If women’s studies means the study of women ‘objectively’, that is, as though they were a species of ant, it doesn’t matter which group of women we study. But if we are looking at history to analyse the world, in order to change it, then it matters very much.
Our starting point is an understanding that the world can be fundamentally changed, and women liberated, by the everyday struggles of working class people. The articles collected here were all written to record the achievements of, and the lessons we can learn from, those struggles. They are particularly relevant today when all around we are faced with pessimism about the ability of ordinary people to change the world.
The contributors to this book are revolutionary Marxists. Our starting point is our conviction that the oppression of women is a source of disunity among workers. The experience of struggle offers the best opportunity to combat sexist ideas held by male workers, and for women to overcome the constraints on their involvement in political life, and therefore to forge unity. This is a theme in Marx’s work which is rarely discussed in academic writing. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx considered the problem of how workers could change their ideas, given they are conditioned by social circumstances. This could only occur in struggle; people would change themselves as they fought to change the world. ‘The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice’.
This is not an automatic process, which is why we have attempted over the years to record lessons and insights from the actual experiences of class conflict. The development of class consciousness, and opposition to divisive ideas such as sexism often results from the initiatives and intervention of militants ¾ both women and men ¾ who have a political world view that says unity is necessary and possible, who consciously see the possibilities, and who are prepared to seize them. The dynamic of the struggle itself ¾ a striving for unity, open conflict with figures of authority ¾ can make workers more open to ideas which challenge the dominant ‘common sense’. This is why the high points of struggle are of particular interest. In periods of ‘normality’ the divisive ideas in society are the most entrenched. If this is what we focus on, we miss the potential for change. This point is driven home by R.H.B. Kearns’ pictorial history of Broken Hill. The book is dominated by photos and graphics of men. But the chapter ‘The Miners’ stands out with illustrations of women in the struggles.
In the late nineties this approach seems much more out of step with the latest thinking both in the left of the labour movement and in academic circles than it may have seemed in the seventies. In the trade union movement, the experience of thirteen unhappy years of Labor government ¾ increased bureaucratisation of the unions, falling membership, to say nothing of cuts to the social wage, mass unemployment and attacks on the conditions of those who do work ¾ demoralised a generation of militants who were convinced by both left wing and right wing officials and Labor Party politicians that class collaboration under the ALP/ACTU Accord was the modern, ‘smart’ way for unions to increase their influence. Since the election of the Howard government in 1996 we have seen the consequences of this strategy. The unions (and the left) have been incapable of leading a co-ordinated, sustained campaign against either Howard’s attacks on union rights, welfare, migrants and Aborigines or Hanson’s racism.
The academic world provided theoretical respectability to these ideas: the era of radicalism was (thankfully) over, the working class was no longer a central player in the struggle for social change, if ever it had been. Social movements, with their claim to provide cross-class alliances (as opposed to the alleged divisiveness of class struggle) were hailed in the early to mid-eighties as the road to social change. But as the industrial struggle declined under the influence of the Accord and bureaucratic control from above, so did the social movements. Fashionable theories now turned against any genuinely left agenda. Theories of ‘postmodernism’, which rejected all attempts to understand the totality of society, no longer lingered in the shadows created by the growing disarray on the left. By the late eighties they were basking in the academic limelight, and condemning and even ridiculing any attempt to find patterns in history from which we might learn for the future.
Increasingly, history is viewed as mere ‘myths’ created by historians’ own personal interpretation of events. The fragmentation of the left and working class movement, rather than being studied as a problem to be overcome, was glorified with calls for ‘identity’ politics, whereby every oppressed group emphasised their ‘difference’ from, rather than solidarity with others. ‘Totalising’ theories such as Marxism which claimed to be able to make sense of the seeming chaos and fragmentation, and which argued for a collective struggle of all the oppressed based on the power of the working class were increasingly dismissed as totalitarian ¾ an argument which confused ideas and material power, but which none the less had an appeal in the prevailing climate of political confusion.
The studies in this book, undertaken both in the context of academic study and experience in the struggles themselves, illustrate our reply to the dominant pessimism and doubt about the ability of working class people to change history. They show that history is not a chaotic, unpredictable jumble of events; rather we can find common themes that point to ways to overcome sexism and women’s oppression. And it is the struggle of workers themselves, which reveal the pattern. For most of the time it is true that capitalism so dominates our lives that it does seem all around is madness and chaos. The market, said to be the saviour of modern society by economic rationalists, serves to mystify the processes by which society operates. Marx called this ‘commodity fetishism’. He argued that if the actual reality could be directly understood from the surface appearance of things we would not need theory. But how are we to push aside the veil of mystification? This book illustrates Marx’s argument. Practical experience from the 1890s to the 1980s, and from remote Broken Hill to the heart of Melbourne, show that people’s view of the world can be transformed in struggle.
My chapter looks at the role of women played in Broken Hill 1892-1917, a centre famous for its industrial struggles and dominated by the all-male unions in the mines. I also discuss some of the complexities in interpreting the records of such events. Janey Stone’s account of women’s militancy during the depression is a direct reply to the idea that women have generally been passive, or simply dupes of men in times of hardship and resistance. At times women had to confront working class men in order to be involved. They often were able to do this because of the political leadership of Communist Party women and the confidence arising from a climate of struggle. Their activity, as in Broken Hill, was made possible by their identification as working class fighters with a common interest with the men.
These themes are continued in Janey’s account of events during World War II, when the key issue was equal pay. She shows how women could be more militant than men despite immense pressures on them to conform to feminine stereotypes, and that women fought on both sides of the class divide. Tom O’Lincoln highlights a different aspect of women’s involvement by looking at the role women played in the CPA. He demonstrates our point in the negative. When the level of class struggle was at a very low level as it was during the Cold War, there were very few gains for women’s rights. Diane Fieldes' article on the campaign for equal pay in the insurance industry highlights the fundamental importance of class divisions rather than gender even on this issue which is sometimes assumed to have received little support from male workers. She shows that the struggle for equal pay ‘pitted class against class’ and ‘illustrated how a common class interest could begin to bridge sexist divisions among workers themselves.’ Women in management positions by and large sided with their cohorts in opposition to equal pay, while men in the lower ranks of the workforce could be won to support it.
The last two chapters are accounts of strikes by women workers in the 1980s, written on the basis of the authors’ direct involvement. Liz Ross' account of the 1986 Nurses strike in Victoria illustrates the dynamic of class solidarity which can override sexist attitudes among male workers when women break out of the stereotypes. My account of the Kortex strike in 1981 draws out the effects of class struggle on relationships in the home.
The details of the militancy of women in these struggles are drawn largely from primary sources. Many of the facts about strikes, political activity or women’s support for male trade unionists’ struggles had not been published before these articles were written. To unearth this history, and keep it alive, takes a continual struggle
In Broken Hill, for example, there is a folk history of the women’s sometimes riotous activities which is a source of pride for Broken Hill workers. It is portrayed in the painting ‘United We Stand’ by Howard William Steer and Clark Barrett that sometimes hangs in pride of place as you enter the City Art Gallery. As miners hold the police at bay, women are tarring and feathering scabs. A mural on a wall down the street features women and children rallying with their banners. Yet this folk history has to be re-asserted continually to survive. The Tourist Centre in the town features a large display about past union struggles which does not include even one of the many available illustrations of women’s involvement.
Why have labour historians so often ignored, or even failed to notice, the sort of struggles discussed here? To some extent this can probably be put down to the general gender blindness of much social science. However that is not sufficient explanation. Much of labour history tends to emphasize the official structures of trade unions and the Labor Party. Because of their oppression, women are less likely to be represented in these structures.
In Broken Hill, the coal mining areas and in the metals industry, this is exaggerated even further because of the overwhelmingly all-male membership of the unions. Moreover, because they are not workers, but rather occupy a position as brokers between capital and labour, union and ALP officials tend to be more conservative, more concerned to be ‘respectable’ than their rank and file, especially in times of struggle. This conservatism among full time officials is evident in many of the struggles recounted here.
However when we focus, as this book does, on the activities of the rank and file, that the political life of women (and men not in the leadership) takes on much greater significance.
Two photos from Broken Hill on page 14 of the hard copy version illustrate the point. The one that centres our attention on Tom Mann, a picture that has become famous, creates the impression that the workers’ movement can be represented by the images of individuals, generally men. When the camera directs our view at the crowd, however, the movement is seen as a collective, and the anonymous crowd comes alive. Women are in the minority, but they are now visible as part of the movement. But this view has been left unnoticed in the archives.
Similarly, Diane Fieldes’ chapter on the fight for equal pay in the insurance industry draws out how important it is to differentiate between the attitudes of the union officials and the potential militancy of the rank
and file: even initially quite conservative workers would respond well to coherent arguments for struggle. Male members he officials had written off as sexist proved able to outgrow their conservative ideas as the campaign unfolded.
At high points in struggle there is a tendency for rank and file militants of either sex to challenge the union officials and burst out of the constraints of everyday trade unionism. Often it is women who prove the more radical in such situations, as many of our chapters demonstrate. This arises, ironically, from the very fact that in ‘normal’ times, they are less likely to be involved in trade union affairs. As a result, they are less prey to conservative traditions. Historical accounts focusing more on the labour movement’s institutions, and less on the high points of struggle, tend to miss this fact and therefore dismiss women as backward elements.
If traditional history has neglected these aspects of working class experience, however, attempts by feminist historians to write ‘women’s history’ have not redressed the omissions. This is not simply a question of empirical research. In the first burst of the Women’s Liberation Movement, attempts were made to unearth the side of women’s history which challenged the idea that they have been implacable passive in the face of struggle, that their role has been solely rooted in the home. This was not however, a majority stance even then. Janey’s chapters were written explicitly as a refutation of the idea carried even by feminists that women were by and large passive in the class struggle. Liz Ross and I thought it necessary to explicitly draw out how our account was a refutation of such a position.
From the beginning, the idea that there is some common interest between all women blurred the class divisions between them. Janey showed how both upper class and working class women could be militant, on different sides of the barricades. It was not enough to simply laud their actions. She drew out the reactionary nature of the former and the progressive dynamic of workers’ struggle. And she pointed out that the assumption that their oppression meant women could not be independent agents of history distorted the conclusions of feminist historians:
Carmel Shute, in her study of the propaganda of the conscription struggle during World War I, in spite of having shown the militancy and level of independent organisation of women on both sides of the struggle, concludes that ‘women were a tool to be used by men, both by concrete and on an ideological level’.
However, as feminist historiography has grown and developed, there has emerged another, more important barrier to historians taking an interest in the struggles of the working class women such as those in this book. It is associated with the decline of the mass movements. As the optimism and radicalism of the seventies gave way to pessimism and doubts about the validity of class struggle, confusion over what exactly is ‘labour history’ gave rise to scepticism about the value of a history of women in working class struggle. The demand that ‘gender become a central category of all historical analysis’ has increasingly become the basis for a polemic against ‘class analysis’ and the identification of class struggle as ‘the struggle between men for domination’.
This is not simply a theoretical debating point. A history of ‘women’ necessarily emphasises what all women have in common: their oppression. In the early seventies feminist writers hoped that by focusing on those aspects of life which are specific to women, such as children, women’s sexuality and housework, widely-held ideas about history could be radically changed. By writing history from the point of view of the oppressed (women) instead of the oppressors (men), a whole new historiography would emerge. It has. However, whole aspects of women’s histories do not fit this framework and so have continued to be ignored.
The emphasis on oppression, and the aspects of life all women share, at least in the stereotypical view of women, blurs the enormous class differences of this experience. So the fact that a struggle around economic issues could lead women to become involved in activities which broke down these stereotypes, or the fact that a women’s fight for a pay rise could lead men to take on home duties and child care, are unrecognised. The fact that it was by nurses picketing, defying the Accord and resisting police attacks that they won respect instead of wolf whistles from male workers such as the Builders’ Labourers Federation is unlikely to be noticed. The experience of the insurance industry campaign, where getting female and male members involved was so important in building a mass campaign – a move initially resisted by the union officials, will probably be ignored or played down.
Moreover, focusing on what all women have in common can mean implicitly reintroducing the oppressive stereotypes which led to the desire for women’s liberation in the first place. Women begin to be seen primarily as victims, their suffering becomes central to their history, regardless of whether they resisted, whether they lived out the stereotypes or not. As Janey put it:
In this way, the emphasis on women’s specific oppression is quite one-sided. It refixes women firmly back into the oppressive passivity of their role, with no way to escape. It accepts that the role as prescribed is the same as the reality. The officially-accepted female role is returned to us gift-wrapped by the new feminist historians.
These trends virtually guarantee working class women’s role in the class struggle will remain unrecognised or misrepresented even when they are the subject of history. Joy Damousi, a Melbourne historian, has summed up many of the arguments. Her conclusions are particularly relevant because she has looked at women activists in working class organisations. An example from her book Women Come Rally illustrates the problem. In December 1906 two socialist activists from Melbourne, Lizzie Ahern and Mrs Anderson, visited Broken Hill as representatives of a Free Speech Campaign in Melbourne. At their reception the Labor mayor, Alderman Ivey, said their names ‘would be recorded in history’ because they had been jailed ‘for preaching the gospel of Socialism’. It is not accidental that contrary to Alderman Ivey’s expectation, and after promising to ‘respect…the historical actors within the context and milieu of their times’, Damousi says Lizzie Ahern was ‘inspired by a desire to further the cause of women.’ This is far too one sided.
Ahern shared other socialists’ attitude that the fight for socialism was just as relevant for women as men because it was only under socialism that women would not be oppressed. When Ahern married she entered her occupation on the marriage certificate as ‘Socialist agitator’. This is one small point, but it indicates a wider problem. The identification of class struggle as ‘male’ is so well established in feminist historiography, it is to a large extent taken for granted. Damousi claims that ‘class solidarity is linked with masculinity and "class unity" becomes the prerogative of male workers’. But for activists such as Lizzie Ahern, their whole emphasis was on class struggle and working class unity. Damousi emphasises one aspect of Ahern’s activism (campaigning for women’s rights) which implies she was a feminist, when she was known as and identified herself as a socialist.
Marilyn Lake, a well-known feminist historian who began her career as a labour historian, has developed the argument in a different direction, arguing that ‘one of the greatest political struggles in Australian history [was] the contest between men and women at the end of the nineteenth century for the control of the national culture’. This argument was repeated and developed in Creating a Nation, the feminist re-interpretation of Australia’s history which has become standard reading for many university courses. The authors effectively subsumed working class women’s history into that of the middle class feminist movements and identified the class battle as male. These two forces, they contend, fought for domination of Australia during the 1890s and early twentieth century, ending with a ‘feminisation’ of Australia which men bitterly resisted. Such an analysis sits uneasily with the bitter class struggles of that period and later. The women and men in the events included in this book ¾ Broken Hill until 1917, in the factories and on the coalfields of the 1930s, in the munitions and textile factories during World War II, demanding equal pay in the insurance industry in the seventies, plus migrant textile workers and nurses defying all odds for a pay rise in the eighties ¾ fought what they saw as attacks from an exploiting class of employers. Their greatest successes in gaining better living standards and in challenging sexist stereotypes concerning women were when they achieved high levels of class-consciousness and unity.
The stories in the chapters that follow are often exciting in their own right. But it is not simply a question of ‘adding on’ this women’s history to that of so-called ‘male’ stories ¾ a fear of feminists since the 1970s. The fact that historians have obscured the women merely makes their account of history ‘masculinist’, not the events themselves. The very fact of solidarity between working class women and men contradicts the notion that class struggle is ‘male’ and women’s struggle is ‘feminist’. The fact of women’s activity which defied the stereotypes expected of them points to ways in which lasting gains could be won. In these times of declining union membership and historically very low levels of industrial disputation, Diane’s article is a timely reminder. She found that as industrial action picked up, workers joined the union in increasing numbers. So these women’s histories change the whole concept of what has been possible and what will be in the future ¾ essential insights for anyone who wants to not just analyse and describe the world, but to change it.
The way history is written and interpreted can make a significant difference to the way workers respond to the problems we face today. For example, the common feminist argument that militant class struggle is ‘male’ leaves the most conservative sections of the workers’ movement unchallenged. Marilyn Lake, like many influenced by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the seventies, had once been stirred by ‘that exciting, idealistic and inspiring story that linked past dreams to present-day struggles’. Yet today she applauds arguments by conservative union leaders that downplay the importance of struggle: ‘Unions now offer women "care", "protection", "friendship", and a "voice"… Strikes are presented as a "last resort".’ This supposedly ‘fresh iconography’ which ‘substitutes the values of friendship for power’ is really only a new packaging of conservative labourism which has been with us since the beginning of trade unionism. This is precisely the mentality that led union officials to resist demands for militant struggle around equal pay during World War II, and again during the 1974 insurance industry campaign.
This representation of ‘gendered subjectivity’ leaves intact the stereotypical image of women as less aggressive than men, reluctant to participate in militant political action and struggle. And indeed ‘one can only hope that none of the feminist workers has to face a recalcitrant employer’.
None of the struggles in this book were part of a generalised, revolutionary struggle to transform the whole of society. Nonetheless, they reveal the potential for unity between male and female workers, and the possibilities for struggle to begin to challenge the oppressive roles which are central to women’s oppression. They also reveal the unbridgeable gulf between working women and the women of the capitalist class, against which workers must struggle for every improvement in their lives. They show how women can emerge as leaders of strikes and campaigns. Finally they demonstrate the possibilities for overcoming, in the course of the fight, sexist prejudices among their male workmates.
Such lessons are forgotten or ignored in much feminist writing today. But they leap out at us from the history of these rebel women.
¾ Sandra Bloodworth