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Booth, Angela Elizabeth Josephine (1869–1954)

by Grant McBurnie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Angela Elizabeth Josephine Booth (1869-1954), eugenicist, was born on 27 October 1869 at Liverpool, Lancashire, England, and registered as Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Plover, labourer, and his illiterate wife Eliza, née Hall. Despite her humble origins, Elizabeth claimed to have been educated at Liverpool and 'on the Continent'. In 1896 she migrated to Australia and on 7 January 1897, styling herself Angela Elizabeth Josephine, married a medical practitioner and divorcee James Booth (1861-1944) at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Sydney.

In 1901 the Booths moved to Broken Hill where they took a keen interest in community affairs: James served as a non-Labor alderman (1909-16), founded the local art gallery and co-founded the Broken Hill Nursing Society. Angela was concerned with the role that women might take to improve social and political conditions: she joined the Women's Political Association and the Liberal Education Society, and addressed audiences on the need for women to participate in public life.

Shortly before World War I the Booths settled in North Melbourne where Angela involved herself in the middle-class, activist community. Resigning from the W.P.A. in 1915 in protest against its pacifist stance, she supported conscription and saw the war as morally correct. Like many others, however, she was alarmed at the spread of venereal diseases and wanted to rebuild a stable and healthy postwar society.

In her writing and lecturing Booth held that the wise management of sexuality was essential. A dedicated eugenicist, she called for the eradication of venereal diseases, the elimination of prostitution and the planned birth of healthy, wanted children. During World War I she had founded the Association to Combat the Social Evil and delivered an address on prostitution to a large Workers' Educational Association conference in Sydney. Optimistic that the 'sex problem' could be remedied by social reform, she maintained that women were forced into prostitution through economic necessity and that prostitution was encouraged by a double standard of morality. Booth's solution was threefold. Women must receive equal pay; they must become active in government; and the public must be educated in 'racial responsibility': sexual restraint and planned parenthood would lead to a better society.

While her husband was president of the Australian Literature Society (1927) and of the Playlovers' Club (1929), Angela was politically active as a conservative. President of the North Melbourne branch of the National Federation and a leading member of both the Australian Women's National League and the Women's Citizen Movement, she enjoyed the support of such groups as the Housewives' Association. She was councillor (1926-33) for the Warrandyte riding of the Doncaster and Templestowe shire where the Booths owned a property, Nilga. In 1927 she was appointed a justice of the peace. Later that year she unsuccessfully sought Nationalist endorsement for State parliament and in 1929 failed to win the Legislative Assembly seat of Brighton as an Independent Nationalist. In her campaigns she urged women to vote together, believing that the concerns uniting them were more important than party politics.

The Depression seriously damaged Angela's faith in liberal reform. Rather than criticizing the capitalist system, she grew convinced that the alleged proliferation of 'mental defectives' in society was the greatest single cause of unemployment and crime. From the late 1920s the Booths argued that legislation should be enacted to provide for 'the sterilisation of the unfit'. As chairman of the North Melbourne Children's Court, James introduced psychological testing of delinquents. He warned that 'Moron breeds Moron'. The Booths met like-minded reformers through the Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales.

In 1936 James and Angela became founding members of the Eugenics Society of Victoria, a body which included prominent citizens dedicated to the promotion of selective breeding. In its early years Angela served as the society's vice-president. With its president W. E. Agar, she was one of the group's major proponents of sterilization, which she presented as an altruistic operation to spare the unfit from the burden of parenthood and to protect society from racial degeneration. In 1938 the Eugenics Society published her lecture, Voluntary Sterilization for Human Betterment, a policy for which it unsuccessfully lobbied the Victorian government next year.

Following James's death in 1944, Angela remained on Nilga. Age and distance curbed her activities. She returned to Melbourne about 1950 to live at Toorak and later at Sandringham where she died on 5 September 1954 and was cremated. A stepdaughter survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Lake and F. Kelly (eds), Double Time, Women in Victoria, 150 Years (Melb, 1985)
  • Housewife (Melbourne), 5 Dec 1929
  • Woman Voter, 8 July 1915
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1926, 4 May 1929, 3 Sept 1931
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Aug 1944, 10 Sept 1954
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 May 1921, 28 Aug 1926, 14 Nov 1929, 10 Apr 1934.

Citation details

Grant McBurnie, 'Booth, Angela Elizabeth Josephine (1869–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/booth-angela-elizabeth-josephine-9540/text16801, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 11 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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