Refereed Articles
Conference Papers
Jeanz Officers
Thesis Summaries
Student Work
Qantas Awards

Conference 2006: the women's section


Beyond the Social Columns? Stella Allan and Women's Page Journalism
Patricia Clarke, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities

Stella Allan’s reporting career began spectacularly in New Zealand although the main achievements of her long and distinguished journalistic life were as ‘Vesta’ on the Melbourne Argus. Her career raises questions regarding the stultifying effects of women’s page journalism on both reporters and readers and the influence of a notably conservative newspaper on the personal views of a reporter.
Stella Allan was an extraordinarily talented woman, a pioneer in several fields. Her remarkable journalistic career began in New Zealand in 1898 when, after a great deal of opposition, she was accepted as the correspondent of the Lyttelton Times in the Parliamentary press gallery in Wellington.

Born Stella May Henderson in 1871 at Kaiapoi, just north of Christchurch on the South Island, she graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1892 from Canterbury College, with an exhibition in political science, and the following year she graduated Master of Arts with first class honours. While working in a Christchurch law firm, she began studying law although women were not permitted to practise. Subsequently the New Zealand Parliament passed a private member’s bill to allow women to be admitted as barristers and solicitors. In the meantime, however, she had accepted the position of parliamentary correspondent and political leader writer for the Lyttelton Times. First published in 1851 soon after the arrival of the first European settlers, the Lyttelton Times was one of the principal newspapers of the Canterbury region for more than eighty years. Although the paper moved to Christchurch in 1863 it retained the name of the port of Lyttelton until it was renamed the Christchurch Times in 1929. It ceased publication in 1935.


When Stella Henderson first applied to join the parliamentary press gallery in Wellington, the male reporters objected claiming that she would need separate working accommodation as well as a special ‘retiring room’. It is clear, however, from a contemporary press report that the underlying objection was the fear that the introduction of women into a previously all-male section of the profession would lead to a lowering of wage rates, as had happened in several other occupations. There was similar opposition in Australia to Louisa Lawson’s employment of female typesetters when she began her pioneering periodical, The Dawn: A Journal for Australian Women, in May 1888, although in the case of The Dawn, the ostensible opposition was on the grounds that the women’s health would suffer. At first Stella Henderson reported parliament from a seat in the ladies gallery and wrote her stories in the ladies tea room until a House of Representatives committee recommended that a partition be erected to provide a special cubicle for her use. For the next two years she continued her ground-breaking job: she appears to have been the first female parliamentary reporter in either New Zealand or Australia.


In 1900, at the age of 28, Stella Henderson married Oxford-educated, Edwin Frank Allan, a former British Foreign Office diplomat, a leader-writer for the Wellington Evening Post. She resigned from her job following her marriage. Whether she would have found it possible to re-enter journalism in Wellington at a later date was never tested, as in 1903 the Allan family moved to Melbourne when Edwin Allan was engaged as foreign affairs leader writer and parliamentary journalist on the Melbourne Argus. Throughout his career on the Argus he was a senior journalist and during World War I his summaries of war cables were described as ‘masterly’.


With her outstanding educational background and journalistic experience, Stella Allan was welcomed in Melbourne by women interested in intellectual, social and philanthropic organisations. She became a friend of the Prime Minister’s wife, Patti Deakin, who was a leader in several organisations particularly some concerned with the needs of children. Dr Constance Ellis, a prominent medical practitioner and honorary pathologist at the Queen Victoria Hospital, became another close friend and was godmother to one of the Allans’ four daughters. Stella Allan was soon prominent in women’s organisations. She followed the novelist, Ada Cambridge, as the second president of the Victorian Women Writers’ Club and she later followed Mrs Deakin as president of the Lyceum Club (a club for women of achievement), with which the Writers Club merged. When the Australian Journalists’ Association was formed in 1910 she was a foundation member.


Less than a year after her arrival in Melbourne, Stella Allan began contributing regular ‘Fiction of the Day’ reviews to the Argus. A few years later she was involved with Mrs Deakin and other prominent women in organising the first Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work, held at the Exhibition Building in 1907 and the Argus commissioned her to write a series of articles on the exhibition. Her articles began in mid-October in the build-up to the opening on 23 October 1907, and continued almost daily until the exhibition closed at the end of November. A final article, ‘What the Exhibition has done’, was published on 2 December 1907.


Stella Allan’s coverage of this exhibition was so successful it led to her being engaged to contribute a regular Wednesday women’s feature to the Argus, the first appearing on 19 February 1908. A few months later she was appointed to the journalistic staff to write and edit a women’s section for the Argus and its weekly associate, the Australasian. Her regular ‘Women to Women’ feature, signed ‘Vesta’ (Roman goddess of hearth and household), appeared for the first time on 13 May 1908. It was to be a feature of the Argus for thirty years, expanding gradually from a single column to four pages. Her columns, and eventually pages, covered domestic topics and community welfare issues but probably the feature that many women readers valued most was the knowledgeable, common sense replies to inquirers seeking information, advice and help.


The Argus had been publishing a regular women’s column, ‘Women’s Realm’, since 1898, but the women’s section did not develop its true character until it was taken over by Stella Allan. She was an ideal person for the role. She was active herself in women’s organisations, she had a stimulating intellectual life, and one imagines her home must have been a practical, well-run establishment – she had four young children to care for as well as a husband working the afternoon and evening shifts common to morning newspaper journalists. Her role may seem usual now, when women are used to juggling work and home, but it was very uncommon in middle-class families at the beginning of the twentieth century when there were few labour-saving aids to housekeeping and cooking.
Her success dates from her first column headed: ‘Domestic Service Problem: Case for Both Sides: Practical Suggestions Invited’. Her article canvassed the shortage of domestic servants, the possible need for training and the inevitability that this would lead to higher wages. She ended her article by inviting letters ‘from any persons, in town or country, mistresses or maids’ who had suggestions ‘on organising or devising new systems of domestic work’. She undertook to discuss readers’ letters in later columns. Although the subject of Vesta’s column was unexceptional, her approach of involving her readers was innovative. In her appeal to readers to respond, the weight she gave to their replies, and her subsequent discussion of their views, her approach was similar to talk back radio programs today. The result was an avalanche of letters – she had tapped into a previously almost silent readership. At the end of her third successive column on the domestic servant problem (which incidentally shifted emphasis to labour-saving devices), Vesta recorded that letters were still arriving. She also noted, under a sub-heading, ‘A word from the country’, that one correspondent from Colac had made ‘a gratifying reference to the popularity of this column’.


Following this remarkable response to her domestic servant articles, readers began to write to her on many subjects giving their views, asking for advice on their problems and airing their interests. Her column soon expanded as she gave advice on a wide range of household problems from restoring furniture to treating chapped hands or making yeast buns. When necessary she was able to call upon the professional women in the networks she had established – early doctors, lawyers, architects and educationists –for help in answering queries. Her technique of involving her readers in her column became standard in women’s papers and magazines but, at the time, her approach was unusual, if not unique. She had tapped a following that was to stay with her for the next thirty years. It appears from information in a talk given by her daughter, who was a journalist on her staff from the early 1920s, that Stella Allan had a vast correspondence, far more than the answers that appeared in the paper might suggest. The Argus, quite generously it seems, provided extra staff so that she could handle replies, in which she offered private as well as public advice to individuals and organisations.


At first Stella Allan’s ‘Women to Women’ single column appeared only weekly each Wednesday. Within a few years it had expanded to several columns and later it spread over several pages. Further columns were added later: ‘Women’s Views and News’, written by Miss M. Trait, first appeared on 13 January 1922, and ‘Social News’ began as a daily feature on 26 June 1923. In 1923 when Stella Allan had been at the paper for fifteen years, her title was ‘Social Editress’ and she had a staff of five women journalists. These were her daughter, Patricia Allan, Miss Storrs, Miss M. Trait and Miss A. A. Wheeler who were termed ‘Social Writers’ and Miss Wilmot, who was listed as ‘Reporter’, which may or may not have implied different duties. After ‘Women to Women’ had been running for some time, a column of advertisements, mainly of household items, appeared beside it. While the expansion of Vesta’s column to several pages was an endorsement of the fact that she was attracting large numbers of readers, the expansion was underwritten by the growth of advertisements. Even when the circulation of the Argus was undermined by the launch in 1922 of the opposition Sun News-Pictorial, a graphically illustrated tabloid, which drew readers from both of the other morning papers, and then by the Depression in the early 1930s, the Argus women’s section continued to draw increasing numbers of advertisements, particularly for labour-saving devices and manufactured food items then coming on the market.


Apart from her strong involvement with her readers, the other feature of Vesta’s columns is her conservative choice of subjects. At first sight this appears out of keeping with both her own pioneering career choices and her family background. Stella Allan herself was described in her youth as a ‘committed feminist’, active in promoting equal pay and the removal of restrictions on the education, employment and freedom of women and a campaigner for universal suffrage. Her sister, Elizabeth McCombs, a committed socialist, was the first woman elected to the New Zealand Parliament, when she became a Labour Member. Another sister, Christina Henderson, was a prominent social reformer. By contrast, many of the subjects Stella Allan wrote about in her early columns were almost entirely domestic in scope, very remote from many of the social problems that could be read in the news columns and court reports in the same paper, but not considered fit subjects for the women’s pages. When she did venture to a wider subject, her views were extremely conformist. When Edward VII died in 1910, the heading of her column read, ‘National Mourning: What Women can do’. She did not expect people of limited means to purchase black clothes, she wrote, but all women for the next two weeks should be ‘quiet and sombre in appearance’. ‘The humblest and poorest woman in the state is as much a part of the empire as the richest and proudest’. Even for the young ‘hilarity and exuberance’ were ‘out of keeping’.


Her articles provide no evidence of a radical outlook. At the most there is limited advocacy for reforms of a moderately forward looking kind, such as the provision of creches and kindergartens. To some extent, perhaps more than is realised, Stella Allan may have been constrained by the fact that she was writing for an extremely conservative paper, described as a ‘by-word for establishment and conservative values’. The Argus, until the ownership changed in the last years of its existence, maintained what has been described as a ‘conservative and establishment-oriented political and cultural stance’. It was part of ‘the establishment’ and put the views of ‘establishment interests, that is, the wealthy’.


Once the First World War began, Vesta’s column became a patriotic rallying point, at first by supporting women’s volunteer war work organised by the Red Cross, later by encouraging nurses ‘for the Front’, and supporting wives left to care for young children and women widowed by war. The Argus strongly supported conscription and Vesta was a prominent advocate. The defeat of the first conscription referendum, held on 28 October 1916, seemed beyond her comprehension – it was a failure of voters, she believed, ‘to face the problem before them in the true spirit of citizenship’. She put this down to a failure of education: ‘A sufficient time has not elapsed, since free compulsory education became the order of the day, to secure what we are pleased to call an educated electorate’. She was more strident still in the lead-up to the second referendum held on 20 December 1917. In a succession of columns headed the ‘Reinforcements Referendum’ she vehemently attacked arguments for the no case. Her last column before the referendum ended: ‘ How will you vote? To put all our strength behind our men, or to inspire fresh rejoicings in Germany?’


More surprisingly, she modified her views on such a key feminist goal as woman suffrage. ‘I began by being a keen suffragist’, she wrote, ‘and with high hopes of what women’s suffrage might accomplish’. But, ‘We cannot point to any good that it has accomplished’. Commenting on a report of a British commission on electoral reform which had recommended only very limited female suffrage, she wrote, ‘I think it [universal women’s suffrage] has proved a mistake in Australia…a large proportion of our women are incapable of voting intelligently.’ She advised the British that to double the number of ignorant voters by granting the suffrage at once to all women would be an irretrievable mistake. She was also against young voters – she regarded young as ‘the early twenties’. She concluded: ‘I have no hesitation in saying that universal suffrage in Australia is responsible for our failure to do our full duty in the war, our extravagant way of running the country, the absorption of our politicians in party conflicts and intrigues when the safety of the Empire is at stake.’


Vesta’s writing appeared far less than usual in the Argus during 1921, apparently because of the ill health of her husband, who died on 3 February 1922. In subsequent years Stella Allan became a public figure. In 1924 she was appointed by the Prime Minster, Stanley Bruce, as a substitute delegate for Australia to the League of Nations conference in Geneva. In a speech to the National Council of Women after her return to Australia she expressed concern that Australia’s right to keep a huge continent for six million people would be challenged in the face of the ‘starving homeless millions’ in other countries. In 1929 she reported on the celebrations in Berlin for the 25th anniversary of the International Alliance for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship, and in 1930 she was a delegate to the Pan Pacific Women’s conference in Hawaii.


In 1938 to mark the end of her third decade on the Argus, the principal women’s organisations in Victoria called a meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall to thank her for her work for the community and especially for women and children. In 1939 when she was in her late sixties, Stella Allan retired although she continued to contribute articles to the Argus. She lived in England during World War II, returning to Melbourne in 1947, where she died in 1962, aged ninety. Her journalist daughter described her contribution to journalism: Stella Allan ‘created a new field of newspaper journalism directed especially to meet the needs of women in their personal and domestic lives and to stimulate and encourage interest and responsibilities outside the home in matters of public concern’. This is an accurate assessment if ‘matters of public concern’ is interpreted in a narrow sense.


Apart from the conservative influence of the Melbourne Argus, there was another influence at work in eradicating the radical stance of Stella Allan’s early years. This was the stifling effect of women’s page journalism in general. The earliest women writers on newspapers in Australia, those employed in the nineteenth century, were few in number, but quite special in being employed in all aspects of journalism. Louisa Atkinson, the first Australian woman to have a long-running series published in a major newspaper, wrote not on ‘women’s’ topics, but on nature. Her ‘A Voice from the Country’ articles, based on her observations of plants, birds and animals in the Blue Mountains and Berrima districts of New South Wales, were first published in the Sydney Morning Herald and Sydney Mail in 1860 and continued, apart from a break caused by ill health, until her death in 1872. Similarly Jessie Lloyd in her ‘Silverleaf’ columns, published in the Illustrated Sydney News from 1881 to 1883, wrote general articles touching on many aspects of life in the bush including droughts and floods, the effects of land legislation, crushing mortgages and financial insecurity, and the anguish of extreme isolation. Alice Henry, a crusading journalist and labour reformer, one of Australia’s first fully professional women journalists, wrote on a wide range of general subjects. She used her journalism to publicise progressive causes although she found the editorial constraints of what her biographer has described as the ‘implacably illiberal and anti-suffragist’ Argus and Australasian frustrating and she eventually moved to the United States. The pioneer feminist, social reformer and writer, Catherine Spence, when she visited America in 1894, was proud to be writing on general topics for Australian newspapers, in contrast to American women journalists who, she found, were confined to women’s page journalism. Her experience, however, was not, by then, typical of Australian women journalists.


The situation of women employed on newspapers changed when, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, proprietors and editors of one Australian periodical and newspaper after another began to publish articles and items aimed at women readers. At first these columns comprised pieces culled from other sources, such as books of recipes or overseas newspapers, and editors saw no necessity to employ women journalists to cobble them together. In fact there is evidence of at least one man who did this work.


Once newspapers and periodicals began printing local news for and about women, however, editors saw the advantage in employing women to write and edit these pages. In this way a larger and more regular, although still small, avenue of employment opened to women journalists. Although an advance in terms of employment, this proved a backward step for their involvement in general reporting.


Soon almost all women journalists were confined to the narrow field of what were regarded as women’s topics, many to the social columns, described graphically as the ‘deadly, dreary ruck of long dress reports and the lists of those who “also ran” at miscellaneous functions’. Women journalists were not the only losers in this situation for what they wrote tended to reinforce complacency in their women readers and to shield them from issues of wider significance. Most women journalists were not to break out of the ‘women’s page’ role for many years, many not until the 1970s. Not only they suffered, but their readers also. What they wrote was regarded as the news that was suitable for the woman reader, or what women wanted to read. The contrast remained between what was provided for women readers on the women’s pages and a world that included violence, hunger and domestic suffering, portrayed in news stories on other pages.


The conservative social message in Stella Allan’s columns and her no more than mild attempts to come to terms with fundamental social and feminist issues, were part of a scenario, which continued for a long time after she had retired. While we applaud her pioneering achievements in journalism, we can also lament the influence of the conservatism of the paper she worked for and the stifling effect of being confined to the women’s pages. Both combined to wean her away from her more radical youth.