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Rhoda Bell – an amazing social justice campaigner

Rhoda was born in Lilydale and in 1916 at the age of 22 married into the Bell family, who lived in Windsor Crescent, Surrey Hills. She was a woman ahead of her time. Rhoda’s values were influenced by living through both World Wars and the Great Depression. Two of her husband Bert’s brothers served in WW1 and this strongly impacted the whole family. Pacifism became one of Rhoda’s strongly held values, strengthened when one of her sons was called up in 1941. After the cessation of WW2 hostilities Rhoda became more visibly socially and politically active. She was a leading member of the Surrey Hills Auxiliary working to support the new Box Hill Hospital and at some stage she joined the Communist Party. In 1949 she became President of the Victorian branch of the New Housewives Association (NHA), a working-class body which attracted Communist women. It campaigned for the reduction and control of prices, especially of household commodities; equal pay for women and increased Child Endowment; and the establishment of municipal markets in order to bring cheaper goods to housewives. In 1949 the NHA supported the trade-union demand for a 30-shilling increase in the Basic Wage. The NHA went on to become the Union of Australian Women. Rhoda was Vice-President of the Victorian Branch in 1952, the year she passed away. Apart from improving the status of women and children, early goals included disarmament and a halt to nuclear testing, equal distribution of wealth, increased welfare services, equality for Indigenous Australians, abortion law reform, and opposition to the White Australia Policy. In 1952, Rhoda was one of 2 delegates representing the Victorian Branch of the Union of Australian Women and the leader of the Australian delegation to the International Conference in Defence of Children in Vienna. It was while she was at this conference that Rhoda became ill and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Such was her standing that she was hospitalised and treated in Moscow before being flown back to Melbourne. After a short stay in the Alfred, she died at home. One has to wonder what else she would have achieved had she lived longer.


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The Surrey Hills Historical Society acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung people of the Kulin nation as the Traditional Owners and original custodians of the land on which we meet. We pay our respects to their Elders past and present.

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