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Elizabeth (Liz) Johnston (1920–2002)

by Allison Murchie

This article was published:

Johnston, Elizabeth (Liz), née Teesdale Smith (1920-2002) trade union official, lawyer, community activist and Communist

Birth: 1 October 1920 at Adelaide, South Australia, daughter of Major Paul Teesdale Smith, DCM (1896-1962), also known as Teasdale Smith, a solicitor, born at Perth, Western Australia, and Helen Mary, née Waterhouse (1884-1971), born in Adelaide. Marriage: 17 April 1942 to Elliott Frank Johnston (1918-2011), lawyer, Communist activist and later judge. They had one son. Death: 17 September 2002 at Adelaide. 

  • Her paternal grandfather was Henry Teesdale Smith (1858-1921), a railway contractor.
  • Educated at Woodlands Girls Grammar School, Glenelg; head prefect and captained school’s hockey and tennis teams.
  • Her parents believed in the right of their children to form and stand by their opinions and when she was 15 her father gave her a copy of “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism” by George Bernard Shaw.
  • Studied Law at Adelaide University in 1939.
  • In World War II her husband joined the army on 5 August 1940, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 21 September 1942 and served in New Guinea. Elizabeth became secretary of the South Australian branch of the Federated Clerks Union (FCU), the first woman to hold that position. Elected delegate to United Trades and Labor Council, she was the first woman to be elected to UTLC executive. Life member of FCU.
  • Helped to establish the left-wing Cooperative Printing Press. Joined Marion branch of Communist Party of Australia in 1941 and was very active there for next ten years on a wide range of issues.
  • Admitted to the Bar in 1958 and joined her husband in partnership as Johnston and Johnston. ¨Clients were working class people with working class problems”.
  • Joined protests against Vietnam War. Assisted in the formation of the Aboriginal Legal rights movement.
  • When SA Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1976, she was appointed by Dunstan government as chair of the board. Negotiated with the Adelaide press to bring significant changes to press advertising to remove discrimination on the basis of gender.
  • She worked with the Dunstan government to establish the Aboriginal Land Trust and with the committee set up to report on Pitjantjatjara land rights, which eventually led to Aboriginal ownership.
  • Assisted in formation of Labour Lawyers in SA and was an officer of the original national body.
  • From 1984 served 4 years as Board member of SA Housing Trust.
  • Became a member and later Secretary of SA Aboriginal Education Foundation.
  • Managed the Communist Party bookshop at the Red Shed. In her last ten years she was concerned about reconciliation, rights of asylum seekers and children in detention but mainly with unemployment.

Eulogy given at her funeral; Penelope Debelle, Red Silk: The life of Elliott Johnston QC (Adelaide, 2011); Elizabeth Johnston papers, PRG 1542/5, State Library of South Australia.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Allison Murchie, 'Johnston, Elizabeth (Liz) (1920–2002)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012