Labour History

“Vigorous-Minded and Independent”: Ellen Mulcahy as a Labour Leader

Labour History (2013), 104, (1), 31–48.


Early in the twentieth century Ellen Mulcahy, of Melbourne, engaged in several years of intensive political, industrial and social endeavour. Within the context of a brief consideration of leadership theory, the article outlines her public activism of the period and suggests factors in her family background and her earlier career as a teacher that contributed to her formation as a leader. Even without diaries and personal letters from this period, we can discern aspects of her leadership style from her published writings and from third person reports. There were challenges to overcome and achievements that encouraged labour women at a time when men in the Labor Party and conservative men and women in society in general struggled with the concept of gender equality.

Access Token
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


*The author would like to thank the two anonymous referees ofLabour Historyfor their comments and suggestions. Google Scholar

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. SeeLabor Call, November 29, 1906, 8. Google Scholar

3.Farley Kelly, “The ‘Woman Question’ in Melbourne 1880-1914”(PhD thesis,Monash University, 1982). Google Scholar

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). Google Scholar

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

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

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

8.See, for example,Thomas J. Sergiovanni, Strengthening the Heartbeat: Leading and Learning Together in Schools(:Jossey Bass, 2005). See also “Leadership Discussions: Sergiovanni in Victoria,”Research Elert3 (Office of Learning and Teaching, Department of Education and Training, Victoria, June 2005). Google Scholar

9.Michelle Kaminski and Elaine K. Yakura, “Women’s Union Leadership: Closing the Gender Gap,” Working USA 11, no. 4(December2008):462. Google Scholar

10.Ibid. Google Scholar

11.Michelle Kaminski and Jailza Pauly, “Union Leadership and Gender: Obstacles for Women,”accessed February2013, Google Scholar

12.Rae Cooper, “The Gender Gap in Union Leadership in Australia: A Qualitative Study,” Journal of Industrial Relations 54, no. 2(April2012):131–46. Google Scholar

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

14.Kaminski and Yakura, “Women’s Union Leadership,” 463. Google Scholar

16.Ellen Mulcahy, “The Children’s Cause,” Labor Call, October 14, 1909, 2. Google Scholar

17.Minutes, 9 and 23 February and 23 March1907, 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 $pD3.3s.8d and liabilities of $pD21.3s.4d. Google Scholar

20.The Women’s Convention was reported inLabor Call, July 1, 1909, 2, andArgus, June 24, 25 and 26, 1909, 7, 5 and 16. Mulcahy’s paper was published inLabor Call, July 15 and 22, 1909, 9. Google Scholar

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, seeLabor Call, March 24, 1910, 5; May 5, 1910, 1. Google Scholar

23.Ellen Mulcahy, “God Speed the Plough,” Labor Call, November 3, 1910, 9; December 1, 1910, 2; December 8, 1910, 2. Google Scholar

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. Google Scholar

25.Age, May 3, 1913, 13. Google Scholar

26.Argus, May 27, 1913, 13. Google Scholar

27.Age, May 3, 1913, 14. Google Scholar

28.See Age, September 15, 1913, 7;Argus, September 15, 1913, 5. Google Scholar

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 theAge, September 15, 1913, 7, and theArgus, September 15, 1913, 5. Google Scholar

30.Labor Call, January 9, 1913, 1. Google Scholar

31.Victorian State Telephone Directory, 1914, SLV, GMF 98, box 44. Google Scholar

32.For Mulcahy’s home front war service, see obituary, Age, September 18, 1920, 15. For the “Grand Carnival,” seeArgus, December 4, 1915, 20, and December 11, 1915, 27. Google Scholar

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, seeLabor Call, November 10, 1910, 1. Google Scholar

35.SeeVictorian Parliamentary Debates 1912, from 3 September to 31 October 1912. Google Scholar

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. Google Scholar

38.For Mulcahy’s appointment, see“Half-Yearly Report, 19 July 1911,” Clerk 1, no. 1(25 July1911):2. The Bill to appoint a Commercial Clerks Wages Board was passed in October 1911; seeClerk1, 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; seeArgus, August 22, 1912, 6. Google Scholar

39.Age, March 15, 1913, 12. Google Scholar

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). Google Scholar

41.Ellen Mulcahy, “Office Cleaners of the City,” Labor Call, February 16, 1911, 10. Google Scholar

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

43.Argus, June 22, 1911, 6. Google Scholar

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. Google Scholar

45.Ellen Mulcahy, “Workers’ Self-Help Fund,” Labor Call, September 15, 1910, 7. Google Scholar

48.Labor Calleditions of the period contain frequent reports of and by Mulcahy of these activities. Google Scholar

49.SeeVotes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly, Victoria, Second Session, 1911, vol. 1, xxv-xxvi. Google Scholar

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

51.Ellen Mulcahy, “A Day Among the Children,” Labor Call, December 7, 1911, 7. Google Scholar

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,” inFamilies in Colonial Australia, ed. Patricia Grimshaw, Chris McConville and Ellen McEwen (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1985). Google Scholar

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. Google Scholar

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

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 inRuth 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. Google Scholar

65.Minutes, 28 August 1909, PLC Central Executive, ibid., 39. Google Scholar

66.The case was recorded inVictorian Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly, Second Session, 1909, vol. 123, 3405-6. Google Scholar

67.See, for example, Labor Call, November 10, 1910, 1. Google Scholar

68.Labor Call, June 16, 1910, 8. Google Scholar

69.Ibid. Google Scholar

70.Labor Call, May 18, 1911, 5. Google Scholar

71.Labor Call, August 1, 1912, 1. Google Scholar

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

73.See “Lady Candidate for Senate,”Mercury, February 15, 1912, 4. Google Scholar

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. Google Scholar

75.May Maxwell, “Miss Mulcahy: A Strong Personality: Successful Organiser,” Herald, June 13, 1911, 3. Google Scholar

76.Mulcahy’s ability to communicate with such a range of people is reflected in reports and her ownLabor Callarticles across 1909-12. Google Scholar

77.Veronica, “Melbourne Notes”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 14, 1911, 5. Google Scholar

78.Mary Gilmore, “Two Visitors,” Worker, July 13, 1911, no page number on cutting. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


Author details

Dick, Wendy