Against the stream

Women and the left, 1945-1968


An earlier version of this chapter appeared as ‘Women and the Communist Party of Australia’, Hecate, Vol VI (1), 1980.


Last year saw the publication of Women in Australia, a sociological treatise by Norman MacKenzie ... Barely any mention is made of the trade union women’s committees. Norman MacKenzie has written about us at length, reduced us to statistics, commented on our way of life but he does not understand that it is such organisations of the working class which will play a decisive part in our future.

¾ Our Women, 1963

MacKenzie’s book is not the only case of neglect. The two decades after World War II have received little attention by students of women’s history, probably because it was a time of defeat. What lessons can be learned, after all, from a time when women were ‘sent back into the home’ and conservative social roles became predominant?

Yet defeat is never absolute. In reality, women were not sent back into the home at all. After a temporary dip right after the war, their numbers in the civilian workforce began to rise again and rapidly exceeded the highest wartime levels. The ideology which taught that their place was in the home did assist the employers in cutting back their wages and conditions. Even so, there were numerous struggles in the late forties and fifties, which limited the Cold War right wing onslaught and helped lay the basis for a new radicalization in the sixties. During this time the task of keeping the idea of women’s equality alive fell largely to the political left, especially the Communist Party and its allies.

The Communists acted within a political framework that was, in some ways, quite conservative. While the Bolshevik revolution had taken radical measures in the areas of sexuality, abortion and family relations, the rising Stalinist bureaucracy from the late twenties onwards had reinstated the family as a sacred institution, banned abortion, and imposed sexual puritanism. These policies found their reflections in the western Communist Parties, which also saw the family as a bastion of socialism and built much of their work among women around traditional conceptions of the female role.

During the thirties, this tendency was still counterbalanced by a strong emphasis on women in the workplace, as illustrated by chapter three. Even after the war, Communists still argued for bringing them into production, and organising them there, as a prerequisite for emancipation. In practice, however, the emphasis was increasingly on housewives. Betty Reilly’s report to the 1948 Party Congress announced that ‘A broad people’s movement must include all progressive sections of women, particularly working class housewives and women from industry’ and claimed that ‘the conditions are maturing in the localities and the factories.’ The order of priority is clear enough.

Therefore the party was by no means a model force for women’s liberation. However in a highly conservative society, it was nevertheless the most advanced political movement of any size, and one with significant roots in the working class. Sometimes the Communists made comments prefiguring the cultural critiques later made by women’s liberation, as when Freda Brown wrote in 1964 that ‘changing fashions are not dictated by women’s desires, comfort or climate.’ If their achievements were modest, that partly reflects the difficult conditions of the time. This chapter differs from all the others in that it offers no remarkable examples of women taking the lead in big struggles. Such developments are much less likely in times of reaction. It does however relate a number of smaller struggles which kept some idea of women’s rights alive.

After the war

Well before the war ended there was talk of women eventually surrendering their jobs to men, and the ideological pressures mounted as time went. The unions were by no means immune. In 1943 the Sheet Metal Workers insisted: ‘We must remain united. Not preference for one against another, but work or full maintenance for all must be our slogan for the post war period.’ Yet a year later the same union signed an agreement with AWA in 1944 over postwar retrenchments. Preference was to be given to men and boys, particularly where the women were on the (higher) WEB rates. In February, 1945 the union’s news sheet published a cartoon showing a woman in overalls watching her husband shave. ‘Jealous?’ he says. The SMWIU still had 15% female membership at this stage.

Yet there were many cases where men stood up for women’s right to work. Jessie Street describes an example of a Sydney factory where eight women remained after the war, still on equal pay. When management tried to cut their pay, the men threatened to strike. When the company then dismissed the women, saying it would employ only males, the men struck until the women were reinstated.

The late forties and early fifties brought attacks on the higher wages and access to jobs that women had won during the war. In 1949 the employers took a test case to the High Court and secured a decision invalidating the Women’s Employment Board regulations; pay for females was now to be set at only 75% of the male rate. The bosses then carried the attack into the arbitration machinery. In March 1951, Conciliation Commissioner Galvin also endorsed the 75% figure.

During these years, employers also took the offensive on the job. But here they often met fierce resistance. In November 1948, women at Thompson and Scougall’s, Alexandria (Sydney) won a wage rise after a strike threat. In May 1950, 32 men and eight women struck together for equal pay at Claude Neon, also in Sydney, and six months later female postal workers forestalled a Federal Government attempt to abolish equal pay by threatening industrial action.

February 1951 saw a two-and-a-half week stoppage at half a dozen Sydney metal shops, successfully defending wartime pay rates, while April of the same year witnessed ironworkers in Newcastle on strike over the same issue, and July saw female meatworkers at Swifts in Brisbane successfully stop attempts to push their pay down to 66% of the male rate. These actions all occurred in industries with a significant Communist presence and reflected the presence of a left wing political leadership. However it appears there was a much more widespread discontent among female workers at the time: the Communist Review reported a case at Dunlop’s Weatherproof factory in Wagga where ‘women workers ... completely unorganised, rose in protest at the placing of men at double their pay rates, at the same tables. The inequality was too obvious, the men had to be given different work.’

Neither labour historians nor feminist writers have covered these events; I learnt about them from reading the Communist press of the time. The most impressive action, reported by the Party paper Queensland Guardian, was at Rheem in Brisbane, where management cut pay for females from 90% of the male rate to just over 75%. On 11 April 1951 the women struck, including a number of migrant workers (at that time widely considered to be incapable of militancy). The Communist-led Sheetmetal Workers Union backed the strike, and within a fortnight around 100 men had come out in support of the 23 women, who were themselves busily engaged in addressing shop floor meetings around Brisbane. One of them told engineering workers at Evans Deakin: ‘We’re doing the same work as men, yet we’ve had a big cut in our pay. The men support us because it’s an unjust attack.’

After three months, the strikers settled for 87% of the male rate, equivalent to 90% of what the male rate had been when the dispute began.

During the immediate postwar years the Party was also heavily involved with housewives. Having previously worked within the conservative Housewives’ Association (as well as the Country Women’s Association), in 1948 it led a breakaway to form a New Housewives’ Association. The Communist press claimed 50 branches and a membership of 3,000 for it in NSW. In Melbourne a member of the rival Association conceded that the breakaway group began life with branches in 32 suburbs.

Runaway inflation, lack of childcare, and the absence of even minimal amenities and services in the new working class suburbs had produced a ferment among women after the war. The NHA was intended to be a ‘mass organisation’ organising around immediate issues and attempting to radicalise large numbers. This sometimes meant a low political level, with the NHA taking up glove making and flower arranging. On the other hand there were some extremely militant actions. NHA members addressed factory meetings on issues concerning women and general politics. In Sydney a group of them stormed into the gas company to protest against rising charges, and were able to force the manager to see them. In Melbourne, a hundred housewives marched into the Prices Branch office demanding controls on meat prices.

The agitation around price inflation reached its peak in mass demonstrations in Sydney in 1948. The Party paper Tribune claimed the crowd numbered 10,000 and reported the police had called it the biggest demonstration ever held in Sydney (hardly true). It won support as far away as Melbourne, where building workers at Moorabbin held a one-hour stoppage to coincide with it.

The Communist Review hailed the success of the demonstration as indicating the ‘beginnings of a People’s Movement’. Unfortunately this was not at all true. The large numbers were achieved partly by calling out the waterside workers, not by mobilising ten thousand housewives. Such methods were artificial and could not be repeated without exhausting the patience of the wharfies. The mass demonstration marked the peak, not the beginning of the movement.

Another important issue for the NHA was childcare, a pressing issue amidst the postwar ‘baby boom’. It was a good issue to fight around, but here the party’s family orientation betrayed its limitations. The agitation was not directed at State and Federal governments, which had resources to fund childcare on a large scale. Rather there was a community orientation. At its worst, this seems to have amounted to self-help, with the Party encouraging women to ‘help with functions to raise funds for the local kindergarten ... or work with some form of housewives’ association to improve conditions in the home.’ At its best the NHA sought to achieve its aims through local councils, but as Daphne Gollan later recalled:

It was dreadfully difficult because the municipal councils didn’t have the money ... A very handsome day nursery was set up in, of all places, Double Bay [an affluent suburb]. A beautiful day nursery, but whether they needed it, of course ...

The NHA conducted various other activities, from cottage lectures to marketing wholesale fruit and vegetables. While the work sometimes lacked political direction, it offered some potential for winning support among larger numbers of working women. After 1949, however, as the party began suffering major defeats, it was abandoned.

The CPA also devoted considerable attention to organising the wives of male trade unionists. There was already a strong tradition of women’s auxiliaries in the coalfields, and the Communists sought to extend this to other industries in the postwar period.

The first auxiliary among seamen’s wives arose in Sydney during World War II, and they became a general feature after the war. Similar groups were set up at various times in the building industry, the metal trades, and on the waterfront. Considering that the term ‘auxiliary’ carried implications of making tea rather than class struggle, the party encouraged them to call themselves ‘women’s committees’. Changing the terminology didn’t in itself ensure that the groups transcended wives’ traditional role as ‘hewers of cake and drawers of tea’. A 1963 article explained the aims and activities of the committees as being:

to explain to women the industrial and political demands of their menfolk so that women can take part in struggles fully understanding the issues involved. However, this is by no means their only function. The women meet socially, visit sick members, collect funds, run children’s Christmas parties, celebrate International Women’s Day, participate in May Day, assist other women’s organisations with similar aims and play a vital part in the fight for peace.

The social activities had more political importance than it might appear. Wives of seamen often led lonely lives, and ensuring the companionship of other women could be important, especially if they fell ill. The fact that a body linked to the union concerned itself with this built support for trade unionism. Even the tea making, by getting women together, could provide the beginnings of more ambitious ventures.

Doris Maxwell, a foundation member of the Waterside Workers’ women’s committee, explained that the union had first agreed to the committee ‘mainly to assist in the union canteen’, but by 1953 it took a step beyond that by sending some members along on a deputation to Canberra. ‘By 1954 the women and the union felt it was time for us to get out of the canteen and take up wider activities. In the strike of November 1954, we were more than an auxiliary, and in the big strike of February this year [1956] we played a really important role.’ In Brisbane, a Committee representative joined the strike committee. One of the union officials, Matt Monroe, commented that ‘our members have had to be won to the idea of any committees of women’ but that ‘now our committee and our members’ wives are invited to our stopworks’. Similarly, in the Brisbane metal trades, strikers’ wives attended a mass meeting and joined a union rally during a 1960 strike at Commonwealth Engineering Works.

The committees often tried to familiarise wives with the workplace as well as the union. In Townsville in 1958 the local Engineering union organiser conducted a tour of the powerhouse. In New South Wales, the committee associated with a building union ‘developed the splendid idea of job excursions by women and children, to see their menfolk at work’. Sometimes more than sightseeing was involved: in 1962 women’s committee members went out with organisers to address site meetings on issues surrounding that year’s federal election.

The Union of Australian Women

As the Cold War intensified, the Communists and their allies retreated from the comparatively militant New Housewives to a broader but more moderate organisation.

The Union of Australian Women (UAW) was formed in 1950 and 1951. Its founders modeled it on European groups like the Union of Italian Women, which had arisen on an antifascist and antiwar program, then broadened their interests. Information about the European groups appears to have reached Australia through the international peace movement, and leading antiwar activists were involved in setting up the UAW. After 1956 they established a national structure and began publishing the magazine Our Women, whose circulation peaked at 10,000.

Some UAW activists have been at pains to insist that their organisation had no party affiliation. One of them told me:

As soon as it was set up, it was immediately attacked, as everything progressive was attacked, with the red bogey. So we had a hard row to hoe from the word go, and some people did drop out, once these rumours went around that it was a Communist front. So we’ve always stood on the ground that we were political but we were non-party, and any woman of the party had the right to come in, as long as they were prepared to work for peace, for women’s rights, equal pay, children and development and education.

There were indeed UAW branches with very few Communists, and the group embraced a wide range of people. On the other hand Pat Elphinston who, as the organisation’s first national secretary, was in a position to know, remarked in 1980 that the Sydney management committee had been ‘loaded with Communist women’. At the top levels, the CPA set the tone. UAW policies were always compatible with those of the Party and the group has to be seen as part of the Communist strategy of building a broad ‘people’s front’.

This was actually not a very radical strategy, and the UAW was not a very radical movement. Although the conditions under which the group operated were certainly difficult, it did not need to retreat as much as it did from an orientation to the workplace and class struggle. By 1948, women’s employment levels had returned to their wartime peak. Their labour force participation rate rose throughout the 1950s, with married females especially moving into the workforce. The latter were more confident and assertive, perhaps because they were somewhat older. Being less likely to see themselves as just waiting to get married, they tended to take long term union issues more seriously. It was possible to sow some militant seeds among them, as CPA member Stella Nord learned from practical experience.

After getting a job at the Swifts meat packing plant in Brisbane, Nord was able to gradually emerge as an agitator. In addition to her own efforts, this success owed something to the arrival of more married women, which improved the climate in the plant. It also owed something to the support she got from the CPA. She began by encouraging other women to demand and win a mirror in the dressing room, a small victory that laid the basis for bigger ones. ‘It was essential, I felt, that the women themselves got their own confidence to front up to the [union] delegate and the boss and feel their own power.’ By seeking their ideas for articles to appear in the Communist job sheet, insisting that some union meetings be held in the women’s dining room, then building a stoppage over uniforms, she helped create a strong militant union consciousness:

From these struggles there developed a new power relation situation, where the women themselves [were] all sticking together, while some of the men who were good lined up with the women, [and some other men] supported the boss. It became a clear demarcation of women plus militant workers opposed to the boss ...

It is likely the CPA women could have achieved more such successes with a stronger workplace orientation. Certainly veteran Communist Alice Hughes thought so, remarking later that when the UAW was formed, the party should have argued the need to ‘go and work in industry, on the job ... [instead] I can remember having meetings in localities and trying to develop interest groups on the basis of craft work that I absolutely detested ... when I should have been working in industry.’

Whatever its faults, however, the UAW was easily the most radical and class conscious group of people working in the field of women’s rights.

The Union devoted a lot of attention to equal pay, and deserves much of the credit for keeping this issue alive during the fifties and early sixties. Our Women carried a steady stream of articles on the subject, addressing the question of whether equal wages would mean the sack for female employees and reporting on struggles. In 1969 it published a prize-winning short story about a woman who enters an all-male workplace. The boss wants to start bringing in women on lower pay to replace the men. The heroine, who insists on equal pay, thwarts his plans. There were quite a few small demonstrations on this and other issues. On International Women’s Day 1952, for example, the Newcastle group organised a 60-strong march to raise complaints about unemployment, housing, education, hospitals and food prices; a few days later they traveled to Sydney to lobby State Parliament. In 1964 a hundred people attended an equal pay conference in Canberra.

The organisation was largely working class, and extremely class conscious. In 1963 Our Women reported favorably that men at Commonwealth Industrial Gases had struck for a fortnight against plans to employ females at pay lower than the male rate. Female canteen workers joined the strike. Both the canteen staff and the UAW saw the boss, rather than male workers, as their enemy.

The UAW helped organise the union women’s committees and worked to support strikes. In addition, it devoted a lot of energy to home and community issues, though without the fire of the New Housewives. Members with children were usually active in the school Mothers’ Club, working for a new library or a safe set of fire stairs or for better childcare. Fourteen Melbourne members picketed the Gas and Fuel Corporation in 1962 in protest against price rises.

The peace movement, a huge issue for the Communists, was also important for the UAW, which organised ‘Peace Walks’ in the face of government repression. In Perth they were arrested and fined for ‘parading with placards’. The ‘placards’ were actually aprons and scarves emblazoned with peace slogans. After a successful Supreme Court appeal against the convictions, other branches were emboldened to stage similar actions. These continued through the sixties, and there was continuing repression. A short story published in Our Women in 1964 gives some impression of what the participants were up against, both in the streets and at home:

What would the family say? They would be horrified when they knew she had taken part in a ‘Ban the Bomb’ demonstration. She didn’t really mind going to court herself, she was quite happy to stand up for what they had done. None of them considered they had broken the law. They had simply printed, large on their wearing apparel, words calling for a peaceful world, and walked around the city footpaths.

The woman’s husband hears about the event from the newspaper and is upset. Why didn’t she tell him?

‘You ought to know why I didn’t tell you,’ Helen was almost in tears. ‘You always criticise everything I do. Some silly women’s ideas you’d say. As if women can’t think for themselves. I suppose we should stay in the kitchen like our mothers and grandmothers, and go on rearing gun-fodder.’

Finally, the UAW kept alive the tradition of International Women’s Day. We sometimes read that IWD began with the Women’s Liberation Movement, while more informed writers realise it began as part of the working class struggle and the socialist movement early in this century. Hardly anyone recalls the UAW’s IWD luncheons with political speakers. While the focus was normally on standard women’s rights issues, other concerns were included. In 1965 the Newcastle group invited Aboriginal poet Kath Walker (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal) to address them.

The Newcastle group also provoked some controversy by appointing a male IWD organiser in the early sixties. Barbara Curthoys recalls: ‘There was opposition from some women in other cities, but Merv Copley was a good organiser and he succeeded in having IWD recognised and supported by male trade union leaders.’

The UAW declined in the sixties and seventies. The first major setback came with the Sino-Soviet conflict; a minority of pro-China Communists broke away from both the Party and the UAW and the factional strife drove others away. A second split in 1971 between Soviet-liners and those increasingly critical of Moscow was a further blow. Our Women ceased publication around this time.

However the most important factor was a changing social climate. A new era of industrial militancy and political radicalization began around 1967. Government hostel workers demonstrated for equal pay, as did psychiatric nurses. Barmaids took action around the issue and won. Teachers in New South Wales won equal pay, to be phased in from 1967. By 1969 the Arbitration Commission’s refusal to grant equal pay to more than a token number of employees provoked a small group of Melbourne women to chain themselves to public buildings. Their Action Committee proved to be a forerunner of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Communists, who had settled into a relatively conservative style of work, were suddenly outflanked by new forces on the left. There was a political gap between the women’s liberationists and the UAW, as one of the latter told me:

When Women’s Lib started, some of the older women were a bit shocked by some of the things that went on in Women’s Lib, and they wouldn’t have a bar of that. The younger women felt this, and they sort of felt that the UAW was old hat. They didn’t want to have a bar of it or anything to do with it.

The more militant UAW members did find their way into Women’s Liberation. Others, like Betty Olle, saw the Women’s Electoral Lobby as the ‘seventies success story’ and the best place to work. Either way, new forces were pushing aside the old.

Read the next chapter