi's idea on its head. Rather than the soldiers' masculinity being threatened, it seemed that they were angry that the women were not sharing the burden of the war.

Pankhurst, Goldstein and John are all mentioned many times and all had written letters to the editor which were published. This seems to suggest that the editors of the Argus at least believed in giving the anti-conscription movement a right to reply. Cecilia John, being secretary of the WPA, had many letters of correction published during this period. In fact between January 1916 and January 1918 over twenty articles appear in the Argus that specifically mentioned Vida Goldstein. Goldstein was often noted specifically as a speaker during rallies, as well as debates. For example, on 9 October 1916 she was noted for speaking during an address made by Senator Blakey in Ivanhoe (Argus, 9 October 1916), other than the Senator himself, no other speaker is mentioned. In fact, the Argus devoted pages to the anti-conscription campaign, seemingly determined to allow opinions on both sides to be voiced. Of course, this coverage was not universally positive or unbiased; when a group of anti-conscriptionists interrupted a pro-conscription meeting in Fitzroy, the Argus described it as 'The most disgraceful disturbance yet witnessed in connection with the conscription campaign' (Argus, October 11, 1916). But many letters to the editor from Goldstein were published in reply to articles and editorials. These women were not only being given the right of reply as any man in the public would receive; they were treated as serious public figures, whether or not the editors agreed with their opinions on the war and on the issue of conscription. Unlike the Age, the Argus did not take away women's voices, and therefore their space in the debate.

The difference between the Age and the Argus' coverage of the anti-conscription campaign is difficult to account for. While the Argus gave over many columns to the anti-conscription campaign and allowed a mixture of pro and anti-conscription opinions on its pages despite its editorial stance that conscription was vital to the war effort, the Age barely covered even the largest of anti-conscription demonstrations. When women were mentioned they were derided as shrill, rude and disorderly. What makes this all the more strange is that only three years earlier, the Age was publishing many letters by women and had a somewhat progressive stance about women in the public sphere. Both newspaper sources have provided an insight into how the public perceived women in the public sphere during the time of the conscription referenda. In both cases the absence of anything remarkable is in itself, remarkable. In the case of the Argus such a fair hearing and varied opinion was not expected from the conservative paper of the time. However, the Age surprised preconceived notions of the 'liberal' paper by having much narrower coverage of the conscription debate. While there were calls for women to 'do their bit for the Empire' in terms of raising funds and knitting socks, in terms of the conscription debate in the pages of the Age, women were silent.

Where this leaves my original hypothesis that the anti-conscription campaign helped to bring women into the public sphere is difficult to assess. Although opinions of reporter and public in the Argus do seem to suggest that women were being accepted in roles of leadership usually filled by men, the absolute refusal by the Age to portray women, let alone the anti-conscription campaign, as anything but a rabble would appear to refute that this acceptance was anywhere near universal. However, the Age's coverage of all in the anti-campaign was entirely negative and hostile, not just for the women involved. It could be a case of the Age refusing to give any space to the anti-conscription campaign, no matter what their gender. Another possible reason is that the editors of the Age viewed war as a man's business - men were the ones who would fight and die. As the working-man's paper, perhaps the Age was unwilling to allow those who could not fight a voice in the debate. As the referendum grew closer, the success of the women's campaign in particular was difficult to ignore: 80,000 people marching in a peace procession along Swanston Street is a clear indication of more than a vocal minority supporting the opinions held by the WPA. It is at this point that the Age started running extremely derogatory reports about the women's participation in the campaign. Perhaps this was a case of attempting to stem the support the WPA and associated groups had already gathered because of their views on the war rather than their gender.

Although an analysis of the two major daily papers in Melbourne at the time has not offered a clear outcome as to whether women were being accepted in the public sphere at the time of the conscription debate during the Great War, when considered in light of other facts a conclusion can be drawn that organisations like the WPA did bring women into the foreground of public life, making it acceptable for women to give opinions on political matters and make themselves heard. The conscription referenda were voted down twice, thanks, in part, to rigorous campaigning by organisations led largely by women. Rallies, speeches and processions organised by such groups were well attended; marches such as those of the Women's Peace Procession would not be seen again until the Vietnam War Moratoriums. The fact that the editors of the Age were going to such lengths to demonise the women involved says much about the success of the anti-conscription movement in gaining public support. Originally not even worth a mention, the 'antis' became enough of a threat to have damaging articles written about them in an attempt to negate their campaign. The fact that the Argus was willing to allow women into the debate on conscription suggests that women were slowly making the move into public and political life. While there was still opposition to women taking up such roles, the anti-conscription groups helped to normalise women speaking and acting in public; helping women to break through into the public sphere.




[1] Stephanie Woodbridge completed a Bachelor of Arts (history and politics) with Honours in history at Monash University in 2011. She is currently taking a break from study but hopes to pursue post-graduate research in history in the coming years.



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Woodbridge, S. (2012), 'Shrill Noise: The Perception of Women during the Great War Anti-conscription Movement in Melbourne, Australia', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 5, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.