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Beatrice Eileen (Bea) Faust (1939–2019)

by Iola Mathews

Beatrice Faust, by Terry Bogue, 1986

Beatrice Faust, by Terry Bogue, 1986

Monash University Archives, 1452

Dr Beatrice Faust (known as Bea), feminist, political campaigner, journalist, author and academic, died on October 30 at the age of 80, after becoming ill at her home in Churchill, Gippsland.

Born Beatrice Eileen Fennessy in 1939, her mother died shortly after giving birth. Beatrice was brought up by her father and extended Irish family and later, a stepmother she disliked. Bea wrote later that she was “bored stiff” by most of her early life but flourished when she attended Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School where she was top of her class and won a scholarship to University Women’s College. At Melbourne University she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and then a master’s degree. Later in life, she was awarded a Ph.D.

Bea was married and divorced twice. Her first marriage was to Clive Faust, whose surname she kept. She had one child, Stephen, born in 1965, as a result of her relationship with the Finnish academic Adam (Aimo) Murtonen.

Bea was one of the first women to campaign for civil liberties, abortion law reform and sex education. In 1966 she co-founded the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, mainly to campaign against censorship laws. She was best known for being the founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in 1972.

I was one of the nine women Bea invited to her home in Carlton in February 1972 to discuss the idea of surveying candidates for the federal election on their attitude to women’s issues. Her inspiration came from an article in Ms magazine about how feminists had rated presidential candidates in the US. By the end of the meeting, we’d agreed to do the survey and publish the results, and WEL was born. It was very exciting.

Bea chose the nine women for their specific skills. Two of us were journalists, Carmen Lawrence (later premier of Western Australia) was a psychologist; there were several sociologists and a librarian.

Bea was then 33, a small, rather frail woman, who sometimes gasped for breath, having suffered from chronic asthma all her life. But she had a ready laugh, an indomitable spirit, and a clear view of what was needed. We drew up a list of issues that could be solved by legislation, including birth control, family planning, childcare and equality in work and education.

New members soon joined, and groups were set up to research each issue. Helen Glezer, a psychologist, led a team that designed the questionnaire, tested it and oversaw the training of the interviewers and the analysis of results. Other groups looked after public relations, finance and the newsletter.

Bea set off to other capitals to talk to women about setting up WEL groups and it was soon very active in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. By the end of the year, membership was up to several thousand, with branches in all states, and as far away as Darwin and Norfolk Island. Groups were formed in each electorate to monitor the candidates. Women who joined WEL said later, “it changed my life”.

It was a time of social and political change. The long-running conservative government was faltering under Billy McMahon, while the Opposition leader Gough Whitlam was gaining popularity. In the months leading up to the federal election, WEL interviewed all candidates willing to participate, and quizzed them at public meetings. Two women conducted each interview, and as one MP said: “They hunt in pairs.” This was the first time a survey of all candidates had been attempted in Australia.

Most of the candidates were ignorant about women’s issues, and gaffes were frequent. In the Sydney electorate of Bennelong, veteran politician Sir John Cramer said: “A woman must be taught that her virginity is the most valuable thing she possesses.”

As WEL became more prominent it aroused hostility from conservatives and Australia’s spy agency ASIO, which regarded women’s rights as a communist agenda.

We printed a poster “Think WEL before you vote”, and in November 1972 The Age published the WEL survey in a green four-page “Women Voters’ Guide”. Prime minister Billy McMahon got one out of 40; Gough Whitlam got 33. Overall, WEL’s campaign was the most important third-party intervention in any federal election up to that time.

Bea Faust drove WEL forward in that first year, flinging out ideas at a rapid pace. She was a seasoned campaigner and understood far more about political lobbying than most of us. She said WEL was a collective effort, but some members of the Women’s Liberation Movement criticised her dominant role. WEL had a flat structure with no office-bearers. Meetings were held with a rotating chair and “consensus decision-making” rather than resolutions.

Bea was behind another campaign that year to get women into the Victorian public service, where the upper levels were for men only. Bea got women to apply, and two with unusual names were accepted. They turned up for the exam in June 1972 with WEL supporters and the media in tow and were allowed to sit the exams. They did well but failed the medical on the grounds they were female. WEL pursued the matter with premier Dick Hamer, who changed the policy.

In December that year, the Whitlam Labor government was elected, and went on to implement most of the policies in the WEL questionnaire. As the historian Marian Sawer has written: “The overall effect of WEL’s intervention in the 1972 federal campaign was such that political parties no longer felt comfortable going into election campaigns without a women’s policy.”

WEL went on to have other successful campaigns, including a public forum in Victoria in 1973 just before the state election, with all the party leaders on stage being questioned on issues like childcare. More than 2000 people attended, and it was subsequently televised.

Women who joined WEL were empowered by it and learnt a lot about politics and lobbying. Women who had been housewives went on to study, work or stand for local government or higher office. Many WEL members went on to positions of power and influence in politics, the public service, business and the community sector, spreading reforms for women in different ways. WEL today has a smaller membership, but still lobbies on feminist issues.

In 1974, Bea dropped out of WEL in order to concentrate on the Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) where she was president, and her writing.

As a journalist, she wrote for several newspapers and published four books: Women, Sex and Pornography (1980), Apprenticeship in Liberty, (1991), Benzo Junkie: More than a case history (1993) and Backlash? Balderdash! Where Feminism is Going Right, (1994).

In the latter part of her career, Bea became a lecturer in English at RMIT in Melbourne, then from 1990-2003 she was at Monash University’s campus at Churchill, Gippsland, where she was an educational designer in the Centre of Learning and Teaching Support. She retired at 67.

In 2001, Bea was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to the community through women’s issues and was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. In 2004, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and in 2005 awarded the degree of LLD honoris causa at Monash University.

Bea Faust was courageous and inspired a whole generation through her work for civil liberties and for women. She will be greatly missed.

She is survived by her son, Stephen Faust.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Iola Mathews, 'Faust, Beatrice Eileen (Bea) (1939–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Beatrice Faust, by Terry Bogue, 1986

Beatrice Faust, by Terry Bogue, 1986

Monash University Archives, 1452

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Fennessy, Beatrice Eileen

19 February, 1939
Glen Huntly, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


30 October, 2019 (aged 80)
Churchill, Victoria, Australia

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