The Birth of the NFAW

1988 was a time when many Australian feminists were thinking about the women’s movement. New initiatives and structures were germinating as the first group of second wave feminists realised that they were growing older and had concerns about the survival of feminist ideas in Australia. Four women whose paths crossed in an airport lounge began talking about their roots in the women’s movement and their need for an assurance that the gains of the past twenty years would not be lost in the hard times approaching.

They decided to spend some weekend time talking with other feminists about possibilities, their place in the women’s movement and how feminist ideas could move forward. These weekend meetings with definite views crackled with energy as they relearned the old consciousness-raising techniques of listening to each other. The meetings were held in Sydney but also attended by women from Western Australia, Victoria and and the ACT.

They spoke about what was happening to Australian feminists and shared their stories. In Canberra, some women were considering the practicalities of organising feminist bequest funds. This concern had arisen from the recent establishment of a foundation to administer an essay prize on a women’s studies theme from funds left in Australia by Beryl Henderson. Several enquiries came from women who were considering how to bequeath money to the feminist cause.

The Beryl Henderson Foundation members were aware that the future of their foundation depended heavily on the goodwill and durability of individuals. The idea of establishing a durable body which could administer funds in a secure way to promote the ideas and policies of the women’s movement into the far future began to develop.

This idea grew rapidly when Pamela Denoon approached The Beryl Henderson Foundation members about a large bequest she intended leaving to the cause of feminism. At this point the group meeting in Sydney to discuss the future of the women’s movement and the Canberra bequest fund group merged.

By the time of Pamela Denoon’s death in September 1988, these two groups had hammered out the idea of the National Foundation for Australian Women, focusing on research, policy formation and communication, to be set up with half of Pamela’s bequest. The following nine months were occupied by extraordinary activity!

Monthly meetings of what came to be known as the Interim Board were held in turn at weekends in Sydney, Canberra and the Wollongong region. The humble beginnings of an office were set up in Canberra and the Interim Board broke into subgroups to organise the myriad tasks associated with the public launching of the Foundation. Prominent women were approached to sponsor the new organisation. A comprehensive mailing list compiled from women’s networks and personal address books from all over Australia had begun.

Discussion papers were prepared on the first year’s work program for the Foundation, the need for the widest possible representation on the board of such a body and the management of funds. Consideration was given to other women’s movement initiatives of the time. Of particular interest, was the Victorian Women’s Trust and the idea of a women’s peak council and the Interim Board decided that the proposed Foundation differed substantially in aims, an opinion shared by consultation with the Victorian Women’s Trust.

A legal subcommittee explored the possibilities of organisational structure, bearing in mind the contradictions between the openness required of a women’s movement organisation and the needs of ‘waterproofing’ to prevent feminist funds falling into anti-feminist hands.

After much discussion, the Interim Board decided to proceed with a two-tiered structure with a small company managing the funds and a larger association propagating the feminist cause. The National Foundation for Australian Women was launched at the National Press Club in Canberra on 1 July 1989. Members of the Interim Board explained the aims and proposed organisation and a symbolic ‘passing of the torch’ from an old to a young feminist. A series of mini launches in all states and territories and some regional areas within states were held in the following six months. These launches attracted much interest and many members. As expected, discussion focused on the contradictions between the openness of a mass organisation and the need to protect women’s funds.

An unexpected but welcome element in the membership consisted of women who had never been involved in the women’s movement. The Interim Board continued to run the Foundation until the election. Results for Association, committee and board members were announced in June 1990.

Realising the need to continue momentum in this period, the Interim Board embarked on several Year One projects. The Broadside newsletter began publication, a childcare policy research project commenced and a National Women’s Conference set for September 1990. At the same time the Pamela Denoon Lecture took place for the second year in Canberra.

This lecture was set up by a group of Pamela’s friends and supported by the Denoon family. Intense lobbying gained tax deductibility status for donations to NFAW funds. Two women’s funds which had become dormant were passed on to the Foundation Association groups met in several cities to consider their role in the Foundation: the Canberra group decided to put their energy into organising the Conference.

During this period a lively debate on the structure of the organisation ensued among Association members and the Foundation discovered some of the difficulties in conducting such a debate within a national body.

With some relief, in June 1990 the Interim Board handed over responsibility for running the Foundation to the Governing Body, comprising the Board of the Company and the Committee of the Association.

This National Women’s Conference was at first envisaged as a kind of follow on from the Women and Labour conferences, so popular with the women’s movement from 1978 to 1984. The Conference was also one way of consulting with Australian women about their ideas for a feminist future. From the matters discussed, the papers produced, and the activities presented the Foundation gleaned some idea of the direction in which Australian women wished to proceed.