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Catherine Winifred (Kate) Dwyer (1861–1949)

by Viva Gallego

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Catherine Winifred (Kate) Dwyer (1861-1949), schoolteacher and Labor leader, was born on 13 June 1861 at Tambaroora, New South Wales, second daughter of Joseph Golding, an Irish-born goldminer, and his Scottish wife Ann, née Fraser. Kate was educated at Hill End Public School and in January 1880 began teaching at Tambaroora Public School. She was transferred to Bathurst next year, Spicers Creek in 1884, Binnaway in 1885 and Coffey Hill and Blayney in 1886. She resigned next year and on 28 December 1887 at Hamilton, Newcastle, married a fellow schoolteacher Michael Dwyer.

In 1891-93 Michael was headmaster of the Broken Hill Public School and Kate came into close contact with working-people impoverished by severe drought and a prolonged strike and developed a deep sympathy for them. In 1894 the Dwyers moved to Sydney where Michael was headmaster at Marrickville West until 1900, then at Camperdown and Redfern Public Schools.

Kate Dwyer was a member of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales and was prominent in the fight for female suffrage. She was a founder of the Women's Progressive Association in 1901 and worked for the right of women to enter the legal and other professions and to have a fair share of the accumulations of the marriage partnership. She wrote extensively on political, industrial and women's questions in the press, and was 'a fine speaker, with a gift of repartee'. From 1904 she was first president of the Women's Organizing Committee of the Political Labor League and next year was elected to the State Labor executive. She was a delegate to the Commonwealth Political Labor Conference in Brisbane in 1908 and Hobart in 1912.

Dwyer worked tirelessly for improved working and living conditions for women and for a minimum female living wage. With Mrs Flanagan, she formed the Women Workers' Union for home and fringe factory workers to combat 'sweating'; as president from 1910, she was a delegate to the Sydney Labor Council. In evidence to the 1909 royal commission on the improvement of the city of Sydney and its suburbs, she had advocated model dwellings for working men with a weekly rental of one day's pay, and opposed the building of tenements. Next year the lord mayor Sir Allen Taylor paid tribute to her as 'one of our great workers'. In 1911 she assisted A. B. Piddington on the royal commission into the alleged shortage of labour and into the conditions of employment of female and juvenile labour; she visited over 100 factories and, as well as generally condemning conditions in them, stressed her abhorrence of piece-work which she believed was responsible for 'much sweated labour of women'. In 1911-13 she sat on the royal commission of inquiry as to food supplies and fish. Dignified, with wavy hair, she was an imposing figure.

During World War I Dwyer was a member of the committee organizing the 'no' vote for the 1916 conscription referendum. She opened a factory for unemployed needlewomen and procured a military contract as a start for them. For men, she organized a tent-housing scheme at Stannumville, known as Canvas Town. In 1915 she was selected to stand for the half-Senate election, due in 1916 but deferred. In 1921 she was a representative at the Commonwealth Political Labor Conference in Brisbane when she voted against the 'socialist objective'. Back on the executive, in 1923 she supported Jack Bailey at the State conference in Sydney. During the war she had represented the Women Workers' Union on Wages Boards and in the 1920s was on conciliation committees. In 1925 she was defeated as one of five members for the Balmain seat in the Legislative Assembly.

Dwyer was a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1916-24 and worked for the establishment of a chair of domestic science. From 1910 she was a director and in the 1940s a vice-president of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales. She was also a director of the Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, and the Renwick Hospital for Infants, and a trustee of the King George V and Queen Mary Jubilee Fund for Maternal and Infant Welfare. In May 1921 she was one of the first female justices of the peace appointed in New South Wales.

Kate Dwyer lived at Annandale and remained a member of the local branch of the Australian Labor Party. She was a devout Catholic all her life and enjoyed gardening, reading and lecturing. She died in the Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying, Darlinghurst, on 3 February 1949. Predeceased by two sons and a daughter, she was survived by a son and daughter. Her estate was valued for probate at £1473. Her sisters Annie and Belle Golding were also active in the political and social reform movements.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • A.L.P. Golden Jubilee Committee, 50 Years of Labor (Syd, 1940)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • Lone Hand, Nov 1911
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 Mar 1915
  • Australian Worker, 12 Oct 1916, 3, 10 May, 4 June 1917
  • Woman Voter, 18 Apr 1918
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Feb 1949, Senate minutes (University of Sydney Archives)
  • R. Cookson, The Role of Certain Women and Women's Organizations in Politics in N.S.W. and Victoria Between 1900 and 1920 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1959)
  • V. Gallego, Martyrs and Martinets … Mary Gilmore's Women's Page in the Australian Worker, 1914-1918 (B.A. Hons thesis, Macquarie University, 1977).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Viva Gallego, 'Dwyer, Catherine Winifred (Kate) (1861–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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