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Dunkley, Louisa Margaret (1866–1927)

by J. S. Baker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Louisa Margaret Dunkley (1866-1927), union leader and feminist, was born on 28 May 1866 at Richmond, Melbourne, daughter of William James Dunkley, boot-importer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Regan, both from London. After education at suburban Catholic girls' schools, Louisa Dunkley entered the Postmaster-General's Department in 1882 as a junior assistant. She studied telegraphy and in 1888 qualified as an operator, working in Melbourne metropolitan post and telegraph offices until 1890. She was then transferred to the Chief Telegraph Office and, after passing the necessary proficiency tests, was appointed as a telegraphist.

Miss Dunkley became interested in unionism in the early 1890s from her experience of the unfair conditions in pay and status of women workers in the Victorian public service. Encouraged by the first advances towards equal pay and status in 1895 by women telegraphists in the colony of New South Wales, Louisa Dunkley and a committee of Victorian women telegraphists and postmistresses decided to present a case for equal pay for their colleagues in the Post and Telegraph Department of Victoria. Her brilliant advocacy won widespread praise. In the outcome she and her colleagues received large increases in salary, though not equality with men telegraphists, whose salaries were reduced in the public service retrenchments and general salary reductions at the time.

In the next three years the Melbourne telegraph administration subjected Miss Dunkley and other women telegraphists to many indignities. She and others sparked off a controversy in the Victorian press and parliament. An inquiry found many deplorable actions and had them remedied, but Miss Dunkley was transferred to a suburban post office where she could make contact with her supporters only over the telegraph lines.

Determined still to secure equal pay and status for women, early in 1900 Miss Dunkley and her colleagues established the Victorian Women's Post and Telegraph Association. As they would come under the new Commonwealth Public Service, she convinced the new women's association that it should take its programme to the all-colonies conference of telegraphists to be held in Sydney in October. She was elected a delegate and at the conference her advocacy of equal pay and status under new Commonwealth conditions was endorsed.

At the close of the conference, R. J. Meagher, a Tasmanian delegate, gave notice that he opposed the policy and would have it reversed. As Louisa Dunkley and her supporters developed a vigorous campaign of letter-writing, public meetings, interviews and lobbying of Federal politicians, Meagher began his attacks on equal pay in the New South Wales and Federal associations' journal, the Transmitter. Miss Dunkley answered every attack forcefully and, at the same time, she and her colleagues in the newly established Victorian Women's Post and Telegraph Association won majority support in parliament for an equal pay provision for telegraphists and postmistresses in the Commonwealth Public Service Act of 1902—this has applied generally ever since.

At the Sydney conference in 1900 Louisa Dunkley had met Edward Charles Kraegen. On her marriage to him on 22 December 1903 at St Alipius Church, Oakleigh, Melbourne, she resigned from the Postmaster-General's Department. A daughter was born in 1904 and a son in 1906. She died of cancer on 10 March 1927 at Longueville, Sydney, and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. Her husband and children survived her.

Louisa Dunkley is remembered for her unique work in establishing the first separate union for women for the express purpose of securing and then maintaining equal pay and status. Her polemic on equal pay with Meagher is outstanding in Australian industrial history. In her letters she displayed an understanding of male to female and unionist to non-unionist relationships that remains relevant in industrial relations.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Baker, Communicators and Their First Trade Unions (Syd, 1980)
  • Men, Machines, History: The History of the Early Telegraph and Post Office Associations of Australia (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. S. Baker, 'Dunkley, Louisa Margaret (1866–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dunkley-louisa-margaret-6047/text10341, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 12 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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