Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walker, Ellinor Gertrude (1893–1990)

by Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ellinor Gertrude Walker (1893-1990), kindergarten teacher and women’s rights activist, was born on 9 April 1893 at South Yarra, Melbourne, daughter of Melbourne-born Arthur Walker, bank inspector, and his English-born wife Frances Sophie, née Sinclair. They moved to Adelaide in 1902, where Nellie wrote her first play, which included parts for her younger brother. She attended Wilderness School kindergarten, then Miss Derrington’s progressive Norwood High School. In the 1908 senior public examination she won the prized Tennyson medal for English literature.

Tall and active, with a ready smile, Walker had a strong sense of duty, leavened by her quick humour. From 1909 she helped in the Young Women’s Christian Association, learned housekeeping at home and studied psychology for three years through the Workers’ Educational Association. Her interest in women’s equality was aroused by the knowledge that her mother had no vote until she lived in South Australia. She and a friend began a society for girls to study politics. In 1914 she joined the Women’s Non-Party Political Association (from 1939 the League of Women Voters), founded in 1909 by Catherine Helen Spence. The association’s aims—the removal of legal, economic and other inequalities between men and women—remained Walker’s lifelong objectives. In 1914 she began a ten-year term as assistant secretary and was active on its parliamentary committee. She also joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

In 1917, seeking a career, Walker entered the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College under the principal Lillian de Lissa, who was introducing Montessori methods. After graduating she was appointed director of the Halifax Street Free Kindergarten. She taught, supervised students, and undertook social work with poverty-stricken mothers, learning to respect those struggling to keep their families together. They followed her advice, even on such simple matters as early bed-times for young children.

During the 1919 influenza pandemic Walker was quarantined, requiring a long convalescence. Her concerned parents moved house to a large property with ample grounds in suburban Fullarton. There she opened her own Montessori school, Greenways, teaching up to twenty children aged 3 to 8. She managed the school carefully for twenty-four years, buying second-hand equipment and using only domestic help. In school holidays she explored the new South Australian Archives and wrote short historical plays, which her pupils performed for their parents. Throughout the 1920s she gave weekly psychology lectures at the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College.

On weekdays after 2.30 p.m. Walker entered ‘Another life of voluntary activity’, devoting her free time to working for women’s emancipation and children’s well-being. She attended parliamentary debates on women and children, taking notes for her committees. Regularly reading Hansard, she often lobbied politicians and journalists. She held various offices in both her organisations and occasionally wrote plays and pageants for presentation in fund-raising activities. Her historical drama, ‘The Springs of Power’, portrayed the road to women’s emancipation and was performed in May 1933 at the opening of the Australian Federation of Women Voters conference in Adelaide. In the 1934-35 holidays she prepared for South Australia’s centenary by writing a vivid historical play, Heritage: A Pageant of South Australia. This was combined with Heather Gell’s eurhythmics presentation and ran for ten nights to capacity audiences. Walker also wrote poetry, often sentimental. In 1939 her The Silver Wing and Other Poems was published.

Unmarried and independent, Walker did not join a political party. Like her associates, she recognised that having the vote was insufficient to achieve change, and that women must combine, plan and exert pressure on the public and on politicians. An assiduous worker, through the league she often took the initiative to influence legislation affecting women and children.

Walker’s most direct influence on the South Australian statute book was through her leadership in planning and formulating strategies to remove the common-law rights which gave a husband complete legal control over his wife and children. In co-operation with the LWV, she worked on a number of sustained campaigns, with considerable success. The league was largely responsible for changes to several discriminatory laws against women. The most notable was in 1940, the culmination of eight years of work and study undertaken by a committee, for which she was the main researcher. It examined relevant legislation in all Australian States and in Britain. Corresponding with Australian and overseas women’s groups, she drafted a model bill that the lawyer (Dame) Roma Mitchell checked. She advised only a minor alteration. Walker consulted with the sympathetic Attorney-General (Sir) Shirley Jeffries and finally handed him her bill. This he immediately presented as the government’s bill. The legislation passed, with a small procedural change, as the landmark Guardianship of Infants Act, 1940.

In 1957 the league, backed by other organisations, lobbied to have the South Australian marriage age raised from 14 for boys and 12 for girls. Walker was at the forefront of this campaign. Despite government support, the first bill failed, but the second succeeded with the ages raised to 18 for boys and 16 for girls. She was an active foundation member of the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (South Australian Branch) in 1965. In 1971 she was appointed OBE.

As the league’s ageing membership declined and a modern women’s movement began, league members agreed with Walker’s proposal to hand over their functions and records to a comparable younger organisation. In 1979 she wrote a précis of the league’s seventy years of activities, and with a small committee planned its closure and the transfer of its functions to the South Australian Women’s Electoral Lobby. Having been at the heart of the league’s campaigns for sixty-five years, she gave a valedictory address and subsequently followed the new women’s movement with interest. Continuing to work for women’s affairs, she assisted in a successful low-key campaign for the State government to reactivate the Catherine Helen Spence memorial scholarship. She died on 7 November 1990 at Illoura, Norwood, and was cremated. A Canberra street bears her name.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Barbour, Women’s Movement, South Australia (1980)
  • H. Jones, In Her Own Name (1986)
  • M. Allen et al (eds), Fresh Evidence, New Witnesses (1989)
  • Walker papers (SLSA)
  • private information and personal knowledge,

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Walker, Ellinor Gertrude (1893–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walker-ellinor-gertrude-15882/text27083, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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