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Anderson, Kathleen Harris (Kath) (1921–1996)

by Sue Tracey

This article was published online in 2020

Kathleen Harris Anderson (1921–1996), politician and political organiser, was born on 19 May 1921 at Canowindra, New South Wales, eldest of four daughters of New South Wales-born parents Thomas Hough, farmer, and his wife Ria Harris, née Upton. A certified midwife, Ria held the licence for several lying-in hospitals in the town between 1920 and the mid-1930s. In 1922 Thomas, a World War I veteran, stood as a Progressive candidate, afterwards becoming a Lang Labor supporter. Kathleen, also known as Kath, commenced her education at Canowindra, where she excelled at elocution and public speaking, and was a prize-winning showjumper. The Hough girls were encouraged to be active in community organisations and Kathleen was a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) Younger Set. She moved to Sydney to further her education in the mid-1930s, staying with an aunt and attending William Street Girls’ Junior High and then, in 1937, Sydney Girls’ High schools. Leaving the following year, she took typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping at Williams Business College.

In 1946 Hough was working as a hotel clerk at Milton on the New South Wales south coast. That year, on 1 February, at the Milton Methodist Church, she married Keith William Anderson, a telephone linesman and returned serviceman. The Andersons moved to Sydney the following year. In March 1953 Kathleen joined the Waverley branch of the ALP. An active member, she sided with ‘anti-groupers’ during the ALP split, subsequently moving to the right of the party with her friend Edna Roper. In 1957 she became secretary of the State Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee; later, after Roper retired as president, she took over the top position (1967–72). At the 1957 ALP conference she and Roper successfully moved, against opposition, that the Sydney Opera House be built; opponents argued that an opera house was not in the interests of ‘ordinary people’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1957, 1).

Keith Anderson was mayor of Waverley in 1957 and 1958. As mayoress, Kathleen, who was also secretary of the Waverley ALP branch and its municipal assembly (which selected Labor aldermen), was regarded as a person of ‘much influence’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1958, 7). A committed Christian, she worked closely with Rev. (Sir) Alan Walker, first at Bondi Junction and later at the Central Methodist Mission, where she addressed meetings on religious topics and the labour movement. Together with academics, clergy, and parliamentarians she signed an open letter, which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, calling for a nuclear test ban and disarmament in 1961. Taking a qualified stand on women’s rights, she stated at a Labor women’s conference in 1962: ‘We want equality—not preference—and we are going to try and get it’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1962, 17). The following year, at the State ALP conference, she moved a controversial resolution seeking State aid for science laboratories and teaching facilities in all New South Wales schools, not just State schools.

In 1963 Anderson became the first woman elected to the Sydney County Council, the regional electricity supply authority. ‘Forthright … but with a lot of understanding’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1965, 6), she served as deputy chair (1963–65) and chair (1966–68, 1980). During this period she also served on the New South Wales Board of Health (1958–65), the Housing Commission of New South Wales (1966–67), and the Science Foundation for Physics at the University of Sydney (1966–68). Keith had entered parliament as a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (1961–62), replacing the member for Paddington-Waverley at a by-election. He died in 1965. Five years later Kathleen considered seeking ALP Senate preselection, but, not having the numbers, chose not to stand. That year she was appointed ALP finance officer.

On 5 April 1973 Anderson was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Council. She was government whip from 1976 until her retirement on 28 August 1981 and also served as president of the Library Committee of the Legislative Council and trustee of the Parliamentary Contributory Superannuation Fund. During her parliamentary career she opposed the imprisonment of illegal drug users, advocating that sentences be suspended on the condition that users seek treatment and rehabilitation in a suitable institution, which she argued needed to be urgently provided. She continued to support equality for women, but not affirmative action, reflecting in 1981 that women in the public service were earning promotion to senior positions on their merits alone.

In retirement Anderson became chair of the Local Government Boundaries Commission (1981–88). She was appointed AM in 1982. After moving to Penrith, she supported local community organisations such as the Q Theatre and Penrith Regional Art Gallery. In 1988 she became a member of the Zoological Parks Board of New South Wales. Like her father and husband, she followed rugby league and was a passionate supporter of the South Sydney club (the ‘Rabbitohs’). Solidly built with pale skin and eyes, she was regarded as a conciliator—a seeker of solutions rather than an antagonist. Her son, Peter, had entered the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1978. Survived by him, she died on 19 September 1996 at Penrith and was cremated.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, Peter. Personal communication
  • New South Wales. Legislative Council. Parliamentary Debates, 19 August 1975, 429–32
  • New South Wales. Legislative Council. Parliamentary Debates, 24 August 1981, 469–72
  • New South Wales. Legislative Council. Parliamentary Debates, 27 August 1981, 752–58
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Support by Women.’ 17 June 1957, 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Hoots of Protest Greet Move for Zone Change.’ 27 August 1958, 7
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Move for Women’s Equality.’ 9 September 1962, 17
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Who’s Who—and Who Isn’t.’ 7 December 1965, 6

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Sue Tracey, 'Anderson, Kathleen Harris (Kath) (1921–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anderson-kathleen-harris-kath-25506/text35082, published online 2020, accessed online 26 July 2021.

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