Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Susan May Matthews (1877–1935)

by Lyn Brignell and Heather Radi

This article was published:

Susan May Matthews (1877-1935), child welfare inspector, was born on 9 March 1877 at Glen Innes, New South Wales, daughter of Sydney-born parents John Joseph Matthews, saddler, and his wife Mary Frances, née Lynch. The family moved to Sydney about 1888. Known as May, she was employed as a lady's help when she first appeared on the electoral roll. She joined the public service as a temporary typist in the Registrar General's Office in 1911, became active in the Australian Clerical Association and was a delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales and Labor Party conference.

From 1913 Matthews convened the standing committee on trades and professions for the National Council of Women of New South Wales. She was concerned about the low wages paid to women and the common practice of dismissing women on their becoming eligible for adult rates. As an executive member of the Women's Progressive Association she campaigned for the appointment of women to public office, to the police force, to juries, as magistrates, and for women to be eligible for election to parliament. She opposed conscription, helped to organize relief for strikers in 1917, and became president of the Labor Women's Central Organising Committee in 1918 but increasingly espoused independent political views.

May Matthews completed a five-year course in economics conducted for the Workers' Educational Association by Meredith Atkinson and R. F. Irvine. Appointed an inspector in the reorganized Child Welfare Department in 1916, she did the same work as male inspectors, covering truancy, probation, affiliation, placements and adoptions, until 1923 when women were debarred from country inspections. Among the first women gazetted justice of the peace in 1921, as an executive member of the Women's Justices' Association she renewed efforts to extend eligibility for jury service to women. When refused leave in 1924 for study overseas, she resigned. A temporary appointment as migration officer enabled her to study industrial conditions in England. She was reinstated on her return and in 1927, invited by the prime minister to be an observer with the Industrial Delegation to the United States of America, was granted leave of absence. She stressed in her report the range of employment opportunities opening for women in America and the recognition there of the importance of the health and welfare of workers.

Matthews had continued to convene the National Council of Women's standing committee while becoming an executive member of the New South Wales Housewives' Association. Recognition of the work of mothers by payment of child endowment, and improved conditions for housewives through labour-saving routines and electrical appliances were among the causes which she supported. She consistently argued for equal pay. Before the royal commission on the Child Welfare Department in 1934 she stated that women welfare-inspectors were disadvantaged professionally by exclusion from country tours of duty and that female wards were deprived of advice on sexual matters.

She was a foundation member of the local branch of the League of Nations Union, a member of the Sunshine Club and the Good Film League and a supporter of the Parks and Playground Movement. In 1932 she stood unsuccessfully as a Federal Labor candidate. She died of cancer on 26 June 1935 at Moore Park, and was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Botany cemetery. For most of her adult years she had lived with her parents and three siblings at Darlinghurst. The Bulletin said her work was her best monument but her fellow workers in child welfare contributed the headstone on her grave.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1926-28, 5, p 1110
  • National Council of Women (New South Wales), Biennial Report, 1913-14 - 1934
  • Progressive Journal (Sydney), Aug 1935
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1920, 18 Jan, 26 Aug, 2 Sept 1927, 28 June 1935
  • Australian Worker, 3 July 1935
  • Evidence Before Royal Commission into Child Welfare Department (J. E. McCulloch, SM) (court reporting, 6/1780, State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lyn Brignell and Heather Radi, 'Matthews, Susan May (1877–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 March, 1877
Glen Innes, New South Wales, Australia


26 June, 1935 (aged 58)
Moore Park, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.