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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Withers, Mary Helen (1907–1986)

by Judith Jeffery

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

Mary Helen Campbell Withers (1907-1986), community leader, was born on 27 November 1907 at Kelso, New South Wales, daughter of Victorian-born parents James Walker, squatter, and his wife Annie, née Campbell. By 1913 Helen’s family were settled on their property, Kaluga, near Nyngan, New South Wales. Her membership of the Country Women’s Association of New South Wales began at the Nyngan branch, accompanying her mother. In 1927, as a young member, she was elected at the annual CWA conference as the representative for the Far Western and Macquarie groups on the State executive. She was secretary (1928-30) of the Nyngan branch and secretary (1930) of the Far Western group.

On 23 March 1932 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, Helen married Edwin Joseph Withers, a grazier. The Withers family had extensive pastoral holdings in New South Wales and South Australia. The couple went to live at Nalpa, the family’s Poll Shorthorn cattle station on the north shore of Lake Alexandrina, east of Strathalbyn, South Australia. Helen Withers joined the South Australian Country Women’s Association metropolitan branch, which incorporated the Fleurieu Peninsula, including Strathalbyn. She founded and presided (1939-44, 1947-52) over the SACWA’s postal branch, formed in 1939 to link women who lived in areas not served by a local CWA.

Withers also served a term as president (1944-47) of the SACWA. While in office, she opened the Langhorne Creek branch. For her, the presidency ‘opened up a new vista’, as she travelled throughout the State and noted the lack of electricity and water supply to many country homes. She campaigned for improved conditions to support country living, concerned that many countrywomen lacked the opportunity to expand their experiences and further their education.

The CWA worked untiringly in support of the national effort in World War II. During Withers’s presidency one of the SACWA’s war objectives was realised: the purchase and establishment of a property, Dolling Court, in the Adelaide suburb of Unley Park. Country-based families of sick or injured ex-servicemen could stay there while visiting them in the Repatriation General Hospital, Daw Park. Dolling Court was soon put to wider use, especially for residential ‘leadership schools’ to increase women’s confidence in conducting meetings, debating, preparing and delivering speeches, and speaking on air.

In 1946-47 Withers was elected president of the newly formed national body, the Country Women’s Association of Australia. She and many of her colleagues were keen to broaden the horizons of countrywomen, enhanced by the CWA’s link with the Associated Country Women of the World, an international non-governmental organisation affiliated with the United Nations. Withers was its South Australian interstate secretary (1951-62). The 1953 national CWA conference included information about the imminent arrival of television. She encouraged countrywomen to become informed about this new medium, which she accurately forecast would have a huge impact on them and especially on their children.

In 1981 Withers was appointed OAM. In her last years she lived at Glenunga, Adelaide. Predeceased by her husband in 1978 and survived by her two sons and two daughters, she died on 15 February 1986 in North Adelaide and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • So We Grow (1954)
  • H. Parker, The First Fifty Years (1979)
  • Records, CWANSW head office
  • Records, SACWA head office
  • Records, CWA Aust (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judith Jeffery, 'Withers, Mary Helen (1907–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 28 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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