I never met [Dame Ada May Norris], but nevertheless she changed my life. Thanks in good part to her, I receive equal pay and an equal say in matters that affect me and my family. Thanks to her, I can take for granted the things that she and her colleagues had to coax and wrench from the government of the day. (Jane Cafarella, “Champion of the impossible”, The Age, July 1989)
Mrs Ada May Norris did not burn her bra. She did not attend rallies and she did not profess the view that women were slaves to men and should be emancipated. In fact, she probably wouldn’t even have described herself as a feminist. Yet Mrs Norris devoted a large part of her life to fighting to improve the position of women in society.
Her achievements were made, not through radical protests and demonstrations, but through official channels such as the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, to which she was a delegate representing Australia, and the National Council of Women of Australia, of which she was President from 1967-1970.
One could say that Mrs Norris fought a ‘lady’s’ revolution.
The early days of Ada May Norris
Ada May was born in Greenbushes, Western Australia to Alice and Herbert Bickford on 28 July 1901. She later moved to Victoria and was educated first at Birchip State School and then at Melbourne High School, a prestigious school even in those times.
A tertiary education for a women in the 1920s was uncommon, though not unheard of. The most acceptable qualification for girls to undertake was teaching, and so Ada graduated from a Diploma of Education in 1924. Her ambition, and probably a great deal of family support, saw her continue her education and obtain a Masters degree at the University of Melbourne in 1926. However, her teaching career was to last just four years.
After teaching at Leongatha High School, then returning as an educator at her old school, Melbourne High School, she met and married Judge John Norris. Due to government regulations and social standards of the time, Mrs Norris gave up her job and dedicated her time to her husband and future family.
Social service committees: not your usual ‘stay-at-home mum’
For many middle and upper class women eschewing official, paid employment did not necessarily mean staying at home and quietly passing the days doing housework, looking after children and indulging in idle gossip with other housewives.
The committees one could be involved in were numerous and varied. Most had a social service aspect and many revolved around issues of family.
Upon her marriage, Mrs Norris threw herself into these committees with great zeal. Her unofficial career began in 1935 when she became the Secretary of the Yooralla Society of Victoria, a position she held until 1951. She was subsequently made President of the same society from 1951-54.
Her contributions to social services during her lifetime are too many to be done justice to in a single article. Suffice to say that Mrs Norris made a significant impact on campaigns in favour of children, the handicapped, the aged and migrants worldwide.
To name just a few key roles, from 1950-71 she was the National Council of Women’s representative to the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council, from 1954-60 she was President of the Children’s Book Council of Victoria and from 1951-80 she was the Vice-Chair of the Victorian Council on the Ageing.
Improving the social status of women
However, it is through her work in furthering the status of women that Mrs Norris will be most remembered. From 1961-63 she first gained international recognition as Australia’s delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women, one of the functional Commissions of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
A publication of the Victorian Division of the United Nations Association of Australia stated:
The purpose of the Commission is to work towards equal rights for men and women – to achieve equality it seeks improvement in the political, social and educational status of women throughout the world. It formulates principles which are embodied in resolutions and sent to the Secretary General for presentation to the Economic and Social Council with the object of establishing Recommendations and Conventions for the use of Member States of the U.N. It endeavours in other ways to influence world public opinion to attain equality for women.
Typical of most of Mrs Norris’s activities, this Commission had no legal power but sought to change social standards.
Ada May Norris: Primarily a ‘Married Woman’
It is interesting to note that, even as she was involved in such an important, international-level movement, she still considered her main focus to be her family.
Her introduction at the 1962 session of the Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York, stated that ‘A diploma in Education and Master’s degree from the University of Melbourne have given Mrs Norris professional status despite her insistence on the “Position of Married Woman” as her occupation’.
However, her time on the Commission seems to have clinched once and for all her certainty that education was the path to improvement of all aspects of society, including the status of women.
Bringing equal opportunity to Papua New Guinea
In 1961 Mrs Norris embarked on a project which would take more than a decade to reach fruition and in which she would take an interest for the rest of her life. Not content with overseeing the situation of women in her own country, Mrs Norris visited ‘The Territory’ (Papua New Guinea) in 1961 to examine the status of the indigenous women there.
Mrs Norris was apparently not alone in her desire to help the women of that country as a press statement was issued by the Director of Native Affairs (Port Moresby) on July 28, 1961 entitled ‘European Women Helping the Establishment of Clubs for Native Women’. The Director intended Papua New Guinea to set up their own National Council of Women, similar to the Australian council Mrs Norris was involved in, which would be associated with the International Council of Women. At this stage she reported that they did not appear to be ready for a Council but, in typical Norris style, she was not prepared to give up easily.
In February 1968 Mrs Norris wrote a letter to the Honorable C.E. Barnes, Minister of the Territories (Canberra), asking if he would be in favour of ‘her’ council (that is, the National Council of Women (Australia) of which she was President at the time) setting up a Council of Women in Papua New Guinea.
This approach, through official channels, is also typical of Mrs Norris, a lady who, although not given to radicalism, liked to get things done her way and to get them done properly. Her method worked, as six months later Barnes replied in her favour, enthusiastically making several helpful suggestions. She now had official support for her plan.
Formation of the National Council of Women (PNG)
Ultimately Mrs Norris succeeded and a National Council of Women (PNG) was eventually formed. In 1970, in recognition of her efforts, the International Council of Women invited Mrs Norris to be the representative for a Commission for the Pacific Area.
As late as August 1979 Mrs Norris was still gently pushing the members of the Papua New Guinea Council to be more involved in international affairs. In a letter to Mrs Tokiel, their President at the time, Mrs Norris expressed regret that they did not attend the recent Nairobi Conference and invited them to attend the next Triennial Conference of the International Council of Women in Seoul, Korea in 1982. She also attempted to entice them into Australia by inviting them to the next conference of the Australian National Council of Women in Adelaide.
The development of the role of women in Papua New Guinea did not automatically change during the 1960s to facilitate the formation of a National Council of Women. As mentioned previously, there was outside help from European women who believed that women could contribute more to the community than basket-weaving, cooking and looking after the young.
1960s: A global push for the education of women
In the 1960s there was increasing international support for education of females. Mrs Norris preserved an article from the English newspaper, The Times, on the subject of women’s colleges. This article put forward the idea that women’s colleges, attached to major universities, were crucial to furthering the rise of the educated woman in society.
Mrs Sally Chiver, Principal of Bedford College, London, spoke of the importance of:
‘improving [women’s] general education… It doesn’t matter what she does provided she doesn’t allow herself to become a cabbage.’
Of Lady Ogilvie, Principal of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, it was said:
‘She has no doubts about the value of a university education, even if they find themselves all too soon back at the kitchen sink.’
The education of women was seen by these ladies, not as an instrument for the emancipation of women, but rather as playing an important role in the improvement of society as a whole. As Lady Ogilvie commented, ‘we can’t afford to have an uneducated population.’
Mrs Norris personally shared this view, although it seems that the furthering of women as individuals was also important to her. It was this conviction which fuelled her ambition to oversee the foundation of the first women’s college in Papua New Guinea.
A desire for educational equality in Papua New Guinea
In August of 1969, the Quarterly Bulletin of the Australian National Council of Women ran an article regarding the education of women in Papua New Guinea. It claimed that out of 595 enrolments at the country’s university, only 89 were females. Mrs Dorothy Edwards wrote that:
There is a tremendous amount still to be done for women and girls. There is not the same wish to have girls educated as their is for boys. My impression was that it was difficult to get girls to form one-third of even a primary school.
Girls were apparently considered most useful for gardening, looking after children, getting married and doing housework. The Papua New Guineans believed that ‘it may “give them ideas” if they get too much education’. Mrs Edwards therefore considered that ‘a Hall of Residence for Women at the University is essential’. The article ended with an appeal for $200,000 to be raised towards the establishment of the Hall.
The campaign ran for several years, involving public advertising which included pamphlets for the fund. One appeal pamphlet outlined the reasons the Hall was needed. First, the standard of the current accommodation was insufficient (women students currently shared buildings with the men). Secondly, a Hall would encourage more girls to continue their education and would persuade their parents to allow them to attend university. Finally, a Hall was in the national interest:
So that women students, secure in the environment of their own College or Hall, will have greater incentive to complete their studies and achieve good academic results. This in turn will help to raise the status of women in the Territory, the future development of which requires large numbers of trained and highly-qualified men and women.
This pamphlet again shows that the motive was not the liberation of women but the improvement of society.
Luavi House – PNG’s first residential college for women
As President of the Australian National Council of Women and probably the instigator of the project, Mrs Norris held the role of Chairman of the Appeal Committee. Australians already knew that women’s colleges were successful, having witnessed the establishment and continuation of residential institutions such as the University of Melbourne’s Janet Clarke Hall.
Unfortunately, contributions were less than anticipated and in the end the Australian Committee produced only $60,000 while the enthusiastic Papua New Guineans made up the remaining $230,000 required.
Luavi House, the new residential college for women at the University of Papua New Guinea, was officially opened on 16 April 1973 at a ceremony performed by Mrs Norris. In her address she revealed her belief that she and her colleagues played an important part in history:
It may well be that future historians will regard the altered status of women as perhaps the most significant change which has affected society in the present century.
The speech concentrated on the issue, and history, of women and education, pointing out that when Mrs Norris attended the University of Melbourne, fifty years ago, a mere one-fifth of students were females compared to one-third of full-time enrolments in 1973.
She connected the establishment of women’s residential colleges around the world to an increase in the number of women educated, obviously intending that Luavi House would serve a similar purpose. The plaque mounted at the site also signified the partnership between Australian and Papua New Guinean women which was affirmed through their gift.
The motivations in building Luavi House are neatly encapsulated in Mrs Norris’s speech as follows:
The Committee [for the Hall of Residence for women students at the University of Papua New Guinea] members feel certain that LUAVI will become a focus for ideas of a high order and a power-house for transmitting ideas throughout the country; that women graduates from this University will wield the kind of influence that will inspire families to ensure that girls have equal opportunities for education so that women will share with their fellow men the responsibilities of independence and development.
Keeping tabs on the success of Luavi House
Mrs Norris’s interest in her pet project never failed. In 1982 she still thirsted for information about how Luavi House was succeeding.
A letter from Elvie Anderson told her of the great increase in the number of female students, the ratio now being one female student to three male students. Anderson comments that ‘Luavi House is now full so many girls are living in the boys’ hostel’. This marked increase in female students would have pleased Mrs Norris very much, considering that the residential college was originally built to accommodate 149 residents.
The role of women’s councils in improving the status of women
Many of Mrs Norris’s achievements were gained through or aided by women’s councils. As of 1978, The International Council of Women, founded in 1888, was the mother of sixty-one other affiliated National Councils of Women throughout the world.
According to Mrs Norris in her notes of 1969, their ‘general objectives… are similar, if not identical, namely the advancement of women and the welfare of society’.
Mrs Norris participated in women’s councils for much of her life. From 1951-54 she was the President of the National Council of Women of Victoria before graduating to become President of the National Council of Women of Australia from 1967-70. After this term ended she was honoured with the title of life Vice-President of the same national organisation.
A substantial volume of letters marks the end of her Presidency, their congratulations and warm commendations illustrating her great contribution to the work of the Council.
A note from Lady Alexandra Hasluck, Patron of the Council, reads:
I would like to congratulate you on the amount of splended work done under your energetic Presidency. No one could have been more whole-hearted than you in carrying on the aims of the National Council of Women.
Another letter, from Mrs Bernard, Hon. Secretary of the Council, acknowledges:
what special efforts you have made – your unselfish personal expenditure of time and money, your unending power of inspiration and your tireless fostering of Status of Women projects. Your leadership is an inspiration to us all.
Towards women’s rights and gender equality
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the language of the women’s movement changed in Australia, even in such conservative circles as the National Council of Women. No longer was the focus on improvement of women to aid the improvement of society, as the more traditional groups had espoused earlier.
Now attention was paid to gaining equality for women for the sake of women’s individual rights.
In 1952 the landmark Wage Case heralded the beginning of a legal struggle for equality between the sexes. It served to highlight the discrepancy between female and male wages in Australia. However, it was not until the historic ‘test’ case of 1969 that real ground was won for women in the workforce.
Equal pay for work of equal value
In her history of the National Council of Women of Victoria, Mrs Norris outlined the involvement of the National Council of Women of Australia in this test case.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions brought applications to the Arbitration Commission in an attempt to win equal pay for men and women in the meat industry and the Commonwealth Public Service. Submissions were invited from various sections of society.
Mrs Norris, as President of the National Council of Women of Australia, put forward a submission on her Council’s behalf. The submission was comprehensively in favour of equal pay, stressing the essential justice of the claim and a long list of relevant sociological and economic factors, including the element of ‘economic partnership in marriage today’, changes in the economic environment of the family, the contribution of women to the Australian work force, woman’s changing attitude to her life and work and her greater bargaining power, the financial factors with regard to taxation and investments, costs and prices.
In her typical legalistic manner, Mrs Norris also included an analysis of the term ‘value’, references to family dependency, taxation rebates, family allowances, recent maintenance legislation and outmoded ‘protective’ legislation. In her draft of the submission, Mrs Norris acknowledged the International Council of Women’s:
policy of equal pay for equal work, not only as a matter of justice but as a step towards equal opportunity and equal responsibility for women and men.
This idea of equal responsibility was to become somewhat of a catch phrase for Mrs Norris over the next decades.
The Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission decided in favour of equal pay for equal work in 1969. In 1972 women won the right of equal pay for equal value and in 1974 were successful in instigating an equal adult minimum wage.
Formal recognition for Dame Ada May Norris
Mrs Norris was remembered and congratulated for her role in gaining equal pay for women, as was noted in an article published in The Age just days after her death on 10 July 1989, at age eighty-eight.
A 2001 University of Melbourne graduation ceremony booklet states:
The honorary degree of doctor may be conferred upon a person of distinguished eminence in the appropriate branch of learning and, in addition, the honorary degree of LLD [Laws] may be conferred upon a person distinguished by the eminent public service or outstanding cultural achievement.
One could assume that it was both for her ’eminent public service’ and ‘outstanding cultural achievement’ that Mrs Norris was, in 1980, awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Melbourne. Her legal work in the equal pay case also may have contributed to her eligibility.
The degree marked an involvement with the University spanning over half a century. Although not a staff member, Mrs Norris was never fully detached from the institution which formed her experience of tertiary education and which most likely contributed to the zeal with which she pursued the issue of women’s education throughout her life.
She even sometimes returned to share her enthusiasm. Ms Banks records one such occasion in a letter thanking Mrs Norris for her ‘vital and interesting talk’ about the emancipation of women, noting that she:
could have listened for hours, you have such a thorough knowledge of your subject and such a wide experience of conditions in all parts of the world.
Education for women: essential for equality
It is fitting that the degree was awarded in 1980 because, as Mrs Norris said in her occasional address, the year marked the ‘centenary of the decision to admit women students to the University of Melbourne’.
She was very interested in the history of women’s education, noting in at least one other speech the long international history of the female struggle against a male dominated tertiary education system. Even though women were allowed through the doors earlier, it took longer for them to be allowed official recognition of their academic achievements:
It took two world wars and the British Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act to shake the university authorities. Oxford University granted women the right to degrees in 1920, but Cambridge did not do so until 1948. Many long-qualified women, wearing cap and gown for the first time, received their degrees at at last.
It seems that, through her contributions, such as the establishment of Luavi House, Mrs Norris saw herself as an active player in this historical struggle. At the conclusion of her address, she exhorted women to get an education in order to contribute fully to ‘social progress and development’.
Dame Ada May Norris: a force to be reckoned with
Dame Ada Norris was a force to be reckoned with. Her energy and determination were qualities which remained with her until the end of her life.
Even in her early eighties there is evidence that she was still actively fighting for the cause, writing polite, yet indignant, letters to the Australian Bureau of Statistics demanding to know why there were not more surveys conducted specifically to collect data about the situation of women.
A contemporary described Mrs Norris as ‘fairly austere’, not a lady to waste time on frivolous activities. Her two daughters apparently inherited some of these qualities. Both daughters went on to tertiary education, one choosing to follow her father’s footsteps by pursuing a career in the law.
Dame Norris’s literary legacy
Mrs Norris’s achievements throughout her life are quite awe-inspiring. As well as her practical involvement, she was author of two books:
- Publications: The Society, a history of the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults, was published in 1974.
- Champions of the Impossible, a history of the National Council of Women in Victoria, was published just four years later, in 1978.
While perhaps not the most literary of books, both publications reflect the accurate, succinct style which seems to have been the hallmark of Mrs Norris’s work.
Awards and accolades
Public recognition of her activities include an OBE in 1954, the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1969, and in the same year of 1969 she became the first Australian woman to be a member of the Order of St Michael and St George.
A different brand of feminism
Mrs Norris’s social and economic status, being married to a judge and living in the exclusive suburb of Toorak, afforded her opportunities she would not otherwise have had.
In another situation she may very well have become a radical feminist, marching on the streets and demanding freedom and equality for all women. Instead she took her values from those around her, espousing, and later making her own, the belief that education was the way to improvement.
You could argue that this approach was really only aimed at middle and upper class women. The lower classes seldom appeared to be considered.
Nevertheless, to bring about change a revolution must occur at all levels. Mrs Norris was a part of the elitist revolution, the echelons of society which could afford to fund the assertion that women should receive a tertiary education and so make it a reality.
Mrs Norris’s role in changing the legal and social systems, as well as influencing international opinion, was crucial to gaining the freedom for women that current generations enjoy. In this way, she fought the ‘lady’s revolution’.
A version of this article was originally published in 2001 in Melbourne University: Characters and Controversies under my maiden name, Rebecca Wilson. This version has been edited for online stylistic purposes and for brevity. The research for this article was primarily undertaken through examination of the Dame Ada May Norris Papers [93 boxes : 1920 – 1980] – original documents held in The University of Melbourne Archives.