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"Vigorous-minded and independent": Ellen Mulcahy as a labour leader.

In mid-1905 Ellen Mulcahy (1859-1920) retired after a teaching career of 30 years in Victorian State primary schools. Then aged 45, she had experienced ill health and several major employment crises in a long working life. Her career spanned a formative period in colonial education, from the December 1872 Education Act, which legislated "free, compulsory and secular" primary school education for boys and girls and established the Education Department, to the 1905 Registration Act, which brought Roman Catholic, private and State schools and teachers under a new registration system. (1)

Ellen had come to the colony of Victoria in 1864 as a four-year-old with her parents and younger sister from County Cork, Ireland. The eldest child in a close-knit family, she did not marry but lived most of her life with members of her immediate family Her family background and the family structure will be considered later in this article as a key element, alongside her teaching career, in her formation as a leader. When she retired she was living at "Garra Cloyne," a substantial, leased property at 179 Royal Parade, Parkville, with her siblings.

For a year or so after her retirement Ellen Mulcahy did not attract attention in the press. (2) But from 1907 she came into prominence for several years of significant labour leadership. Her efforts for women workers, her support of various social welfare causes and her energetic participation in the labour movement merit the attention of those seeking to explore the subject of women's leadership in greater depth than has occurred to date in labour historiography.

The investigation of Ellen Mulcahy's leadership builds on several studies that record some of Mulcahy's activities over the period from 1908 to 1913, as part of each author's broader interests. Farley Kelly notes Mulcahy's background in teaching and mentions several key roles that she filled between 1908 and 1913. (3) Melanie Raymond refers to Mulcahy's achievements and also her struggles within the Party over the period 1910-13. (4) Raelene Frances, in her extensive analysis of work and women workers from 1880 to 1939, recognises Mulcahy as a committed activist and refers to her as a temporary organiser for the clothing trades and a leader of the Women Bookbinders Union. (5) Frank Bongiorno pays particular attention to Mulcahy's political activities, including her 1910 campaigning, her Labor Call articles and her later break with the Party for what he notes as "complex" reasons, with discrimination on the grounds of gender a major source of her dissatisfaction. (6) A consideration of Mulcahy's life before and after her period of intensive political and union activity is not, however, within the scope of these studies.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries considerable attention has been paid to the operation of leadership in groups of different sizes and social functions. Structures of leadership in families, schools, businesses and government instrumentalities and also leadership styles have been analysed and assessed. In the words of Amanda Sinclair, "Leadership, it seems, has become ubiquitous." (7) Education and schools have benefited from the work of Thomas Sergiovanni. The model of transformational leadership that he proposes emphasises collegiality, the building of communities of the mind and openness to both head and heart expression. (8) Kaminski and Yakura reflect on the concept of transformational leadership in their area of interest, namely union leadership. (9) They contend, based on research, that women are "more likely than men to be transformational leaders" who, acting as role models, inspire and mentor others. They expect that transformational leadership is likely to result in "a more active and mobilised membership." (10) In both education and unionism, transformational leadership might provide scope for greater participation by women in senior leadership roles.

As Kaminski and Pauly (2010) have shown in their study of women and men from the Harvard Trade Union Program, the percentages of women in senior leadership roles in unions (and also business, academia and industry) are still very low. (11) Likewise, Rae Cooper has found that women unionists still feel markedly underrepresented in senior leadership positions. (12) However, where a transformational and collegial model replaces a view of leadership as male, transactional, heroic and hierarchical, there would seem to be greater possibilities for female leadership than a century ago when Ellen Mulcahy was active.

To set in place a layered and non-hierarchical structure which encourages a sharing of responsibility is one thing, but how that structure functions in practice depends on the personal styles of the leaders and their relationships with those being led. Leadership courses, including some that are specifically designed for women who are seeking professional advancement, are offered with the explicit intention of enabling participants to learn about leadership and to gain skills such as strategic planning and budget management. In contrast, in the early twentieth century, in Ellen Mulcahy's time as an activist, women such as she emerged into an experience of leadership, called to their roles by personality and circumstances and their willingness to serve, with no formal training for their work.

A second aspect of leadership theory that is relevant in a consideration of Mulcahy as a leader, apart from the current emphasis on targeted training as an essential element of leadership, is a conceptual shift that has occurred between the 1980s and the early twenty-first century. When "leadership" began to assume theoretical weight it was often taken as synonymous with "management." (13) People who were referred to as leaders were, more often than not, principally good managers. Questions began to be raised about what makes a leader who is other than or more than a manager. Many would argue that women still face personal and structural barriers, as did women in the early twentieth century, in their quest for positions of respected and valued leadership and not just roles as competent and hard-working managers.

The slightly earlier work of Kaminski and Yakura (2008), arising from their concern over the low percentage of women in union leadership even though females comprise 44 per cent of the US union membership, paid particular attention to "how adults develop their leadership skills over time" and suggested how the leadership of women could be supported at each of the four stages of a developmental model. (14) Kaminski and Yakura named these stages as "finding your voice," "developing basic skills," "figuring out the politics" and "setting the agenda." Mulcahy's experience of leadership a century ago, seen through a closer examination of the activities in which she was engaged in the public sphere after her retirement from teaching, in a probing of her personal formation as a leader and in some observations about her leadership style can to some extent be viewed in the light of these four aspects. A closer investigation of Mulcahy's activities in 1911, at the midpoint of her years of strongly engaged public activism (1909-13), shows the range of her interests and reveals her methodology as a leader in union organising at that time.

Ellen Mulcahy's "Retirement"

Following her retirement from teaching in mid-1905, Ellen Mulcahy continued her interest in the well-being of children by becoming, in 1908, a Children's Court Probation Officer for North Melbourne. This voluntary role was established under the Children's Court Act of 1906 and depended on a citizen workforce of men and women, who performed their supervisory tasks without pay but who were required to follow the specified guidelines of a legally-established alternative to having children placed in institutions if they were found guilty in the proceedings of a children's court. (15) Mulcahy referred with great compassion to seeing "the little helpless morsel of humanity [suffering] consequent anxiety" as "the most pitiable part" of the situation of "the child of the squalid, shiftless home," worse even than a child's having to work from an early age. (16)

Retirement also allowed Mulcahy to pursue her interest in politics. She represented North Melbourne on the Metropolitan District Council (MDC) of the Political Labor Council (PLC) in 1907, was almost immediately nominated for the MDC Committee and elected in March. By then, however, the MDC was about to be wound up by the PLC Central Executive. Having no regular income, the MDC had accumulated modest liabilities to cover its operation, including room rental at the Trades Hall for its Womens Organising Committee (WOC), and the Central Executive deemed it expendable. So Mulcahy's first publicly-recorded political office was short-lived. (17)

On 16 November 1908, the Adult Suffrage Bill granting Victorian women the vote in State elections at last passed both Houses. Although the proclamation date of 31 March 1909 meant that women missed the opportunity to vote in the December 1908 State election, the political education of women now became a priority. (18) The PLC re-established a Metropolitan Womens Organising Committee from the beginning of 1909, with Mulcahy as Secretary, alongside Miss C. M. McGrath as President, Mrs Butterfield and Mrs Thornton Smith as Vice-Presidents and Mrs Dorey as Treasurer. (19) June 1909 witnessed the holding at the Melbourne Trades Hall of the First Victorian Labor Womens Political Convention. Mulcahy acted as Secretary for the Convention and presented a major paper, later published over two editions of Labor Call, on "A State-Controlled Friendly Society." (20) The plan proposed that workers would contribute from the age of 16, and the multitude of friendly societies and lodges would be "fused into one" as a government department. Women, even those engaged in domestic duties at home, would participate fully and would benefit in health and other services. Mulcahy had come to the fore quite rapidly as an organising leader and as a writer and speaker with a practical and detailed proposal.

Continuing her political involvement, Mulcahy campaigned vigorously for Labor across all eight Melbourne electorates in which the Party was standing a candidate in the 1910 Federal election. With remarkable energy, she addressed at least 23 meetings from late November 1909 to April 1910 and then organised an election-eve Labor Women's Demonstration in the Melbourne Town Hall. (21) At the 1910 Victorian PLC Annual Conference, Mulcahy was elected to the Central Executive and shortly afterwards appointed its Minute Secretary and Press Correspondent, the first time a woman had held these roles. (22) By 1910 she was a frequent, by-lined contributor to Labor Call, providing reports of meetings and feature articles on socialism, politics, economics, biography, women's rights, social welfare and aspects of education, moving at the end of 1910 on to industrial concerns with three articles ("God Speed the Plough") on the agricultural machinery industry. (23)

The years 1909 to 1913 saw Mulcahy at the peak of her political, industrial and social activism. But she eventually became disillusioned with Labor, with her independent spirit bringing her into conflict with certain men and women in the Party, including Laurie Cohen and Minnie Felstead, each of whom opposed some of her initiatives. (24) By 1913 she would come to believe that Party restrictions, such as the pledge and the closed nature of caucus, were limiting members' ability to contribute their views on key issues, and that women had achieved far too little on the path to equality. Her disaffection would lead to her standing for Federal parliament in 1913, one of the first half dozen women to offer as candidates in Australia, when she opposed Labor's Dr William Maloney as an Independent Labor candidate for the House of Representatives seat of Melbourne.

Mulcahy's break with the Labor Party and her candidature took many by surprise. (25) Rowdy scenes greeted her town hall campaign appearances, with her deep motivations somewhat hidden from later generations as they were in the din of those meetings. She was angered by the cancellation of the postal vote and frustrated by what she viewed as ineffective Protection measures, a situation that disadvantaged both Australian workers and Australian manufacturers. (26) But her principal motivation was a desire for freedom, the scope to argue the merits of a particular position in serious, well-researched debate, free from the constraints of caucus. Declaring that she was "as much a Laborite now as ever" but that she had "lost confidence in the party," she stated: "I object to be any longer caucus bound. I want my freedom. Unionism is necessary and has done good for the workers, but it is now becoming hampered by being attached to the political machine and dragged along." (27) She also objected to the treatment of women as "political ciphers," for in her eyes women's franchise was viewed as "a mere adjunct to the male franchise" when what was required for their full citizenship was "equal pay and equal say for women." (28)

Her defection was followed by expulsions from the Party, the branch she had formed and the unions of which she was secretary, matched by her own resignations. However, for a time some of the women she had helped in various unions remained loyally appreciative, as shown at an afternoon tea in her honour later in the year, when representatives from most of what had been "her" unions were present to hear her declaration that she had stood for parliament as a protest against the treatment of women in industry and politics. (29) Before her candidature she and a colleague, Mrs Amy Barry, had for a short time run an office at the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets in Melbourne where women could learn about their political and employment rights. (30) She now opened her own agency opposite the Melbourne Town Hall, with the telephone connected. (31)

World War I saw her engaging equally as energetically in the home front war effort as she had done in her political and industrial activities of the previous years. She served as the North and West Melbourne secretary for the Red Cross, the Australian Comforts Fund and the local Welcome Home Committee and helped to organise "Violet Days," fund-raising raffles and also a major carnival. (32)

Ellen Mulcahy died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 60 on 16 September 1920. She and her siblings had recently moved from "Garra Cloyne" and set up home in Abbotsford. Her death certificate suggests she was writing history at the time while embarking on a new enterprise that represented a return to the trade of their father, for Ellen and other members of the family had opened a boot and shoe shop at their new address in Johnson Street. (33)

Mulcahy in 1911

The identification of Mulcahy's activities in the single year of 1911 offers the opportunity to analyse the character of her leadership in some detail. By the beginning of 1911 Mulcahy had become involved with women engaged in clerical, clothing and confectionery work. She had formed the Women Bookbinders and Stationery Employees Union and become its secretary. She and the PLC Womens Organising Committee had also taken up the cause of women employed by the day in office cleaning and in laundry work. (34)

Industrial organising occupied Mulcahy's attention throughout 1911. In the first part of the year this developed from her then role as secretary of the WOC, while in the second half of the year the approaches to her continued because of her position as a member of the Central Executive and because she had personally built a reputation as an effective organiser and a sympathetic advocate. The impetus for union organising in which Mulcahy was involved was thus from the political side of the labour movement, rather than the industrial.

The usual process with the new unions was that women workers approached her and she then visited work sites. A voracious reader of government reports, she conducted detailed research into current laws and statistical returns. She arranged speakers and venues for initial meetings and addressed the meetings persuasively on the benefits of concerted efforts through unionism as a means of gaining improved pay and conditions. Where workers were sufficiently convinced of the possible benefits of combined action and were thus willing to pay their future dues, the next step would see Mulcahy move the formation of a union, for which she was in this initial stage generally voted into the role of secretary. She proceeded with Trades Hall Council and PLC affiliations and made sure that reports and meeting notices were published regularly in Labor Call. Memberships grew, and deputations to bureaucrats and members of parliament brought some improvements in working conditions, pay and leave, though the process of obtaining wages boards proved to be very slow. For example, it took until late 1912 for an Office Cleaners Wages Board to be legislated. (35)

Apart from working with unions that were exclusively male, Mulcahy dealt with four different types of women's union organisation:

1. An established union for all workers, with male and female membership not differentiated, apart from membership fees;

2. An established women's union;

3. An established union with a women's section;

4. A new union for women workers in that type of employment.

As a federated body under the Conciliation and Arbitration Act (1904), the Federated Furnishing Trade Societies of Australasia, Victorian Branch, employed Mulcahy at a small fee from July 1911 to organise women workers within the union. These women were engaged particularly as upholsteresses or in sewing carpets. Only a few years earlier, women had been blocked from joining the furnishing trades union but following a new wages board determination they were now encouraged to become members. Minutes of this union do not show a strong drive to improve conditions for women; rather, the inclusion of women was seen as a way of strengthening union numbers and, therefore, influence. (36)

Longer standing female unionism was found particularly in clothing trades and among domestic workers. The successors of the Tailoresses Union of the 1880s, women in specialised unions such as white-workers, shirt and collar makers, dress and mantle makers and garment workers, amalgamated to form the Victorian Branch of the Federated Clothing Trades Union of Australia. (37) As domestic employment in private homes diminished, women who took on the exhausting work as office cleaners or in laundries were encouraged to combine to be able to present stronger cases to government. Deputations of Mulcahy and women workers' leaders carried more weight with parliamentarians when they had numbers of employees behind them. But in both of these areas of strong female employment (clothing and service), organisers of older groups sometimes resented the activities of Mulcahy and later organisers.

Mulcahy was asked in mid-1911 to form a women's section for typists and female clerks within the Victorian Clerks Union. Throughout the next year and a half, strengthened by the inclusion of women workers in the efforts, the "clerks" moved towards the achievement of a State Commercial Clerks Wages Board. Although many clerical workers such as those in banking were excluded, it was in this field of employment that the claims of Mulcahy and other leaders for equal pay (where women clerks were doing the same work as men) were vigorously argued. This would lead to a decision granting equal pay, which would occur for the first three months of 1913 before being cancelled. (38) Employers who opposed the decision and some groups of women clerical workers themselves were able to win the ear of Mr Justice Leo Cussen, acting as the "Court of Industrial Appeal," and he decided to overturn the award. It was "the cruellest determination that had ever been made for an important section of workers," an irate Mulcahy declared at one of the public protest meetings that followed. (39)

July and August 1911 also saw Mulcahy involved in establishing a new union for women workers--the Cigarette Workers Union. In this case, for the union to gain Trades Hall acceptance, it was necessary that other tobacco-related unions did not object. In cigarette making, women outnumbered men. Once affiliated, it reported some satisfaction in wage increases, though it was a form of work strongly affected by seasonal conditions. (40)

As a leader in workforce organising, Mulcahy sought to understand differing work situations through two forms of research. She studied government reports and statistics from yearbooks and also spent many hours in visiting workers on location, observing and discussing conditions with women and men directly involved in activities ranging from office cleaning to heavy industry. She found that the office cleaners were usually the family breadwinners, with young children to care for, and wrote graphically of their situation:

   Let us picture a sultry morning trudge by underpaid and overworked
   women to magnificent buildings in Collins-street ending in hours of
   laborious scrubbing and cleaning, then a return trudge home, fagged
   out, possibly to do a little washing to add to her income, or
   attention to her young family for a few intervening hours before
   setting forth again about 4 o'clock in the afternoon to repeat the
   journey and work of the morning, reaching home finally between
   eight and nine o'clock at night, thoroughly exhausted. (41)

Attempting to organise women into unions as the century entered its second decade and the female workforce increased in numbers, Mulcahy and other WOC activists found them engaged in two different types of work situation, each requiring a certain strategic approach.

Office cleaners, domestic servants and, in many instances, shop assistants did not have fellow employees around them. Union organisers faced the challenge of trying to unite these scattered workers, many of whom might have viewed those in the same occupation as competitors. Meetings at central locations, such as Trades Hall or the Temperance Hall, needed to be planned for suitable times of day and advertised in Labor Call or by posters. Speeches on these occasions would need to accentuate commonalities of experience, to build a belief that union action could achieve better conditions and pay for workers who were employed independently of each other.

In contrast, women in factories worked as part of a cohort and were more readily approached as a group with common concerns. Garment and household linen workers, confectionery employees and women bookbinders and stationery employees were in this category. Some of the more helpful employers facilitated lunchtime gatherings at which women organisers could address groups of employees. Mulcahy acknowledged this co-operation on more than one occasion in her Labor Call reports and must have been able to persuade managers of the legitimacy of her visits and recruiting, as well as appealing to the workers themselves. (42)

Another subset of women who worked collectively was the army of clerks, typists, bookkeepers and other office workers who could be seen going to business in the city, suburbs and provincial towns across the six days of the working week. The challenge with these women was to persuade them that they should join a union. They were better educated than women servants and factory workers. Many were waiting to leave paid employment for marriage or were perhaps of genteel upbringing but fallen on hard economic times. In either case they were less likely to see themselves as part of the labour movement. Some female clerical workers proved to be strongly opposed to the idea of unionism. "Indignant Lady Typist" greeted the news in the Argus that Mulcahy had been appointed organiser with the following outburst:

   If so-called lady typists ... would only make themselves more
   proficient in their work, there would be no need to enlist the
   services of any woman organiser ... [and she] and all [her]
   friends, without exception, who were trained in one of the best
   business colleges in Melbourne, have no need to join unions. (43)

A major difficulty for Mulcahy arose from the opposition that she encountered from Trades Hall, for they would not recognise her as a delegate of any of "her" unions because she had not worked in those jobs. Further, women, not just men, had their demarcation disputes, with Mulcahy's Office Cleaners and Laundry Workers Unions accused of intruding on the domain of Minnie Felstead's older Domestic Workers Union. It seems clear that women would have achieved more and earlier had they been able to attack from a united front. (44)

From May 1911, Mulcahy initiated two projects, both of which held their inaugural sessions at "Garra Cloyne." A Womens Industrial Committee was formed, with Mulcahy's aim being to link women's political and industrial organising. Also, pursuing a scheme she had proposed in detail in a 1910 Labor Call article, she and several supporters set up a Workers Self-Help Fund to support workers in periods of unemployment. (45) This was an adventurous undertaking and it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which it operated, but the scheme was certainly put into practice in some individual unions--the Women Bookbinders and Stationery Employees Union and the Cigarette Workers Union being two. In each case, a credit balance from funds collected allowed the establishment of a special fund, which was managed by trustees from the union and had very few formalities, so that those in need would not be discouraged from applying.

Mulcahy's political activities continued throughout 1911. She served as Minute Secretary for the 1911 Annual PLC Conference in April, her minutes covering more than one hundred pages, with an honorarium of 5 [pounds sterling] paid to her for carrying out these duties. She was re-elected to the Central Executive. (46) Before and after this conference she was active in campaigning for the national referendum on 26 April, when the Federal Labor government sought greater powers. Her writing skills were put to use in a WOC pamphlet, as they had been for the 1910 Federal elections. Shortly after this, in what must have been a very busy May at "Garra Cloyne," the Parkville PLC Branch was formed there, with Mulcahy assuming her usual role of secretary. This move brought repeated protests from the North Melbourne branch but the Central Executive confirmed the new branch's legitimacy. (47)

The second half of 1911 saw Mulcahy again on the campaign trail, this time for the 16 November Victorian elections. In response to numerous invitations, she traversed the State from July to November, visiting Daylesford, Tallangatta, Colac, Warrnambool, Wangaratta, Wahgunyah, Rutherglen, Ararat, Stawell, Elmhurst, Moyston, Castlemaine, Maldon, Chewton and Beaufort, as well as suburbs across Melbourne. While in Warrnambool and at Ballarat and with the support of factory managers she visited clothing and other factories, again combining industrial purposes with the political. (48)

This election had two special features that required voter education--it was the first full election at which women could exercise their hard-won State franchise and a new system of preferential voting was being introduced. Labor was disappointed in these elections, with the loss by small margins of two seats, and no gains. While the effect of Mulcahy's campaigning cannot be determined, the data provided in the returns suggest that in the electoral districts of Castlemaine and Maldon, Daylesford and Stawell and Ararat where the female turnout was better than 73 per cent, well above the State average of 59 per cent, Mulcahy at least helped to politicise the thinking of local women. (49)

In her spare time, Mulcahy continued to write for Labor Call, as PLC Central Executive Correspondent, reporter of many political and industrial meetings and contributor of feature articles ranging from "Office Cleaners of the City" in February, an exposure of the "pacing up" system at the Newport Railway Workshops in March, through to her lengthy end-of-year article "The Housing of the Workers: Man's Birthright--Room to Live." (50)

She did not forget her duties in the local community, continuing as a Children's Court Probation Officer. Barely recovered from the State elections, Mulcahy was one of a party of 20 probation officers to undertake "an official day visit" in late November to seven institutions--in the city, Collingwood, East Melbourne, Surrey Hills and Burwood. They surveyed the numbers using each facility, their care and the relevant financial resources, with Mulcahy reporting to the Labor Call readership shortly afterwards. (51)


This brief survey of Mulcahy's activities in the public domain in 1911 exemplifies both her personal energy and commitment and also the range of activities in which she showed leadership. Why and how was she able to emerge as such a strong and effective leader of working women? It is evident that, in Kaminski's and Yakura's terms, she was able to "figure out the politics," as her appointed roles in the PLC and her articles demonstrate. To some extent she was able for a short period to "set the agenda," though as a woman and, gender constraints aside, as a dynamic self-motivated individual, in "setting the agenda" she confronted obstacles, originating for the most part at Trades Hall.

Regarding the first stages of Kaminski's and Yakura's model, however--"finding [her] voice" and "developing basic skills," the evidence in the case of Ellen Mulcahy is clear. Even in the absence of personal letters and diaries, a close investigation of Mulcahy's life, drawing on genealogical and family history resources and on Victorian Education Department records from c.1872, reveals much. It suggests that two major influences contributed to Mulcahy's formation as a labour leader. One was her family life--the Mulcahy family dynamics or ethos and her position in her family; the other was her career as a teacher.

As noted earlier, Ellen Mulcahy had come, with her family, from County Cork, Ireland, to the Colony of Victoria in 1864 as a four-year-old. The Mulcahys settled in Kilmore, where the father, John, and his wife, Bridget, set up home and his boot and shoe repair shop in the main street and where other children were born. Her family life was the first and continuing formative influence on Ellen. She was the oldest child and took a leadership role in a family that one would-be patron stated was "considered poor but honest and industrious." (52) Scholars of immigrant Irish families, such as Chris McConville, have drawn attention to an aspirational drive on the part of parents, promoting the education and future careers of their children with the support of hoped-for patrons and, conversely, bonds of affection and obligation linking children with their parents. (53)

The Mulcahys exemplified this pattern of mutuality. The father sought the patronage of leading citizens of Kilmore to facilitate the entry of the family into public service careers that promised respect and security. Writing to the Education Department Secretary in 1876, the Kilmore Police Magistrate, A. P. Akehurst, stated that "The father of Ellen Mulcahy ... having made application to me for a recommendation ... I believe her to be an intelligent and respectable young woman." (54) Another town leader, Alfred Sugden, wrote in the same year in a superior tone that "An old neighbour of mine has called on me and requested me to write to you ... the Father is under the impression that a note from me to you would be of service to the applicant [Ellen] in obtaining an appointment." (55) The five siblings who grew to adulthood achieved the family goal of State public service positions Ellen and her two sisters as long-serving Education Department teachers, and the two sons as civil servants. As adults, they set up a fund to support their parents in their old age. (56) The five were remarkably close, living together or nearby for the rest of their lives. All are buried, with their parents, in a family vault in the Melbourne General Cemetery.

Education was very highly valued. Though Ellen's parents had received limited formal education themselves, they had come from a district in County Cork where the parish priest, Father Mat(t) Horgan of Whitechurch-Blarney, and local patrons had begun to give education increased priority. (57) Ellen did not have the opportunity to matriculate; however, she did study at a private college while teaching in Stawell and proved to be remarkably well read, if the references and allusions that fill her Labor Call articles are any guide. But she made sure that the youngest three Lawrence, Margaret and John--completed Matriculation. Ellen tutored Lawrence for the Victorian State School Exhibitions and had the reward of seeing him achieve success, enabling him to attend Scotch College. Subsequently, Lawrence and John passed the civil service examinations and each also studied for a couple of years at the University of Melbourne. (58)

Ellen's position as eldest child, her early experience of her father's seeking political support for her career, the high value placed on education and then the situation in her adult years of having a strong family home base where much of her political work took place all contributed significantly to her formation as a leader in the public sphere.

Ellen Mulcahy's years as a teacher also contributed to her formation as an activist. In her study, Knowing Women, Marjorie Theobald asks whether "the experiences of the nineteenth century state school gave women the pre-condition for action in the public sphere," a question one can ask of both pupils and women teachers. (59)

Over the course of a 30-year career in education, Mulcahy faced several crises. Initially, there were difficulties of pay and appointment due to the fact that her entry as a very young pupil teacher in 1873 coincided with teething problems associated with the inauguration of the Education Department in Victoria and the changeover from Common and Denominational Schools. Later, she had to carry out a long campaign to be transferred from Stawell to Melbourne. She had begun to suffer from pyonephrosis (abscess of the kidneys) and also ophthalmia, the latter disease endemic in the district. (60) She and the whole family were distressed when Lawrence was at school in Melbourne without family supervision. Also, as the family's principal income earner, Ellen was responsible for paying boarding fees to Scotch College, for the Exhibition scholarship did not include a living allowance. Later again, as will be shown, she was taken to task by two head-masters during her Carlton school appointments, in each case for quietly but firmly standing up for her rights, the second instance bringing on an official Departmental enquiry.

From the beginning of her career, following her father's example, Ellen Mulcahy dealt with her crises by writing to or visiting the Education Department Secretary or the Minister of Public Instruction. In the two serious cases, although officially warned, she did not suffer any further penalty. Her letters to the Department show her determination, fearlessness and seeking of justice, in these instances for herself and her family, but presaging the voice she would raise on behalf of workers in her later union activities. The first letter of hers in the Public Record Office of Victoria education files, dated 7 January 1875 when she was just 15, was addressed to the Secretary of the Education Department:

   I was appointed as fourth class pupil teacher in No. 358 School on
   the third of November 1873. I have received no salary for the two
   months in that year, but I have received it every month in 1874. I
   would be thankful to you if you would send it to me if it is due to
   me or else an explanation of it.

   please answer this letter
   I remain your obedient servant
   Ellen Mulcahy

Although obviously immature in handwriting and expression, it is indicative of a personality prepared to put her case to the highest authority. (61)

The first of her two major clashes with head-teachers occurred in 1890 at Queensberry Street, Carlton, when she refused to be a party to a rather dubious system of roll-marking which the head teacher hoped would keep up his attendance figures (on which payments to schools were largely determined). The Assistant Inspector General managed the case skilfully, stating that he had counselled each party and that no further action was necessary in what he recorded as "a collision between an exacting, ungenial and unsympathetic HT and a vigorous minded, positive & independent asst." (62)

Ellen Mulcahy's 1899 letter defending herself against the charge of "disrespectful conduct calculated to impair the efficiency of the school" at Faraday Street (the second major case) resulted from her response to the head-teacher's and her own anxiety about the district inspector's forthcoming results examination, which would form the basis for the school's annual payment by results. Her defence runs to 18 pages, injudicious in places but demonstrating a strong rhetorical voice. This case was viewed very seriously by the Department, with Mulcahy and two other Faraday Street teachers, who faced separate charges of "insubordination" caused by anxiety over payment by results, having to deal with a type of courtroom. Where the apologies of the other two assistant teachers sufficed, Ellen Mulcahy eventually had to take her case to the Minister of Public Instruction before she could avoid being removed from the school and posted elsewhere. Her abilities to persuade were fully tested here. (63)

What Kind of Leader did Ellen Mulcahy Become?

It is apparent that Ellen Mulcahy's leadership in political and industrial arenas was the product of her family and teaching backgrounds, expressed in a style that reflected her strong personality. It was also shaped by the imperatives of organising particular to her era.

Mulcahy's leadership was not that of a figurehead. She became closely involved with those for whom she was advocating. Her leadership had aspects of the charismatic, in that she was persuasive about her causes, and was able to appeal effectively to female and male workers, to bureaucrats and members of parliament and to factory managers. People in need turned to her and in several instances she was the recipient of generous recognition for her efforts.

Appeals were directed to her on social welfare and justice issues once her roles with the PLC, its WOC and a growing number of unions became known. However, the appeals at times went beyond claims relating to work and union matters. Patients in the Austin Hospital for "incurables" sought WOC support when they were prohibited from walking in the hospital grounds. (64) A complaint was received about harsh treatment of children at the Ballarat Orphan Asylum. (65) In each case Mulcahy, as WOC Secretary, referred the matter to the State Parliamentary Labor Party. In early 1910 the advocacy of the WOC was called on in a long-running problem that a Miss O'Grady had over her land selection. (66) Even further from industrial concerns was the Bayne Sisters drama, where Mulcahy devoted hours in research and consultation with members of parliament, up to the level of premier. (67) This was a case of a squandered inheritance, a breach of promise court case and eventual threats of imprisonment when three sisters were unable to repay moneys they had borrowed and overspent during the 1890s Depression.

After Labor's success at the 1910 Federal elections, a Cinderella Social was held "with the object of recognising the services of Miss Mulcahy." (68) Presenting her with a gold pendant "suitably inscribed," G. M. Prendergast, MLA, stated that:

   she had introduced elements both political and social into the
   movement, which had attracted numbers of adherents and active
   supporters that would not otherwise have been in Labor's ranks; and
   ... as leader of the State Labor party, ... he did not hesitate to
   state that Miss Mulcahy had proved herself a prominent and
   successful factor as regards women in the Labor party. (69)

Prendergast was again the speechmaker when the Women Bookbinders and Stationery Employees Association presented her with "a handsome bag and gold bracelet" at a May 1911 social attended by more than 500 people. (70) A year after the formation of the Cigarette Workers Union, they presented her with a gold-mounted stylograph pen "in recognition of her services in having organised the union and the great interest taken by her in its welfare during its career." (71)

The most striking gift she received was a magnificent illuminated address from the Women Workers Union, a combined association of the Laundry Workers Union and the Office Cleaners Union, presented to her late in 1912 after the establishment of the Office Cleaners Wages Board and the achievement of better leave conditions, including sick leave. (72) The text expressed "grateful recognition of your sustained voluntary efforts in the Organisation of Workers and in the Cause of Labor, both from the Platform and through the Press" and "gratification at your untiring endeavours to better the position of Women in all Branches of Industry."

In view of Mulcahy's candidature for the House of Representatives in 1913, another interesting expression of the support she attracted was a "requisition" signed by two thousand women around Melbourne early in 1912, "prepared with the object of getting Miss Mulcahy to stand for selection as one of the Labor candidates for the Senate." (73) Mulcahy refused the request and omitted reference to the incident in the PLC minutes and the Labor Call PLC report, both of which she authored at that time.

Mulcahy's activism was motivated by an idealistic vision of a better society and indisputably based on socialist principles. She was radical and progressive yet at times conservative in her view of a traditional home as consisting of a male breadwinner with his wife as the manager of the home in which they reared a family, and in an apparently unquestioning religious foundational belief in "Divine ordination." (74) Her strong arguments in favour of equal pay for equal work arose from the observation that women workers were undercutting male employees in similar work. Under conditions of equal pay, men could assume responsibility for household income, women could take their intended place in charge of a home and family, and those women whose lot in life was the single state could live in reasonable comfort and dignity.

Mulcahy's leadership benefited from her intelligence, her literary skills and the thorough research that she undertook, both on site at factories and from theoretical, philosophical and official literature. But it was, above all, practical, organisational and directed towards putting into action or effect, the results of her study and experience. Essentially, she was an activist, not just a theorist.

The pioneer woman journalist, May Maxwell, described her as "a strong personality," who was "capable, logical and self-reliant." Noting her role as Minute Secretary at the 1911 PLC Annual Conference, Maxwell commended Mulcahy's coolness in the face of "many turbulent" debates. (75)

The role Mulcahy most often assumed was that of secretary. In only one instance did she take up a presidency and that was for the women's section of the Victorian Clerks Union--a women's sub-branch formed from a union led by and predominantly comprised of men and not a group that she herself had formed. As secretary, she applied many of her personal gifts and skills--communication, both spoken and written, sympathy and advocacy, energy, intelligence and boldness. She could and did talk with a wide range of people--office cleaners with their buckets and keys, men working in heavy industry, labourers unloading furniture on the docks, women in cigarette factories, clothing factory managers, members of parliament, educated lady clerks, new arrivals at a Richmond cafe, children whom she had followed from the Carlton classroom into the factories. (76)

In twenty-first century leadership theory and practice, mentoring is strongly advocated and incorporated in training programs. While Ellen Mulcahy and women activists of her time would probably not have used the term "mentor," there is evidence that in her union organising Mulcahy saw this as part of her role and was seen in this light by others. Speaking of the members of one of the unions she had formed and with which she most closely identified, she praised young women workers in general for their ability to "stand up and voice their opinions fluently and fairly" and found "the bookbinders in particular fine types of womanhood, strong and capable, bright and intelligent." (77)

Mary Gilmore, whom she had met at the 1909 First Victorian Labor Womens Political Convention, referred to Mulcahy in terms reflecting her role as a mentor when she reported on a visit Mulcahy paid to her during July 1911. Mulcahy and fellow woman unionist, Mrs Amy Barry, were in Sydney on account of Federated Clothing Trades Union work and took the opportunity to see Gilmore, who was by then resident in Sydney and writing a women's page for the Worker. Gilmore described Mulcahy thus:

   The friendly elder sister of so many unions (for we all know Miss
   Mulcahy's good work and long service) ... [a] quiet,
   self-possessed, well-informed woman, with a full sense of the
   dignified, quiet manner due by an organizer to Labor, she strikes
   one as just the type of woman needed. (78)


Mulcahy's break with the Labor Party and the union movement associated with the Melbourne Trades Hall meant that the very people who might have recognised and celebrated her achievements in the years ahead were silent. She was, for them, no longer a labour hero.

For a few years she had been someone to whom people had turned as an advocate in their appeals to politicians and bureaucrats. She had communicated with the labour readership through her prolific writing for Labor Call and other press outlets. She had transferred her teaching and mentoring skills to her work with wayward children, to women newly enfranchised in Victoria and to the general electorate regarding preferential voting procedures. Her compassion towards those suffering social disadvantage and her commitment to seeking justice for workers, both women and men, were very apparent from her actions and her writing.

Ellen Mulcahy's family background and her teaching career reveal strong connections between the apparently separate periods of her life and represent convincing explanatory factors in any quest to understand what inspired her efforts. The account of her remarkable, if short, period of public activism allows readers in the twenty-first century some insight into the experience of one early twentieth century woman labour leader who had, till recently, remained in the shadows of history.

Wendy Dick, The author would like to thank the two anonymous referees of Labour History for their comments and suggestions.

(1.) Teacher Record no. 6314, Ellen Mulcahy, Teacher Record Books, Education Department, Victoria, VPRS 13718, Public Record Office of Victoria (PROV), Melbourne.

(2.) On 26 November 1906, "Miss E. Mulcahy" was reported as supporting a resolution of confidence in Dr Maloney as the Labor candidate for Melbourne in the December House of Representatives elections. See Labor Call, November 29, 1906, 8.

(3.) Farley Kelly, "The 'Woman Question' in Melbourne 1880-1914" (PhD thesis, Monash University, 1982).

(4.) Melanie Raymond, "Labour Pains: Working Class Women in Employment, Unions and the Labor Party in Victoria, 1888-1914" (MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1987).

(5.) Raelene Frances, The Politics of Work: Gender and Labour in Victoria, 1880--1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

(6.) Frank Bongiorno, The People's Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875--1914 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996).

(7.) Amanda Sinclair, Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading that Liberates (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2007), xiii.

(8.) See, for example, Thomas J. Sergiovanni, Strengthening the Heartbeat: Leading and Learning Together in Schools (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2005). See also "Leadership Discussions: Sergiovanni in Victoria," Research Elert 3 (Office of Learning and Teaching, Department of Education and Training, Victoria, June 2005).

(9.) Michelle Kaminski and Elaine K. Yakura, "Women's Union Leadership: Closing the Gender Gap," Working USA 11, no. 4 (December 2008): 462.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Michelle Kaminski and Jailza Pauly, "Union Leadership and Gender: Obstacles for Women," accessed February 2013, kaminski_pauly.pdf.

(12.) Rae Cooper, "The Gender Gap in Union Leadership in Australia: A Qualitative Study," Journal of Industrial Relations 54, no. 2 (April 2012): 131-46.

(13.) See, for example, Joseph C. Rost, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1993).

(14.) Kaminski and Yakura, "Women's Union Leadership," 463.

(15.) Children's Court Act, 6EDW.VII, 1906, no. 2058, Victoria. See Register of Children's Court Probation Officers and Special Magistrates, 1, 1907-46, VPRS 7748/P1, Unit 1, File 08/4527 for Mulcahy's nomination, July 23, 1908, and File 08/5364 for her appointment, August 18, 1908.

(16.) Ellen Mulcahy, "The Children's Cause," Labor Call, October 14, 1909, 2.

(17.) Minutes, 9 and 23 February and 23 March 1907, Metropolitan District Council (MDC), Political Council of Victoria (PLC), 27 August 1904-6 April 1907, State Library of Victoria (SLV), MSF 10389, B1, 226, 230 and 236. Letter from P. Heagney, Secretary of PLC Central Executive to J. Lanigan, MDC Secretary, 2 April 1907, letter interleaved at end of MDC volume. The balance sheet to 28 February 1907 (ibid., 234) showed a cash balance of 3.3s.8d [pounds sterling] and liabilities of 21.3s.4d [pounds sterling].

(18.) The Adult Suffrage Act 1908, no. 2185, Victoria, passed the Legislative Council on 18 November 1908, with Royal assent proclaimed on 31 March 1909.

(19.) For the new Womens Organising Committee (WOC), see Minutes, 6 March 1909, PLC Central Executive Minutes, 10 August 1907-10 July 1909, 266.

(20.) The Women's Convention was reported in Labor Call, July 1, 1909, 2, and Argus, June 24, 25 and 26, 1909, 7, 5 and 16. Mulcahy's paper was published in Labor Call, July 15 and 22, 1909, 9.

(21.) Frank Bongiorno, The People's Party: Victorian Labor and the Radical Tradition 1875-1914, 131, refers to Mulcahy's energetic campaigning across Melbourne. For planning the Women's Demonstration and the event, see Labor Call, March 24, 1910, 5; May 5, 1910, 1.

(22.) For election to Central Executive, see PLC Annual Conference Minutes, 4-7 July 1910, SLV MSF 10389, 17 July 1909-12 November 1910, 265; for appointments, see PLC Central Executive Minutes, 10 September 1910, 328.

(23.) Ellen Mulcahy, "God Speed the Plough," Labor Call, November 3, 1910, 9; December 1, 1910, 2; December 8, 1910, 2.

(24.) See, for example, Felstead's opposition to Mulcahy's successful motion to have the WOC admitted to the PLC Annual Conference with branch status, Labor Call, June 16, 1910, 3.

(25.) Age, May 3, 1913, 13.

(26.) Argus, May 27, 1913, 13.

(27.) Age, May 3, 1913, 14.

(28.) See Age, September 15, 1913, 7; Argus, September 15, 1913, 5.

(29.) For dissatisfaction and candidature, see, for example, Age, May 3, 1913, 14; Argus, May 15, 10; May 27, 1913, 13. The September afternoon tea gathering in her honour, after her expulsions, was reported in the Age, September 15, 1913, 7, and the Argus, September 15, 1913, 5.

(30.) Labor Call, January 9, 1913, 1.

(31.) Victorian State Telephone Directory, 1914, SLV, GMF 98, box 44.

(32.) For Mulcahy's home front war service, see obituary, Age, September 18, 1920, 15. For the "Grand Carnival," see Argus, December 4, 1915, 20, and December 11, 1915, 27.

(33.) Death certificate 9828, Ellen Mulcahy, died 16 September, 1920, Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

(34.) Minutes of first meeting, 17 October, 1910, Women Bookbinders Union (WBU), 17 October 1910 -9 October 1911, SLV, MS 11550, box 962/4. For WOC interest in the situation of day workers, see Labor Call, November 10, 1910, 1.

(35.) See Victorian Parliamentary Debates 1912, from 3 September to 31 October 1912.

(36.) Minutes, 12 July 1911, Federated Furnishing Trade Societies (FFTS) Minute Book, 27 April 1911-14 May 1912, T58/1/19, 21 and 28, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University; Minutes, 1 July 1909, FFTS Minute Book, 7 January 1909-16 September 1909, T58/1/17, 52.

(37.) The Federated Clothing Trades Union of Australia was inaugurated in 1907. See Bradon Ellem, In Women's Hands? A History of Clothing Trades Unionism in Australia (Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press, 1989), particularly page 69, for reference to amalgamation of separate unions in Victoria.

(38.) For Mulcahy's appointment, see "Half-Yearly Report, 19 July 1911," Clerk 1, no. 1 (25 July 1911): 2. The Bill to appoint a Commercial Clerks Wages Board was passed in October 1911; see Clerk 1, no. 4 (28 October 1911): 2-8. The decision of the Commercial Clerks Wages Board to grant equal pay was announced on 20 August 1912; see Argus, August 22, 1912, 6.

(39.) Age, March 15, 1913, 12.

(40.) Ellen Mulcahy, "Women Cigarette Workers," Labor Call, July 6, 1911, 5; Labor Call, September 21, 1911, 1. For a history of the tobacco industry and its unions, see Alleyn Best, Tobacco Worker: History of the Federated Tobacco Workers' Union of Australia, 1884-1988 (Cheltenham, Victoria: Federated Tobacco Workers Union of Australia, Victorian Branch, 1989).

(41.) Ellen Mulcahy, "Office Cleaners of the City," Labor Call, February 16, 1911, 10.

(42.) See, for example, Labor Call, June 1, 1911, 1, for proprietors of clothing factories allowing Miss Mulcahy to address the women workers.

(43.) Argus, June 22, 1911, 6.

(44.) See, for example, Victorian Trades Hall Council Executive Committee Minutes, 27 February, 7 and 14 March 1911, Minute Book, 11 May 1909-1 July 1913, 238 and 240-42, University of Melbourne Archives 1/2/1/2. See also Minnie Felstead's advertisement, Labor Call, February 23, 1911, 8.

(45.) Ellen Mulcahy, "Workers' Self-Help Fund," Labor Call, September 15, 1910, 7.

(46.) PLC Annual Conference Minutes, 14-17 April 1911, SLV, MSF 10389, 29 October 1910-20 May 1911, 205-321.

(47.) Challenges to the branch's legitimacy were raised, unsuccessfully, by the North Melbourne Branch, sometimes through Mr Cohen and Mrs Felstead, on at least three occasions: 3 June 1911, 2 December 1911 and at the 1912 PLC Annual Conference; see PLC Central Executive Minutes, SLV, MS 10389, 3 June 1911-31 January 1914, 6, 178, 230-31, 233 and 266.

(48.) Labor Call editions of the period contain frequent reports of and by Mulcahy of these activities.

(49.) See Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, Victoria, Second Session, 1911, vol. 1, xxv-xxvi.

(50.) Labor Call, February 16, 1911, 10; March 9, 1911, 7; December 21, 1911, 8.

(51.) Ellen Mulcahy, "A Day Among the Children," Labor Call, December 7, 1911, 7.

(52.) Alfred Sugden to Education Department, 10 May 1876, VPRS 794/P, Unit 316, File 76/17192, PROV.

(53.) See, for example, Chris McConville, "Emigrant Irish and Suburban Catholics: Faith and Nation in Melbourne and Sydney, 1851-1933" (PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 1984); see also Chris McConville, "The Victorian Irish: Emigrants and Families, 1851-91," in Families in Colonial Australia, ed. Patricia Grimshaw, Chris McConville and Ellen McEwen (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1985).

(54.) VPRS 794/P, Unit 293, File 76/8431.

(55.) VPRS 794/P, Unit 316, File 2384/76/17192.

(56.) For the fund to support the parents, see administration of estate of the father, John Mulcahy, died 4 January 1899, VPRS 28/P, Unit 997, File 78/340 and VPRS 28/P2, Unit 573, File 78/340, PROV.

(57.) The observations about the Mulcahy family ethos and the County Cork background are supported by the work of James S. Donnelly Jr, The Land and the People of Nineteenth-Century Cork: The Rural Economy and the Land Question (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), and from information provided in 2012 by Irish local and family historians, especially John A. Mulcahy of Whitechurch, Co. Cork.

(58.) See Matriculants' Data Base and University Student Records, University of Melbourne Archives.

(59.) Marjorie Theobald, Knowing Women: Origins of Women's Education in Nineteenth-Century Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 213.

(60.) For Ellen Mulcahy's absences due to illness during her teaching positions at Stawell and at Faraday Street, Carlton, see Appendices A and B in Ruth Wendy Dick, "Ellen Mulcahy: A Study of Her Work and Life in the Context of Her Times" (PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2012), 267-80.

(61.) VPRS 794/P, Unit 185, File 75/524, PROV. Although Ellen did not receive the questioned salary at the time, the remarkable outcome was that on her retirement in 1905 the Department paid her an extra five weeks on half pay to cover the "doubt"; see VPRS 640/P, Unit 66, File 05/4009.

(62.) See Education Department files: VPRS 640/P1, Unit 554, Files 90/54978 and 90/57526.

(63.) See VPRS 892/P, Unit 77, Special Case 1023, School No. 112, for the unfolding of this case to its resolution.

(64.) Minutes, 14 August 1909, PLC Central Executive Minutes, 17 July 1909-12 November 1910, SLV, MS 10389, 19.

(65.) Minutes, 28 August 1909, PLC Central Executive, ibid., 39.

(66.) The case was recorded in Victorian Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly, Second Session, 1909, vol. 123, 3405-6.

(67.) See, for example, Labor Call, November 10, 1910, 1.

(68.) Labor Call, June 16, 1910, 8.

(69.) Ibid.

(70.) Labor Call, May 18, 1911, 5.

(71.) Labor Call, August 1, 1912, 1.

(72.) Mercury (Hobart), November 8, 1912, 7. The illuminated address is in the possession of descendants of Ellen's parents.

(73.) See "Lady Candidate for Senate," Mercury, February 15, 1912, 4.

(74.) See, for example, Ellen Mulcahy, "The Advance of Women," Labor Call, December 22, 1910, 14; Ellen Mulcahy, "Shoulder to Shoulder," Labor Call, December 19, 1912, 16.

(75.) May Maxwell, "Miss Mulcahy: A Strong Personality: Successful Organiser," Herald, June 13, 1911, 3.

(76.) Mulcahy's ability to communicate with such a range of people is reflected in reports and her own Labor Call articles across 1909-12.

(77.) Veronica, "Melbourne Notes", Sydney Morning Herald, June 14, 1911, 5.

(78.) Mary Gilmore, "Two Visitors," Worker, July 13, 1911, no page number on cutting.

Wendy Dick has had a career in education. Her PhD thesis, "Ellen Mulcahy: A Study of Her Work and Life in the Context of Her Times" (University of Melbourne, 2012), was awarded the 2012 Australian Industrial Relations Commission Centennial Prize. She is continuing her research into the lives and activities of neglected early twentieth century labour women activists. <>
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Date:May 1, 2013
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