‘Quiet Dissenter: The life and thought of an Australian pacifist Eleanor May Moore 1875-1949’ by Malcolm Saunders

1993, 361 p & notes

Actually, I don’t know if I would have called Eleanor May Moore a quiet dissenter. She had plenty to say over her long secretary-ship of the Victorian branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and she became so publicly identifiable with WILPF in Victoria that she was almost indistinguishable from it.

“So who was Eleanor May Moore?”, you may ask. Of solidly middle-class background, she was born in 1875 and educated at Presbyterian Ladies College. Rather unusually for her background, she attended Stott’s business college and trained as a stenographer. She attended Rev. Charles Strong’s Australian Church (of which, more anon) and when he suggested that the women of the church form a women-only and women-led peace group, she was there from the start. This became the Sisterhood of International Peace, which, along with Vida Goldstein’s Women’s Peace Army were represented at the international congress in Europe in 1919 which led to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Eleanor Moore had attended the congress as the Sisterhood of International Peace’s delegate, along with Vida Goldstein and Cecilia John from Women’s Peace Army. The two Australian contingents had sprung from different impetuses: the Sisterhood from a progressive Christianity, and the Women Peace Army from the suffrage movement. After the war, Vida Goldstein distanced herself from the W.P.A which soon disbanded, leaving the Sisterhood as the Victorian branch of WILPF.

It was difficult to find a shipping passage back to Australia after the war, and Eleanor stayed for some time in Geneva, where she established a friendship with WILPF international secretary Emily Greene Balch and worked with her at WILPF headquarters. This placed her in good stead to be the linchpin of the Victorian branch, and she retained this position until a few years before her death in 1949.

She was obviously a strong presence and dominated the local WILPF’s stance on a range of matters- not just peace, but also White Australia, the Pacific, economic sanctions, military service, atomic warfare and eventually, absolute pacificism. With the rise of fascism, she became particularly fixed in her views that all war was wrong – a stance that put her at odds with her old friend Rev. Strong and the European branch of WILPF. It took its toll on the local branch of WILPF too, with its numbers dropping lower and lower as women left because of this adamant stance, and through the attritions of old age.

While there is much to admire in a life-long commitment to an organization, her long career with WILPF serves as a salutary warning for all volunteer organizations, really. There is a danger in one person becoming synonymous with an organization, and that while that person remains, other people will not step forward.

In assessing her life, Saunders notes that her politics were rooted in British liberalism, and at times she sounds almost Thatcher-esque in her emphasis on the individual, rather than collective groups like ‘society’, the ‘community’ or ‘the nation’. Prior to the First World War, she had been a strong supporter of the Federal Government, which had brought about many of the progressive, independent policies that “young” Australia became famous for. But this changed with the war and the heavy-handed War Precautions Act, and by the 1930s she believed that acquiescent obedience to government was the greatest threat to Australian democracy. She had doubts about Christianity, but considered religion extremely important, hence her attraction to the Australian Church and the Society of Friends (Quakers). She supported the White Australia policy and continued to do so when many other people in the peace movement and in WILPF itself believed that it should be abandoned.

This biography was produced by the Peace Research Centre, and would probably be almost impossible to procure today. Its production values are rather rudimentary, but the research is sound and well-supported by references, and Saunders has a clear-eyed view of both Moore’s strengths but also her short-comings. He has captured well the nature of commitment to an ideal, and the narrow line between inflexibility and fidelity to a principle. The WILPF that outlived her was a dwindling, increasingly antiquated body until other, more forward-looking women stepped into her place. But for sheer persistence, intelligence and unswerving steadfastness, Eleanor May Moore was an admirable woman who should probably be better known today.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

3 responses to “‘Quiet Dissenter: The life and thought of an Australian pacifist Eleanor May Moore 1875-1949’ by Malcolm Saunders

  1. #Snap! I’ve just also been reading about “the nature of commitment to an ideal, and the narrow line between inflexibility and fidelity to an idea”, in Nathan Hobby’s bio of Communist author Katharine Susannah Prichard. She never gave up her ideals, but at least she did in due course walk away and let others lead the movement.

  2. Stott’s was around when I was young. I had an interest in shorthand. Pitman was one. I can’t remember the other. The book sounds interesting. I have not heard of Moore and now I know a little.

  3. Pingback: Anzac Day 2022 | The Australian Legend

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