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The Women's Peace Army

Women’s movements were amongst the earliest and strongest opponents of militarism and conscription in Australia. The anti-conscription campaign was arguably the first time that women entered the public stage in Australia in a significant way in their own right.

Chief amongst these movements were the Women’s Peace Army, led by Vida Goldstein. This was formed in 1915 as an explicitly anti-war offshoot of her political organisation, the Women’s Political Association. Even earlier than this, Vida Goldstein was one of the founders of the Australian Peace Alliance in October 1914, along with trade unionists (including John Curtin), the Victorian Socialist Party and some radical Christians. Other prominent members of the Women’s Peace Army were Adela Pankhurst and Cecelia John.

The WPA formed branches in other Australian cities as well: Margaret Thorp and Emma Miller in Brisbane were particularly effective. During the war, the WPA had a particular focus on the economic effects of war. They campaigned for price controls on food, ran an unemployment bureau for women at their headquarters, and established a farming cooperative at Mordialloc.

Nonetheless, not all women supported Goldstein’s movement. Some women, of course supported the war. Goldstein founded the Women's Peace Army as a separate body from the Women's Political Association because she knew that many more conservative supporters of the latter were in favour of the war effort.

Even other anti-conscriptionists disagreed with Goldstein. Eleanor May Moore was involved in organising the Sisterhood of International Peace (which later became WILPF, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom) in 1915 as an offshoot of the socially-conscious Australian Church because she thought Goldstein’s pacifism was too absolute. Doris Blackburn was another who had been a member of the WPA but grew estranged from Goldstein in 1915. She also put her energies into the SIP.

On the other hand some women left the WPA because they felt that a focus on women's issues was too narrow, and that socialist politics were more important to pursue. These included Brunswick teacher and school principal Bella Lavender – who had been campaign manager for Goldstein’s Senate candidacy in 1910 – and Adela Pankhurst, who had been one of the major figures of the anti-conscription campaign, but left the WPA in 1917.