Dorothea (Thea) Stanley Hughes (1907-87) was an Australian writer and health advocate who brought the Women’s League of Health to Australia in 1935. This popular organisation was designed to empower women to take charge of their lives and was one of the largest in the 1930s, based on the Women’s League of Health and Beauty established in London by Mary Bagot Stack (1883-1935).
The League sought to expand women's roles beyond the constraints of traditional roles in both Britain and Australia. They played an important part in providing a framework for alternative social structures, as well as introducing an agenda of social critique that influenced later feminist movements.
The realisation of the need for physical training is so new in our time that we have not even got as far as discriminating between different kinds of physical training, and so people can easily be pushed into anything before they are intelligently health conscious themselves. We exist as a league to show women what the Bagot Stack training is, and let them decide if they want it. We hope through the constructive and practical effort of the league, to link up all those women who realise their potential power for fine physique and want to express it in a scheme so practical that they may even live to see the first fruits of their labors in the dawning of a millennium of health. Daily Advertiser 26 Nov 1942, p2
We hold classes in a special kind of physical training for women and for children and many of the classes are concerned with prenatal work to alleviate and decrease maternal mortality and morbidity. Thea Hughes to Sydney Council in support of her building proposals, Sydney Council 1955, DA 434/55
In the Australian League's title, Thea intentionally dropped the phrase "and Beauty" in favour of focusing on developing women's character through self-development, while the British branch of the League focused primarily on physical appearance. Mass public gatherings for outdoor exercise were signature events, which Thea often led herself. Over 250 classes a week, including pre- and post-natal relaxation classes, were taught all throughout the country.
Thea presided over the Australian arm of the organisation out of its headquarters on 117-119 George Street, built in 1955 when membership across Australia numbered over 53,000 women, and Thea herself resided nearby at 10 Argyle Place for many years. The League and its magazine Movement was prominent in Australia until the 1970s when it was eclipsed by the aerobics movement. The League of Health vacated the building in 1972, and ceased operations soon after. However, the League's importance is clearly evident in the architectural detail of the building, which, although the facade was altered in the 1980s, the building features large and well-lit spaces on the first and second floors, that have since served as the Julian Ashton Art School.
The League of Health at 117-119 George Street in 1960. The 1955 building, seen here at the centre of the image, contrasts with the largely Victorian and Georgian buildings of The Rocks. (Photo by Val Sowada, PMNSW Collection)
The League of Health at 117-119 George Street in 1970. The upper floors became the Julian Ashton Art School (1990s-2020s) and Clive and Ruth Evatt's Hogarth Galleries (Aboriginal and Tribal Art) from 1991-2005. Clive Evatt, as well as being a prominent lawyer, had originally set up the Hogarth Gallery in Paddington in 1972, purported to be one of the earliest galleries promoting Aboriginal art following his exhibition of bark painting by Owen Pelly through the Aboriginal Arts Board. (Photo by Tim Collis Bird, SCRA Collection)