It was right in the middle of the 1930's depression,
I was a young child and my mother was ill. Together with my sister I went
to stay with my mother's sister in Prahran, Victoria.
I distinctly remember the poor children at school and
the poverty around Greville Street where the shops were. There were many
dusty second hand shops, many empty shops and a shoddiness in the whole
Looking back, I realize that some of the children were
pretty shabby although people tried to keep up appearances. Another aunt
lived there too and I remember going down to the shops with her. She went
into a second hand shop, saying 'see if there is anyone around, dear',
she was so embarrassed. They were working class people and they had their
pride. That was my first contact with poverty.
My mother died and we moved around a bit after than.
First to Gardenvale with a housekeeper, then to my father's sister also
in Gardenvale briefly then Elsternwick with various other housekeepers.
The war had started and the import company my dad worked for went out
of business and he became a government employee a factory inspector.
He was stationed at Daylesford so it was back with my aunt at Gardenvale.
In the mistaken belief he would make a lady of me, he
sent me to a private girls college nearby. Through that move I met people
who were involved, early in the war, in things like sheepskins for Russia,
so I became slightly associated with the political scene. I was also introduced
to the Eureka Youth League (EYL) the communist youth club
which had opened a little branch in a shopfront in Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea.
It was terrific for me because I really was terribly
lonely. Living with another family made me feel on the outer. I think
I spent most of my time at a friend's place, sometimes at the clubrooms,
often getting into trouble for not letting people at home know where I
was. I wasn't in the EYL for very long however and I don't think the Ripponlea
branch existed for very long. I became more interested in dancing and
boys etc. I left school very early and went to a business college,
starting work at fifteen in the office at a big conglomerate company in
the city. I transferred to a subsidiary office in Port Melbourne and really
liked it down there.
We had relatively good working conditions in those times.
I didn't start work till 9 o'clock. I knocked off at about 4.20 pm when
the factory did as we had special buses provided for us, and on top of
that we used to get shopping time off to go into town. Every year we got
a bonus, which was equivalent to about one and a half week's wages. Of
course, staff were hard to get during the war.
I worked there until a while after I got married. I used
to spend quite a lot of time with both my mother's sisters of whom I was
very fond. One was a bit of a rebel. She had been divorced, which had
put her on the outer with the strait-laced aunt I lived with; she smoked,
she didn't mind a drop and she had been involved with the theatre
shock, horror! This, plus my father's sister's disapproval, further endeared
her to me. Auntie had married again, to a tramway inspector. They
were associated with the Labor Party and I used to often visit. They were
very interested in following the progress of the war, and the opening
of the second front, and in listening to debates and public affairs programs
on the radio.
Generally, I became very interested in politics. I started
reading about Russia and the revolution. I read whatever I could get from
the Right or the Left, it didn't matter to me. I was incredibly impressed
by what was happening there. Of course, they were an ally at the time.
I was eighteen when I decided to join the Communist Party.
I went along to a class at Marx House in the city, where the Communist
party had study groups and a library. A young later to be well-known
communist was holding forth in a fiery and, I thought, a rather
exhibitionist way. I had no idea what these people were on about. I asked
how to join and was told that someone would come to see me but nobody
did, so I didn't join then.
When I married I found out that my husband's father had
been a foundation member of the communist party down at the wharves. He
came back from the First World War with bad trench feet, faced unemployment
and went through the lottery system to try to get a day's work. These
injustices inspired him to get involved.
During the cold war when things got pretty bad for anyone
with communist connections, Don, my husband, joined but I didn't. By that
time I had two small children.
Don came home one day and told me about a meeting to
establish a Union of Australian Women (UAW) he thought I might
be interested. I went to the railway housing estate in Sunshine and heard
Alison Dickie speaking. I was very impressed with her, such a gentle,
honest person. She spoke on peace and the danger of the US dropping the
atom bomb. We also identified local issues for women at that meeting such
as a gas levy, which had been imposed on the area. At that first meeting I was elected secretary. I thought
the women were absolutely wonderful. I hadn't been content with my life.
Living in Sunshine I was pretty isolated. My dear aunt, who I was so close
to and my sister, lived at Glen Waverly right at the other end
of the line.
I really felt with this position that there was something
positive I could do. I started writing letters to the papers about the
gas levy, we had a deputation to the local gas and fuel corporation manager.
We got in touch with our local politician but he was quite cross with
me. A Labor man, Shepherd was his name. He wasn't a bad chap I suppose
but just didn't like activists (probably women especially) telling him
what should be done. He was quite hostile about it.
I had a few words with him and he challenged me about
why I had presented a petition. I replied that I thought that was what
we were supposed to do, and he backed down! He eventually did do something
and we had the levy removed, but he never acknowledged the work we did. That was my initiation into political activity, basically.
I did join the communist party a couple of years later.
Very sadly, in 1958, my husband died. He was very young,
I had started work a few months earlier, as we were really
hard up, at the Footscray hospital first as clerical assistant and then
stenographer to the radiologist. When Don died I had that job, so kept
on working. I couldn't see how I could live on the pension, which was
about nine pounds per fortnight. I was earning, I think, twelve pounds
ten shillings a week.
I had someone to look after my youngest who was only
three, but eventually I was able to get him accepted into the creche at
Footscray. It was a wonderful creche the way they all ought to
be today. It was a government establishment and provided full time care
for all preschool age children. The only bad thing about it was that it closed at 5 p.m.
and if you didn't get there to pick up the children they were taken to
the police station! This was barbaric but otherwise, well, they had mothercraft
nurses and I knew my child, an asthmatic, was looked after properly.
This was when I became aware of how terribly important
childcare was to so many women, whether they were in the paid workforce
I had applied for a war widow's pension but had been
rejected. I appealed the decision. Someone from the RSL/Legacy came to
see me and asked me what I could say to support my appeal. I told him
about Don having been in the occupation forces in Japan. He had been stationed
at Bofu, right outside Hiroshima, and he had suffered from a mystery illness
while he was there. I wondered whether that had affected him as he later
died of a brain tumour.
In the end they must have accepted this because I received
the war widow's pension. It was a lot better than the ordinary Department
of Social Security pension, and not means tested. I had about a year's
back pay coming to me so I got a few bob ahead and bought myself a little
car. It meant that I could keep working and handle the childcare system.
I used to rush around in a panic trying to get there in time. I was a
few minutes late one day he was with the cleaner, but not much
later he would have been taken to the police station which may have involved
accusations of neglect etc. I was very nervous of this.
That was a big thing for me, getting that pension. I
have often though it is amazing what you have to go through to get any
recognition of your rights. Although it worked out well for me, I will
never forget the feeling of being completely dependent on your own resources
to look after your kids and have them rely on you alone, and not know
whether you will be able to keep it up. It always seemed to be at the last minute at work when
the doctor asked me to do something so I was 5 or ten minutes late getting
away. It was a real nightmare, trying to pick up the kids, get home, get
tea and fall into bed. Anyone who talks harshly about single mothers receives
no sympathy from me. You would think, by the way some people speak, it
is a bed of roses that you are a single mother by choice just to
get the pension!
After I met Bill Smith, my present husband, he told me
of a secretarial job coming up at the railway union and arranged for me
to apply for it. I became secretary to the assistant secretary of the
union, Bill O'Brien, who was a lovely man and a very active supporter
of peace and the antiapartheid struggles in South Africa. There was a
woman named Helen Joseph, a white women this was before the black
movement really started to surge who had been held under house
arrest for years. Bill used to go around the unions picking up cards and
letters of support for her and other activists. The UAW was also involved
in support for antiapartheid activists in South Africa.
Although I hadn't been able to do much in the UAW since
Don died, Win Graham, an ex school teacher, had kept the group going.
She had always been the driving force in getting the Sunshine group set
up and she was a very capable and experienced campaigner for child care,
kindergartens, International Women's Day and women's rights a great
role model. We used to have Saturday meetings and we would have all sorts
of activities for the kids including a picnic once a year at Williamstown.
It was very much a sisterhood. We supported each other.
While I was still working at the ARU there was a UAW
deputation to Harold Holt, treasurer at the time. I was so busy, I didn't
have time to prepare anything. I rushed in at the last minute and someone
nudged me and whispered 'say something'. So I did. I remember speaking
quite fervently about the need for childcare services, particularly for
working mothers (this was part of a national 'mother and child' campaign).
We didn't get anywhere, but it may have sown some seeds. That was my first
active foray into the national child care area. Later I was involved with
forming a kindergarten committee and I had also been a member of the Sunshine
Child Care Committee of which Win Graham had been a founder.
When Bill and I married I resigned from work. I needed
rest, adjustment time and to be able to devote more energy to care of
the children, who had not had an easy time. I again became active with
the UAW in Sunshine. We had many local campaigns around local and international
support for land rights with Aboriginal women speakers;
health issues with large public meetings with experts
to explain e.g. Salk vaccination, Pap smear tests for women;
deputations to the local council on the cost of living;
peace art competitions for local schools;
speakers on equal pay;
organising equal pay speakers at local factories;
letter writing, and selling our UAW magazine 'Our
Women' on a regular basis at the post office on child endowment day,
where we also had goods and cake stalls to raise money.
I also started to help in the central office of the UAW
and later became assistant secretary.
I needed to get back to work mainly for financial reasons
when the children were older and I decided to try a factory. I got a job
at Smorgons, the meat works. It was a terrible job, packing in a meat
factory. The hygiene was appalling - it was an eye opener. We were packing
offal. It was clean on the tables where we worked, but where we went to
get the plastic bags the meat was packed in wasn't. It was a terrible,
dark little shed with holes in the wall where vermin could enter. The
bags would often be on the floor which was anything but salubrious.
The factory inspectors knew they would go in there
for a smoke. It wasn't a good job. There was no way anyone tried to involve
the women in the union. I later found out that it was said around the
industry that this company was notorious for buying off their leading
hands and some of their union people maybe that also extended to
I got put off after a month, they just said on pay day
' you're not coming in next week'. Perhaps I wasn't fast enough, I don'
t know. I didn't agitate. It was a casual job. The workers there were
nearly all migrant women who didn't speak English so it was hard to know
what was going on. Anyway, I didn't want to go back. It had been an interesting
I heard about a job at the meat employees union, as a
secretary. My work and responsibility extended and I was eventually given
the position of Claims Officer, doing workers' compensation and the smaller
disputed industrial claims. This was very interesting advocacy work which
also gave me the opportunity to visit the workers in their factory and
take educative information to them on the job about their rights. When I first took on this job, a lot of the workers were
dubious about a woman speaking for them but after a while they liked it.
Once there were a couple of chaps waiting in the union foyer. One was
demanding to see the secretary, not me, about his workers compensation
problem, when the other one said, 'no, mate, see her, she's better'.
During this period Bette Olle and I went out and handed
out leaflets of support for Zelda D'Aprano who had chained herself to
the Commonwealth Building to protest about the lack of equal pay. It was
in 1969 after the first equal pay case - the Meat Employees Union test
case which had been so disappointing came down. Joan Curlewis
had presented the UAW submission to the Court the same case we
had been arguing for years. We were very supportive of her action and
other initiatives of the women's liberation movement, which had followed
on from the Women's Action Committee initiated by Zelda, Bon Hull and
The tram rides particularly captured my interest. At
an earlier International Women's Day Committee I had suggested hiring
a tram and using it to highlight equal pay during IWD. It wasn't a bad
idea but wasn't taken up at the time. The Tram ride initiated by the Women's Action Committee
was a better idea and a great publicity raiser in which I and many UAW
The Meat Employees union was the hub of activity in the
Trades Hall, George Seelaf was the Secretary of the Union at the time
and gave very good support to the equal pay campaign; earlier equal pay
marches were organised through our office and were always a hive of activity
preparing banners and placards. The Union was also the organising centre
for the May Day march, peace activity, organising receptions for visiting
overseas trade unionists or activists in one progressive activity or another.
George Seelaf was the driving organising force behind the publication
of Frank Hardy's book 'Power without Glory'.
I had the pleasant job of organising equal pay functions
for women meat workers and got to know and admire some of those down to
earth factory workers and their difficulties in achieving equal representation
in such a male dominated industry.
At one time I was a member of the Clerk's Union and would
go to the meetings at the Trades Hall. It was dominated by the old Democratic
Labor Party people who were opposed to anything they saw as 'left'. It
wouldn't make any difference what issue you raised. If you were not one
of them you would be howled down. They were past masters at rules of debate.
If there was any way they could stop a motion, they would do it. They
had it right down pat, if they didn't have the numbers they would work
out some way to have it deferred or declared invalid. You get intimidated
after a while, the atmosphere was so bad. The internal political war went
on until the DLP dissolved, and some of it is still there.
The main campaign for equal pay in 1969 tried to involve
a lot of women workers. It wasn't all that easy but when the case was
on at the Arbitration Commission the various meatworks bussed in women
(and men) workers from all over to the Trades Hall and we all marched
up to the Court. We stood outside calling out slogans, which could be
heard in the Court and waving banners and such as:
UNEQUAL PAY IS SEX DISCRIMINATION MAKE 1969
EQUAL PAY YEAR EQUAL PAY IS A HUMAN RIGHT LET'S NOT BUILD
ON CHEAP LABOUR THE TIME IS NOW FOR EQUAL PAY DELIBERATE
DELAY ON EQUAL PAY MEAT INDUSTRY WOMEN SUPPORT EQUAL PAY. UAW
magazine, 'Our Women' June-August 1969.
This case did not have a successful outcome (only about
10% of women actually got equal pay) but it raised awareness of the issue.
It also played a big part in arousing the women's movement. The Meatworkers
Union also continued with the struggle to spread the range of coverage
but it really wasn't until the 1972 decision that we got equal pay
not until the Labor Party formed government. The Arbitration Commission
had rejected it that year but on taking power in November the Labor government
reconvened the Court, and withdrawing government opposition to equal pay
was one of the first things they did.
The funny thing was as I found out much later
the Liberal Party government used the same wording in their submission
to the court to oppose equal pay as the Labor Party government later used
to support it! It is very interesting, it makes you wonder if the Arbitration
Court was as impartial as we were always told it was.
In 1974 the Minimum Wage Case was the final legal
obstacle to equal pay, by establishing an equal minimum wage for men and
women. The broad campaign by the women's movement was an illustration
of the power of liberated thinking a new approach. That was one
very good thing about it.
The UAW hadn't been used to deciding and applying freer
forms of activity. Our credibility was restricted, I believe, by the cold
war pressures and fears, which saw the public opposing ideas that were
challenging. Our ideas and actions were credible and challenging but
only were seen to be credible when those new movements, not seen to be
aligned to any established political ideology who could not be
accused of party political motive like Women's Liberation, got
up and did things in a spontaneous way. Such is the power of some people
- ASIO and public opinion.
Unfortunately, at a UAW national level, (and some states)
women's liberation was received with a certain antipathy. This should
have been more strongly challenged, but it wasn't easy to do. Betty Olle
was the Victorian representative on the national committee and was outvoted.
I attended a couple of conferences but stopped thinking they were worthwhile.
I though they were too tied to a political agenda, to rather doctrinaire
union views which did not allow for feminism.
Women's Liberation were tackling issues in new and exciting
ways but there was a perception by some of the left that feminism was
associated with the early suffragette movement and was a middle class
phenomenon. They didn't redefine feminism in a modern context, and I think
they should have. In practice, though, the UAW at both national and state
level, continued to give practical support to the new women's issues.
In Victoria, we worked with and supported women 's liberation. Women from
Women's Liberation did redefine feminism, but got trapped in lesbian separatism.
I think the result was that the 'Corporate Woman' stepped in and became
role model and representative, at least as far as the press was concerned.
During some earlier readjustment of personal values,
I had decided that I would never not say what I think just because
it goes against some doctrinaire point of view. So I have tried to say
whatever I feel about events and things even though they may not be the
popular view. Many UAW members, including myself took part in women's
liberation consciousness raising, as well as the large public gatherings
which discussed sexual liberation issues, contributing strongly to the
body of evidence on abortion, marriage, the nuclear family. The UAW was
active in countering Right to Life demonstrations at clinics and hospitals
and Betty Olle (Sec. UAW) established, with Ruth Schnookal of WEL, and
others, The Right to Choose coalition.
When I resigned from full time work at the AMIEU, and
finally came back to help with the UAW in 1978/9 I hoped to work only
on particular issues as they came to our notice so that the people most
concerned could follow their special interest. The side effects of the
use of DES (diethylstilbestrol) came to our notice, and Joan Curlewis
asked if I would see what could be done to instigate an action group.
It seemed that very many women had been affected through
their mothers having been prescribed this drug during pregnancy, for the
purpose of preventing miscarriage. It had been found that the incidence
of clear cell carcinoma in the daughters of these women had skyrocketed.
Adeno-carcinoma was a seldom occurrence prior to 1970, when the daughters
reached their teens. Then many displayed symptoms and some died. Women who had taken DES were also developing
a most malignant form of breast cancer. (See IN OUR OWN HANDS, a Women's
Health Manual, Hyland House 1980) Although I wasn't affected, I had,
like many other women, a couple of abortions earlier in my life and I
and other women I know, had been given DES to stop lactation.
So I took on this work of getting women who had taken
DES together. With UAW resources a luncheon and public meeting were held
and many wonderful and active young women got together and formed DES
Action, which is still operating, collecting and exchanging information
from overseas, keeping women informed. There may still be women out there
who have no idea they were exposed to this drug.
Doctors and gynaecologists denied they prescribed it.
Some were very well known obstetricians. The women had to really fight
to get any details given to them. Some of the mothers were told during
their pregnancy that they were given 'vitamin pills', some weren't given
any information at all. Others were told they were given DES 'just in
case'. Of course, many G.P's didn't understand the special way to diagnose
the particular type of pre cancerous symptom.
One battle DES Action had was to establish a proper clinic
at the Women's Hospital specifically to diagnose and monitor DES caused
damage and abnormalities. Marion Vickers did wonderful research and was
successful in getting wide television coverage, which resulted in hundreds
of women contacting the organisation and being given information and support.
There were groups of DES set up right across Australia.
During the eighties when I was working with Betty Olle
in the UAW office I felt the UAW needed a project which would help to
finance the organisation and meet some of the needs of the women's movement.
We needed a computer and modern aids if we were to keep up with the changing
world. It seemed that we were getting a lot of telephone calls from young
women wanting information, historical details, school project work, when
and how things happened etc. One day I had an urgent call from a solicitor
who was in court. He wanted to know the date of the UN Declaration of
Human Rights. Another time someone wanted to know about the Menhennit
ruling on abortion. There was definitely a need for this type of information
to be at our fingertips a women's historical data kit. I set about
getting funding and compiling it.
When I was dealing with Aboriginal women's history there
was a problem. Their struggle had been based so much on land rights and
women's rights were dependent on their relationship to land. This couldn't
be incorporated into any women's history. I got in touch with Edith Fesl
and asked if she would agree with putting in a timeline history, which
The result, minus an index and some of Eve's material
because we were over budget and pages is TAKING TIME,
Women's Historical Data Kit, Compiled and Edited by Yvonne Smith, Published
by UAW. Available from UAW Victoria, 2/247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Vic 3000, $15.00 including postage in Australia.
I have had some interesting experiences from the book.
I once went out to a large Catholic girls college where a musical program
was taking place and when we went into the dining room for a cup of tea
there were all these little excerpts about women on placards around the
room they were taken from TAKING TIME. I was thrilled to
the back teeth. Once my granddaughter told me the book was in her school
library. It has been used as a study guide at many other educational institutions.
Going back in time when the Vietnamese people
were struggling for independence, the UAW had been in touch with the Vietnam
Women's Union. They sent us much information about the nature of their
struggle we knew what was happening and were active in support
for them. And although it was a very important issue it was to
become even more so with the conscription of Australian young men
my feeling at the time was that the antiwar struggle had taken over the
UAW at the expense of women's specific issues and problems. I hadn't formulated what those problems were as the Women's
Liberation movement did later, such as challenging the role of the family,
the sexual revolution etc. but I just had an uneasy feeling that we were
becoming the women's adjunct of the peace movement.
When Save Our Sons was formed following the introduction
of conscription this single issue organisation was able to take on the
role that was needed. That was great. Once again a lot of UAW women supported
them. The feeling was that Australia was being more and more led by USA.
Five SOS leaders were arrested and jailed. They were known as the Fairlea
Five. Because of the conscription the young people formed their
own movement: Youth Campaign Against Conscription, I think it was called.
That was the first time I got picked up by a policeman.
Not arrested, literally picked up. There was a
demonstration at the Swan Street army depot at the induction of the conscripts.
Some of the young men chained themselves to the fence rails. A big crown
of supporters went along and just sat down, refusing to move and the police
came and just picked us up! I was frightened out of my skin actually,
I think we all were.
This was the beginning of the movement which became the
moratorium against the war. I remember the huge demonstration out at Fairlea
prison where so many people came along to support the release of the 'Fairlea
Five' women who were imprisoned from Save Our Sons. It was a glorious
day and I remember how my sixteen-year-old son stood out, with his gleaming,
long red hair shining in the sunlight. And really appreciating what a
wonderful thing those women had done for our children.
In those early days, and I am going back further, UAW
was very active in the peace movement of the 1950's and against the atomic
testing in Australia, the blasts at Woomera and Maralinga as well as the
French tests in the Pacific Islands. We organised demonstrations in the
city. We walked through shops carrying placards saying Don't buy
French Goods, for example. They were all actions that preceded public awareness.
I think we can be proud that we did do those things when other people
weren't speaking out, even though we were not listened to at least
not to the point of action being taken on what we had to say.
Even though circumstances were against our being seriously
heard, we proceeded with what we believed in, and I think that is all
you can do.
In the UAW I think we have always tried to support issues
we believed needed support, even if it meant working with people we didn't
fully agree with. Whatever happens in the future I think there will be
a place for ongoing organisations like the UAW to provide continuity,
and I believe the historical understanding we have been able to establish
over the years will need to be taken into account in all future activities.
In more recent years editing the UAW Newsletter has been
the focus of my attention, this is a monthly publication which keeps readers
informed on a whole range of events of central importance to women. This
is really a collective effort of many dedicated members put together in
a flurry of activity and frantic struggles with the computer and
a lot of laughs!
Since the Grand Prix forced itself on Albert Park some
years ago, and cracks appeared in the wall of our house, I have had some
hectic moments in opposition to the construction of the track and ongoing
races. I still do a regular stint at the Vigil tent, which operates six
days a week opposite the Grand Prix office in Albert Road. This wonderful
body of people, through superb organisation and an outstanding information
campaign have changed the face of protest.