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Swain, Edith Muriel Maitland (1880–1964)

by Heather Radi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Edith Muriel Maitland Swain (1880-1964), public servant and physical-fitness advocate, was born on 15 March 1880 at Balmain, Sydney, eldest child of Edward Plant Swain, a merchant from England, and his Tasmanian-born wife Annie Maria, née Dodd. Educated at Parramatta by the Sisters of Mercy, Muriel passed the senior public examination in 1899, the year in which the clerical division of the New South Wales Public Service was opened to women. On 21 March 1900 she was appointed compiler in the Registry of Friendly Societies and Trade Unions. She studied part time at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1909; B.Ec., 1914), and in 1914 became a professional officer and sub-editor of the New South Wales Industrial Gazette, Department of Labour and Industry. Then her career stalled. In 1928 she accepted a transfer to clerical duties and a drop in salary. She was on loan to the Family Endowment Office in 1931-33.

No distinction had existed between the terms of appointment for male and female clerks when Swain entered the public service. As the industrial courts developed the concept of male wages notionally tied to family needs, the Public Service Board began to discriminate against women, reducing the number and range of increments offered to them. In 1912 Swain was elected to the council of the Public Service Association of New South Wales in opposition to these moves. In 1915 the board introduced separate entry examinations and lower starting salaries for female clerks, and also restricted the kind of work they would be permitted to perform. After the association's leaders abandoned the women, they formed their own section, with Swain as president, but were unable to prevent further erosion of their conditions.

An attractive woman who dressed smartly, Swain lived with her parents and siblings. Her family was comparatively well-to-do. Free from domestic responsibilities and experienced in administration, she proved a willing recruit to the circle of university-educated, leisured and professionally employed office-holders in the National Council of Women of New South Wales and its affiliates. She and Grace Scobie prepared a detailed report on prenatal and postnatal care of infants for an N.C.W. sub-committee in 1922.

Miss Swain joined the Vocational Guidance Council and the governing body of the girls' department of the Young Women's Christian Association, Sydney. The national Y.W.C.A. nominated her as a delegate to the first Pan-Pacific Women's Conference, held in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1928. At the request of Jessie Street, she co-ordinated the work of committees that gathered information on discriminatory laws and practices for the United Associations (of Women). She attended the fourth conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations, at Hangchow and Shanghai, China, in 1931, then travelled on to Mukden and Tokyo.

Healthy recreation had become the focus of Swain's activities. She presided over a Y.W.C.A. hockey team and, in 1930-31, the City Girls' Amateur Sports Association. At a meeting called by the Parks and Playgrounds Movement of New South Wales, she was the unanimous nominee of the women's organizations to join a consultative committee which examined recreational facilities in Sydney and reported in 1932. That year she attended the International Recreation Congress, at Los Angeles, United States of America, representing the Workers' Sports Federation of Australia, the Town Planning Association of New South Wales and the Parks and Playgrounds Movement.

Having recognized a need to educate voluntary workers, Swain became a foundation member of the Council for Recreation and Leadership (Recreation and Leadership Movement) and director of its training programme. In 1937 a campaign for fitness and good citizenship was endorsed at the national Conference on Recreational Policy. With Zoe Benjamin, Swain ran the Recreation and Leadership Movement's summer school (1939) on 'Education for a Leisured Citizenship'. She contributed to both the formation and the work of the Australian Youth Council. Her aims throughout were to develop the skills that flow from games, to raise health standards and to produce co-operative citizens. The formation of the New South Wales State Council for Physical Fitness in 1939 and the provision of Federal funding for physical education marked a transition from volunteer initiative to professional control.

About 1940 Swain retired from the public service. Save for a brief period as director of training for the Women's Union of Service in the early years of World War II, she took no further part in public life. She died on 11 November 1964 at Mosman and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Pan-Pacific Union, Women of the Pacific (Honolulu, US, 1928)
  • Official Consultative Committee of the Parks and Playgrounds Movement of New South Wales, in conjunction with the Surveyor-General, Basic Report on the Present and Future Requirements of the Parks and Playgrounds in the Sydney Metropolitan District (Syd, 1932)
  • D. Deacon, Managing Gender (Melb, 1989)
  • Recreation and Leadership Movement, Annual Report, 1936/37-1939/40
  • Harmony (Sydney), 25 Sept 1935.

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Swain, Edith Muriel Maitland (1880–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/swain-edith-muriel-maitland-11808/text21127, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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