Elizabeth Couchman

Elizabeth Couchman (1876-1982), politician, was born on 19 April 1876 at Geelong, daughter of Scottish immigrants Elizabeth Mary (born Ramsay) and Archibald Tannock, confectioner. May Ramsay Tannock, as she was known, was 'born and bred in the atmosphere of politics', her earliest recollections being of political discussions between her mother and grandmother.

Although she was brought up in modest circumstances she attended Girls' High School, Geelong, and matriculated in 1895. She taught at Methodist Ladies' College and at Tintern. In 1913 she made her way to Perth to take advantage of the free education available from the University of Western Australia, graduating BA in 1916. She was an early student of political science at the university; other interests were constitutional law and economics.

In 1917 she married businessman Claude Couchman in Melbourne. There were no children and Claude died in 1927. Marriage and widowhood gave her the means to engage fully in public life. She undertook extensive voluntary work and became a justice of the peace, but it was the Australian Women's National League which provided the main vehicle for her career. The League was formed in 1904 with the aim of supporting loyalty to the throne and empire, combating socialism, educating women in politics and safeguarding the interests of the home, women and children. At its peak in the inter-war years it claimed 40,000 members, and it was the largest continuing non-Labor political organisation. It provided canvassers for the Liberal (later Nationalist, then United Australia) Party, and in return insisted on an equal say in the selection of parliamentary candidates.

Couchman was particularly concerned with the political education of women, and her university degree was a major asset for the League's speakers' classes, study groups and educational meetings. She quickly achieved executive office, and was president from 1927. All agreed on her political astuteness, knowledge and administrative skills. She was unequalled in the conduct of meetings, drafting and steering through resolutions, and in political debate. She had a great sense of dress and presentation, despite her relatively slender means.

Mrs Couchman was the first woman appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1932-42). Though she 'burnt the midnight oil' to master the technicalities of her new position, she often found herself, with Herbert Brookes, in the minority on policy. Her suggestion for the ABC to report on the conditions in which Aborigines were forced to live was regarded as too controversial; instead a talk was provided on government policy. She was a member of the Australian delegation to the League of Nations in 1934.

In December 1944 when the new Liberal Party was formed, Couchman negotiated from a position of strength: she was able to ensure structural equality for women in the Party, in particular equal representation of women and men at all levels of the Victorian division. She took a leading role in setting up the branch structure of the Party, was a member of the State Executive and State Council and was Victorian vice-president of the Party from 1949-55. She was raising points of order at State Council when she was in her eighties. Sir Robert Menzies described her as 'the greatest statesman of them all'. She was appointed DBE in 1961.

Despite her consummate political skills and a reputation for being able to 'make or mar a politician', she never succeeded in entering parliament. She stood three times for Senate preselection but only succeeded (in 1943) in gaining preselection for the seat of Melbourne, a safe seat for Labor. By the time political opportunities began to open up for women, she was too old. However she fostered the political careers of other women, including Margaret Guilfoyle whom she nominated for preselection for the Senate in 1970.

Her major achievement was to provide a political base for women and increase their role and effectiveness in political life; in 1944 she judged the time was right for the mainstreaming of women into conservative politics and she saw that it took place on favourable terms. She died on 18 November 1982.

Marian Sawer

Marian Sawer and Marian Simms A Woman's Place 1984.