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Couchman, Dame Elizabeth May Ramsay (1876–1982)

by Judith Smart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Dame Elizabeth May Ramsay Couchman (1876-1982), political organiser and activist, was born on 19 April 1876 at Geelong, Victoria, second surviving child of Scottish-born parents Archibald Tannock, confectioner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Ramsay. The family was of limited means, but May’s education to matriculation at Geelong prepared her for employment as a teacher at Methodist Ladies’ College and Tintern Girls’ Grammar School. Her political interests, aroused early by discussions between her mother and grandmother, drew her to the politically conservative Australian Women’s National League in 1910. Ambitious to pursue further study, May left for Perth in 1913 to enrol at the University of Western Australia (BA, 1916), where tuition was free. She founded the Educational Association, of which she was also president, and returned to teaching. On 9 January 1917 at St George’s Cathedral, Perth, she married Claude Ernest Couchman (d.1931), an architect and engineer with the Victorian Public Works Department, and a widower with one adult child.

Back in Melbourne, Mrs Couchman embarked on a career of political activism in support of the Nationalist Party through the AWNL. She joined its St Kilda branch and became a vice-president (1918-27). By 1922, alive to the imminence of generational change in the leadership of the league, she accepted appointment to the central executive, becoming its honorary secretary later that year. At the annual conference soon after, she spoke in favour of deleting from the preamble of the AWNL constitution the statement `we do not wish to send women to Parliament’. Her concern was not for `the “battlesome” female who talks of sex war’ but for women who put `public good before personal ambition’. The motion was defeated but tapped a current of interest among younger members.

Over the following years Couchman worked to reassure those who may have doubted her suitability for leadership by energetically engaging in organisational and educational work at branch and central levels, and representing the league’s views to government ministers on issues ranging from the conservation of timber, a colony for sterilisation of the intellectually disabled, segregation of `sexperverts’ and the need for more policewomen. The AWNL organ The Woman praised her efficiency, `sound university training’ and her gifts as a `charming and brilliant speaker’. In 1922 she had been unanimously elected secretary (president 1927) of the AWNL Debating Society; in 1925 she became metropolitan vice-president and in 1927 AWNL delegate to the National Council of Women, of which she later became a vice-president and life member. She had also been elected to the executive of the Victorian Women Graduates’ Association, the common interests committee of the English Speaking Union, and the council of the Australian Federation of University Women.

In 1927 Couchman was elected president of the AWNL. Although she assured the league that she `intended to follow in the footsteps of those who had gone before’, Couchman also saw new opportunities. She launched the Tasmanian branch of the AWNL in 1928 and sought unsuccessfully to federate the Nationalist Party’s women’s organisations under AWNL leadership. She also reopened the issue of women’s election to parliament. Declaring that `principles do not alter, but the means by which we attain them change’, early in 1931 she nominated for the Senate, commenting acerbically that `all political wisdom does not lie under the hats of men’. Endorsed only as the emergency United Australia Party candidate, she was not elected. The league’s support, however, was unreserved. Its 1932 annual conference finally passed a resolution in favour of `women candidates for parliament’, recognising `the important part women have taken in political, financial and public matters in the State’.

Couchman’s public profile expanded rapidly: she was one of four NCW representatives at the Industrial Peace Conference in Canberra in 1928 and she was made a Victorian justice of the peace the following year. Already vice-president of the Children’s Cinema Council, in 1932 she was the first woman appointed a member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, on which she served to 1942. In 1933 she was elected to the NCW centenary council executive. She helped to plan an international conference of women held in Melbourne in 1934 (at which she spoke of the `great reservoir of citizenship’ contained in women’s voluntary organisations). That year she was granted leave to investigate and report on public broadcasting, first in Canada, then in New York and finally in London, where she was a guest of the director-general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Sir John Reith. She represented Australia at an International Council of Women conference in Paris, and addressed a meeting at the Sorbonne in French.

Within weeks of leaving Australia, Mrs Couchman was also asked by the Commonwealth government to travel on to Geneva as alternate delegate to the League of Nations. There she took particular interest in the issue of the nationality of married women, a major concern of the NCW and the Australian Federation of Women Voters. Following her return in November, she addressed many women’s organisations on her impressions of the strength of women in diverse areas of responsibility, the need for opportunities for the young, the importance of broadcasting as an educational medium, and the challenge of balancing authority against the `freedom to develop as individuals’.

From 1931 Couchman saw the need to bring the AWNL—the membership of which was declining—into closer relations with the UAP, acknowledging that it was effectively the women’s branch of its extra-parliamentary structure. Couchman’s own parliamentary ambitions were repeatedly frustrated: she ran for Senate preselection for the UAP in 1937 but was endorsed only as the emergency candidate, and for the 1943 Federal election was preselected for the safe Labor seat of Melbourne. But with the disintegration of the UAP and the regrouping of conservative forces after 1943, Couchman was prepared to drive a hard bargain for the league’s co-operation and the recognition of her own skills.

When representatives of conservative political organisations met in Canberra in October 1944 to discuss the formation of a new party, the Argus observed the `marked attention that was paid to Mrs Claude Couchman’: prospective candidates for parliament would be `indulging in a crude form of political suicide if they neglected to enlist the active support of [the AWNL]’. Couchman was convinced by (Sir) Robert Menzies’ arguments that the league should merge with the proposed Liberal Party as a distinct women’s section, even at the cost of its disbandment. In return, she secured equal representation for women at all levels of the Victorian division—thus giving them unprecedented political power and influence—while preserving their separate identity within the party.

Couchman chose not to stand for election as chair of the women’s section but used her experience and political acumen behind the scenes to support new office-bearers, consolidate the branches, and ensure women’s continuing influence on Liberal policy and strategy. In August 1949, however, she was elected unopposed as a metropolitan vice-president of the State party, a position she held until 1955, after which she served on the State council until well into her eighties. She frequently reiterated the view first articulated in 1931 that `what women think in politics today, men will think tomorrow’, and put her energies into gaining Senate preselection for (Dame) Ivy Wedgwood and, later, (Dame) Margaret Guilfoyle. Her influence on Menzies remained considerable: she was, he once remarked, `the greatest statesmen of them all’, and he rarely took action in the State party without first consulting her.

Slender, ascetic and, to some, aloof in manner, Couchman was a fine conversationalist and an omnivorous reader. Colleagues respected the incisiveness, logic and directness of her political style, Julia Rapke noting her `rapier thrusts’ of wit. A woman of modest means, according to Rapke she trimmed her own hats and dressed with `simple elegance’. She loved dancing, was a proficient pianist and was for many years a member of the faculty of music, University of Melbourne. Appointed OBE in 1941, Couchman was elevated to DBE in 1960. Dame Elizabeth died on 18 November 1982 at Camberwell, and was cremated. Appropriately, her death certificate gave her occupation as `retired politician’.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (1988)
  • D. Sydenham, Women of Influence (1996)
  • M. Fitzherbert, Liberal Women (2004)
  • Woman (Australian Women’s National League), Nov 1922, p 261, June 1923, p 101, Jan 1924, p 326, Apr 1924, p 38, Jan 1927, p 328, Apr 1927, p 42, May 1927, p 79, Aug 1927, p 186, June 1928, p 115, Dec 1931, p 282, Nov 1932, p 203
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 20 May 1931, p 3
  • 26 Nov 1982, p 32
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 July 1934, p 24, 18 Nov 1937, p 6
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Nov 1934, p 12, 22 Nov 1934, p 12, 21 Oct 1944, p 11
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 Nov 1934, p 15
  • J. Rapke papers and Couchman papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Couchman, Dame Elizabeth May Ramsay (1876–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/couchman-dame-elizabeth-may-ramsay-12359/text22205, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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