Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fowler, Elizabeth Lilian (1886–1954)

by Heather Radi

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

Elizabeth Lilian Maud Fowler (1886-1954), alderman and politician, was born on 7 June 1886 at Cooma, New South Wales, third daughter of Charles Gill, farmer and later coach driver, and his wife Frances Rebecca, née Gaunson, both native-born. Lilian was educated at the local public school and as a young woman assisted her father, who was a Labor League organizer and alderman for Cooma. She was working as a waitress in Sydney when she married a widower Albert Edward Fowler, bootmaker, on 19 April 1909 at Whitefield Congregational Church.

A woman of strong character and an outstanding organizer, Fowler became secretary to the Newtown-Erskineville Political Labor League. She made the branch her personal fief. From 1917, when F. M. Burke, the anti-conscriptionist Labor candidate won Newtown, she managed his electorate for him for over twenty years. She was elected to the central executive of the Australian Labor Party in 1920-21 and 1923-25. At the boisterous 1923 conference, Fowler initiated the move to admit J. Dooley and helped mount the attack on Jack Bailey and corruption, which led to the exposure of the sliding-panel ballot boxes.

In 1926-27 Fowler was president of the Labor Women's Central Organising Committee which brought pressure on J. T. Lang to institute widows' pensions and child endowment, and an investigation into the administration of the Child Welfare Department. She led a deputation to the governor requesting appointment of women to the Legislative Council and organized the first interstate conference of Labor Women's Organizing committees.

In 1921 Fowler was amongst the first women appointed justices of the peace. She had separated from her husband shortly before her election in 1928 to Newtown Municipal Council—the first woman alderman in the State. She was re-elected in 1935-37, 1938-40, 1941-44, 1948; in 1938-39 she was the first woman mayor in Australia. She was especially interested in establishing playgrounds and obtaining assistance for the unemployed, and later claimed responsibility for extending the forty-hour week to all council employees. In 1939-40 she was an executive member of the Women's Voluntary National Register.

Unsuccessful in 1941, Fowler defeated Burke for Newtown in 1944 as a Lang Labor candidate. Lang's loss of the Labor Party leadership in 1939 may have been the reason for her decision to stand against Burke, but she also condemned the party's centralist tendencies and by 1944 was a fierce critic of bureaucratic direction from Canberra. Her singular achievement in parliament was the 1945 amendment to the Lunacy Act which secured the release of Boyd Sinclair who had been committed to Morisset criminal asylum in 1936 and held without trial. She fought tenaciously the local government amendment bill of 1944, which in its proposal to regroup municipal councils, typified the bureaucratic expansion which she abhorred. She ceased to be an alderman in 1948 when Newtown was absorbed into the City of Sydney; in 1950 she was defeated at the State elections. She was unsuccessful in the 1953 elections for Sydney Municipal Council.

Survived by a daughter, Fowler died on 11 May 1954 in King George V Memorial Hospital from coronary occlusion; she was buried with Methodist rites in Rookwood cemetery. She was a large woman, blunt in speech and remembered for that confidence, force and capacity to control which is alleged to be 'mannish'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. G. Norman, Historical Notes on Newtown (Syd, 1963)
  • Labor News, 2 June 1923
  • Labor Daily, 18-25 Feb, 23 Mar 1927
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 1944.

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Fowler, Elizabeth Lilian (1886–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fowler-elizabeth-lilian-6222/text10705, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 November 2014.

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

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