Australian women at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in the early years

From 11 to 22 March, the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is scheduled to hold its 68th annual meeting, as the ‘principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women’. Australia played a formative role in establishing the CSW in 1946, and recently concluded a membership term from 2020 to 2023. This Flagpost gives an overview of some of the key Australian women who helped establish the CSW and direct its functions and efforts in the early years.

Jessie Street, President of the United Associations of Women, was the only woman on Australia’s delegation to the 1945 UN Conference on International Organisation in San Franscisco. Alongside other advocates, Street lobbied for a separate commission on women and to have the word ‘sex’ added to the UN Charter’s clause ‘without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. The CSW first began as a subcommission to the Commission on Human Rights but was formally inaugurated as a separate commission in 1946. Currently, 45 member states serve on the CSW and are elected to four-year terms by the UN Economic and Social Council, to reflect equitable geographical distribution.

One of the CSW’s early achievements was to help shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) by having it explicitly refer to women’s equality. The CSW then undertook extensive research across member states to understand the extent of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

From 1950 to 1958 South Australian lawyer Mary Tenison Woods served as Chief of the CSW Secretariat. During her tenure the CSW shepherded two important conventions through to adoption. The first was the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (CPRW) which came into force in 1953. This convention was the first instrument of international law aimed at recognising and protecting the political rights of women everywhere:

It provides that women, on an equal basis with men, are entitled to vote in any election, run for election to any office, and hold any public office or exercise any public function under national law. (Page 18)

Because of the commonwealth public service marriage bar and inconsistent state laws over public functions such as jury service Australia did not accede to CPRW until 1974.

The second was the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (enacted in 1958) which was one of the first international agreements on women’s rights in marriage and it aimed to protect a women’s right to maintain their nationality.

During Australia’s periods of CSW membership in the 1950s and 1960s, its delegates have included:

When the UN designated 1975 as International Women’s Year (IWY), Elizabeth Reid, Women’s Advisor to Prime Minister Whitlam, represented Australia on the UN consultative committee for the IWY Conference, to be held in Mexico City. Reid led the large Australian conference delegation, which included Margaret Whitlam and Susan Ryan. The conference released a Plan of Action and gave momentum for the CSW to draft the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which came into force in 1981. Australia also sent delegations to subsequent conferences in Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995) which tracked global progress of the status of women.

Nearly 8 years after attending the 1975 IWY conference, Senator Susan Ryan introduced the Sex Discrimination Bill 1983, which gave effect to many of Australia’s obligations under CEDAW. This national legislative change signified an achievement for women’s equality built on the efforts of many women’s rights campaigners, including those connected to the UN CSW.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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