‘International Women's Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality.’*
Over the last couple of weeks, I browsed through the Archives of Australian Church Women (ACW) for a woman to honour for International Women's Day. A difficult task because there are so many examples of worthy ACW members in our records. In the end, I selected the herstory of a woman who is fondly remembered for her actions and advocacy to make a positive difference in the lives of other women, particularly young women, and their families.
Elizabeth (Betty) Paton was born on 12 February 1911 in Geelong, Victoria, into a family with members who were and had been missionaries. Betty also heard the call to missionary service and after graduating in the arts and education from the University of Melbourne, she was appointed as a missionary to teach in a school in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, Betty met Dr Frank Richard Ashton, from England, who was serving with the London Missionary Society at the Nethersole Hospital (one of the oldest missionary hospitals in Asia). Dr Ashton, who had qualifications from Edinburgh and Liverpool, was a third-generation missionary for the London Missionary Society.
Elizabeth Paton and Dr Frank Ashton married on 22 December 1941, just prior to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. They were both interned at the Stanley Camp for civilians from 1942–45, where they worked for the welfare of those interned. ‘About 2,800 men, women, and children were held at the non-segregated camp for 44 months from early January 1942 to August 1945 when Japanese forces surrendered.’ **
Betty spoke little of her grim experiences of those years. ‘The hardships and privations did not embitter her, rather was her spirit refined and her faith intensified’, according to a tribute from Australian Church Women.
After their release from the Stanley Camp, the Ashtons travelled to Australia to regain their health. Then they returned to Hong Kong to again serve the London Missionary Society until their retirement in 1966. Betty also worked very hard fundraising for the Mission to Lepers. In retirement, they settled in Melbourne, Australia.
In 1967, Betty became the National Secretary of Australian Church Women, originally nominated to the Working Committee by the YWCA. However, she relinquished this position because she was returning to Hong Kong. Dr Ashton was asked to undertake further medical work there as the acting Secretary of the Junk Bay Medical Centre. A year later they returned to Australia, and in 1969 Betty became the National President of Australian Church Women. It is recorded that Betty fulfilled the position of President ‘with dignity, grace and efficiency’.
Betty was known as ‘a National President twice over’. In 1969, she was also elected President of the YWCA of Australia. In addition to holding simultaneously two president’s hats for national organisations, she also represented Australian Church Women as a committee member of a fundraising appeal for $200,000 to establish a Hall of Residence for Women at the University of Papua New Guinea, in Port Moresby. The appeal was directed at Australian women’s organisations to financially support the provision of student accommodation for at least 100 indigenous women of Papua New Guinea. Betty was also an active member of the Congregational Women’s Fellowship, holding the office of President, again during 1969.
Another, and I believe the last, committee that Betty was appointed to was the Australian Council of Churches Committee in Co-operation of Men and Women in Church, Family and Society in February 1971. However, Betty only attended one meeting as she died unexpectedly on 28 May 1971.
Betty Ashton was dedicated to many causes for women and her death was a great loss to those who knew and loved her. In a memorial tribute from the National Executive of Australian Church Women, they recorded:
‘It is with a keen sense of loss that we record the death of the Immediate Past President of Australian Church Women, Mrs. F. R. Ashton of Melbourne. Her unexpected death came as a shock, though it was known she had returned to hospital following an operation.
'Mrs. Ashton was taken from us at the height of her powers. A woman of grace and charm, with a trained mind, broad sympathies and an understanding heart, she brought to her office all the rich gifts of her whole personality. SERVICE was the keynote of her life. Her influence will live on and will surely be an inspiration to others.'
‘She had a firm faith which had been tested in the fires of experience, an experience which few of her contemporaries were called upon to face. She could say with St Paul, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” …
‘As we pay our tribute to one who early committed herself to the Christian way of life, served sacrificially and finished the course with honour, we are confident that she had a triumphal entry into the Kingdom and received the accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”’
If you have or can locate a photo of Elizabeth Ashton, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
** Bernice Archer; Kent Fedorowich (1996). "The Women of Stanley: internment in Hong Kong 1942–45". Women's History Review. 5 (3): 374.