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Unlike most organisations, the National Council of Women (N.C.W) was first formed at an international rather than local level. In 1888, under the leadership of Lady Aberdeen, women met in Washington, U.S.A. 


Australia became part of the International Council of Women (I.C.W.) first as a Council in Hobart, then in Sydney and later in Melbourne.

South Australia’s History in NCW
The development of the Council in South Australia goes back to that time, not just to 1920 from which time N.C.W. has had continuity. South Australia is mentioned in I.C.W. records dated 1899, when one of the speakers was a Mrs Gawler of South Australia; she spoke of Emigration and the Servants’ Home run by an influential committee of ladies and a Matron who personally had supervised the arrival and placing of 4,000 young women and girls.

The First Meeting
Miss Catherine Helen Spence and Mrs Cockburn were elected Vice Presidents at that first meeting held in the Lady Colton Hall at the YWCA on Wednesday afternoon, September 26 1902. Mrs Cockburn had been concerned with “girls walking the streets at night,” which was relayed to Lady Aberdeen.

The First Member Societies

  • YWCA Effective Voting League

  • Women’s Branch of the Single Tax League

  • Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union

  • Women’s Co operative Clothing Factory

  • Methodist Ladies’ Foreign Missions Auxiliary

  • Girls’ Literary Society

  • Mothers’ Union

  • Working Women’s Trade Unions

  • Women’s Christian Temperance Union

What does N.C.W. ‘Stand’ for?
A plank in N.C.W. platforms throughout this century has been to get women on Boards and Commissions Helen Spence was on the Destitutes Board and the Hospitals Commission in 1895. The South Australian Council was present at the Conference in Hobart in 1906 when Mrs Hone presented the Report of the Standing Committee on Peace and Arbitration.

SA’s Role in Legislation
South Australia was always to the fore in legislation for the care of children. In the 1899 I.C.W. report a Canadian speaker referred with pride to legislation in Ontario: “The Children’s Protection Act 1893 very similar to the South Australian Act of 1872.” She said: “Australian children are placed in foster homes instead of institutions.”

New Beginnings
The first Annual Meeting was held on October 14, 1920. At that time there were 33 affiliated societies. The first society to pay its affiliation fee was the Kindergarten Union. The Council swung into action immediately and among the first subjects to be discussed were: Government Registration of Nurses and  Midwives; Prices Regulation Commission; Government Reserves for Aborigines; Women on the Hospital Board; Special Magistrates for Children’s Courts; and Care of Migrant Women.

Standing Committees and Affecting Change
The Council worked through Standing Committees. At times over 100 women have been on Standing Committees, giving hours of voluntary work to study and acquire detailed accurate information to pass on, so that the Council could make informed decisions.

Standing Committees have often combined in their study of an overlapping problem. The Council could not be effective without the specialised knowledge of these women. The Standing Committees in 1921 were: Housewives; Press; Social; Legal and Economic; Public Health; Immigration; Peace and Arbitration.

Over the years other Standing Committees have been introduced including Education, Arts and Letters, Child and Family, Cinema, Radio and Television, Housing, Home Economics, Trades and Professions. Sometimes the names have changed, sometimes the Terms of Reference, in accord with I.C.W. direction.

Voice of Rural Women
For some years it was the hope of the N.C.W., urged long ago by the I.C.W. President, Lady Aberdeen, that rural women would have an organisation catering for them in rural areas, as N.C.W. did for city women. Eventually in 1927 at the invitation of Mrs I. Warnes, the President of N.C.W., Mrs T.R. Bowman, went to Burra where she met representatives of 12 surrounding towns.

After discussion it was agreed that The Country Women’s Service Association for the Burra District be formed to work with the same ideals as the C.W.A. in other States.

Working with the N.C.W.A.
The Council in South Australia has autonomy but works at national (N.C.W.A.) and international (I.C.W.) levels. It was in November 1922 that a conference was held in Melbourne, under the presidency of Lady Forster, in order to form a Federal Council for the consideration of interstate and international matters.

The Depression Years

  • The comfortable years of the 1920s came to an end with commencement of the Depression. For some time Council activities continues normally.

  • Several societies had to withdraw for financial reasons.

  • Standing Committees were active with regard to: Alterations to the Constitution; Importance of Disarmament Conference; Pilfering from shops; Exclusion of Women from Betting Shops in the new Act; in fact, the usual programme.

But there were so many different problems: money was needed for T.B. treatment but was not available; money was needed for extra training to combat Maternity Mortality; Unemployed migrants had no homes. The conditions were world wide. Executive meetings in Stockholm were postponed. Migration was at a standstill, which was fortunate as not only work but housing was hard to find and building had ceased. Even essential services at hospitals were barely maintained.

Centenary Celebrations
In 1936 came the Centenary Celebrations of the State of South Australia. With the President and Executive of N.C.W. as its base, the Women’s Centenary Council was formed from the 42 affiliated societies plus women from 30 other groups.

The final form of the Women’s Pioneer Memorial was a donation of $55,000 (collected from the women of South Australia mostly at one per woman) and the establishment of the Aerial Medical Service Base at Alice Springs.

The visible sign in Adelaide is the Pioneer Gardens of Remembrance, with the statue by Ola Cohn and sundial by George Dowdell. This Garden is behind Government House on King William Road, the trustees were the original special committee Miss Adelaide Miethke as Chairperson, Miss Phoebe Watson as Secretary, Miss Gisela Siebert as Treasurer, Mrs Dorothy Dolling and Mrs Paul Maguire. For many years on Australia Day N.C.W. organises a Wreath Laying Ceremony at the Garden.

Discussion Topics of the Early Years

  • Woman, and her Contribution to the Future,” “The Place of the Cinema in National Life” and “The Problem of Help for the Mother in the Home.”

  • Education, Nutrition; Child Delinquency; Venereal disease from a medical point of view which in each decade seems always of importance but were never solved.

Council Speakers
Speakers at Council made members aware of such things as “Australia’s Problems in the Pacific after the War,” “Housing for Servicemen and their families” (N.C.W. kept watch and was vocal in its criticism.) “Food for Britain Australia Role,” “Water Supply in South Australia,” “The Value and Function of United Nations,” “Better Standards of Health for Mothers and Young Children” and “Housing for the Aged.” In fact the Council resumed its position as watchdog in community affairs, whether at Government, local or personal level.

A Royal Visit
The top accolade for the council was the visit of the Queen in 1954 when Miss Ruth Gibson was President
and in charge of the organisation of the Reception; 1,100 women filled the Bonython Hall at the
University. Miss Gibson presented the address and the Queen replied. Eighteen women who had given outstanding service in the community were presented to Her Majesty.

The Queen Mother Visits
The third Royal visit was that of the Queen Mother in 1958 just as much loved as on her previous visit to
Adelaide 30 years prior as the Duchess of York. This time the Women’s Reception was at the State
Gallery, where 1,700 women stood to watch the Royal Progress, during which the President, Mrs Howard
Zelling , presented many women to the Royal Guest.

Half of those present came from 330 country towns. 

Membership Over the Years
There is no record of membership of the first Council in 1902, either of the number of societies eventually
affiliated, or whether there were Associates. When the Council was reconstituted in 1920, after the
start with 33 affiliated societies, numbers gradually grew and fluctuated, until the peak period in the 1950s
when the top number of affiliations was 123 and the total associates 680.

A Tribute to Members
There have been venerable and well known Presidents over the years. And, each has made her particular
contribution. But the same applies to many Executive and delegate members and conveners.
Unsung, and often unrecognised are the members who have quietly supported and regularly
attended meetings and standing committees, and given support financially. It is not possible to speak of any success in N.C.W. without recognising this solid background of member participation.

Adelaide Miethke
8 June 1881 to 4 February 1962

Born Manoora , South Daughter of Prussian born schoolteacher Carl Rudolph Miethke and his wife Emma Caroline (née Schultze). She studied at the University Training College and became a teacher in 1899.

A campaigner for female high school teachers. In 1916, Adelaide Miethke became the first woman Vice President of the South Australian Public School Teachers’ Union. In 1924, Ms Miethke gained her Bachelor of Arts degree.

In November 1924, she was appointed the first female Inspector of High Schools.

Adelaide Miethke believed in education for girls and career opportunities. During the Second World War, Ms Miethke’s help aided girls enter into careers in offices, in the armed forces and auxiliaries. “Some became dressmakers or milliners, while most learned household skills”. Miethke was Commissioner of the Girl Guides’ schools division from 1925 to 1939.

Adelaide was State President of the National Council of Women from 1934. She was also the National President of NCW from 1936 to 1941. She also headed the S.A. Women’s Centenary Council, comprising representatives of women’s organisations. Under her lead, the Council organised events such as the
Pageant of Empire on 27 and 28 November 1936, “backed by numerous committees and 600 voluntary
helpers”. It is known that she corralled and organised over 13,000 school children using a megaphone; who gave performances at the Adelaide Oval, each attracting tens of thousands.

Miethke’s works were well known and in 1937 she was appointed O.B.E. 


With monies raised by The Women’s Centenary Council, the Alice Springs based “Australian Aerial Medical Service” was established. This organisation is now known as the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The creation of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden on King William Street, Adelaide, was also supported by The Women’s Centenary Council as well as the producing a book on the History of South Australian Women.

She left the Education Department in 1941 and headed the Schools Patriotic Fund until 1945. The Fund raised over £400,000 which was used to build a hostel in the city on Dequetteville Terrace ; Adelaide Miethke House.

After World War II, part went to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. For five years from 1941, Adelaide Miethke edited Children’s Hour” which was circulated to school children.

The world’s first “School of the Air” was created by Adelaide in 1950 to ‘bridge the lonely distance’ for outback children. In 1953, the Adelaide Miethke Kindergarten was opened in her honour.


Information Compiled By Miss Barbara J. Pitt J.P. (1981)

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