By Janey Stone
Conventional histories of the Great Depression have tended to downplay women’s role in resistance to austerity and poverty in Australia. In this excerpt from Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, Janey Stone discusses the role that women played in unemployed movements at a time when there was practically no support available for single women and little for those with families.
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Many modern accounts of the unemployed movement focus on the helpless wife, baby in arms, sitting on her pathetic possessions in the street after being evicted. At best, they show women as fundraisers. Actually, women played a very active role in the unemployed movement.
We always got a good reception and had good meetings. It was relatively easy then to organise the unemployed because they queued up to get their dole and met each other regularly and were able to talk about current affairs and make plans for whatever meetings were on. – Edna Ryan’s description of speaking at numerous street meetings in Sydney, as quoted in McMurchy, Oliver and Thornley, For Love or Money.
Although sustenance and relief were for men only, government support was distributed at local government level, so local pressure could be brought to bear. In Boolaroo NSW, in September 1930, a women’s demonstration marched on the local police station demanding relief for unemployed women. Port Adelaide had a women’s unemployed committee, with 150 attending meetings. After one meeting, over 100 pursued a scab. In another incident, a female picket was described as “jumping on the back” of a scab and “bearing him to the ground, scratching and screaming.” When a teacher at a Port Adelaide school kept some children in to write 500 words each for using the word ‘scab’ during a wharf strike, several hundred women marched on the school in protest and had to be stopped by police.
This militancy continued throughout the Depression. At a demonstration by the Newcastle Unemployed Workers’ Movement (UWM) in 1932, the jobless were ‘so incensed’ that they forced the doors of the local bureau and demanded an interview.
A big part was played by the women who, during the abuse from officials, were advised to leave by the police ‘in case of trouble’ but refused stating, ‘If there is to be trouble, we will take our share of it!’” Working Woman newspaper, 1932.
The demonstrators won their demands, including immediate relief for six women and a man with a sick wife and an 8-day-old child. In the same year, when police tried to assault male unemployed leaders at a meeting in Glebe (Sydney) Working Woman reported, “the women took a prominent part in the defence, one was knocked over and tramped over by policemen, but this did not deter her from still carrying on her protest against police brutality.”
During the 1935 relief workers’ strike, there were several similar accounts. At Como (NSW), the wives not only organised social functions and collected money and food, but also wrote articles and marched in demonstrations. On one occasion, police stopped a march of unemployed men in Corrimal.
When this became known to the women they immediately took the lead and marched over three miles to the [North Illawarra] council chambers, which they packed to the limit. The mayor was asked to receive a deputation of women and a speaker which he refused. It was then the trouble started. The whole audience crowded behind the chairs of the aldermen demanding the women be heard. Working Woman newspaper, 1936.
The mayor threatened to have the room cleared if they were not quiet, but the women told him he could have them locked up, at least they would be fed, and they would take their children along too, and they could feed them also; that even if their menfolk were on strike they didn’t intend to starve. A further demonstration was arranged by the men and the women to the Food Relief Depot at Wollongong, which resulted in a complete victory for the strikers, for besides receiving food relief for the time they were on strike, the men were also reinstated.
It appears that women were not as active in the Melbourne dole strike as they were in NSW. However, Working Woman reported that “in many instances they have been leading and marching in the demonstrations. They took part in an illegal demonstration from North Melbourne Town Hall.” One article claimed that they “were clamouring for a share in the work. One hundred of them marched to a charity organisation and demanded relief.” However, they did not participate fully in the local committees. A few women were active in almost every suburb, but they did little more than collect relief: “only in one or two places did they address meetings or go on the picket line.” The reason for this seems to have been that, in some suburbs (such as Port Melbourne), the strike leaders actually refused to allow them onto the committees. However, the author remarked that, where the strikers were most solid (such as in Richmond), the greatest numbers of women were drawn into strike activity.
Another popular tactic was deputations to members of parliament.
The politicians hated to see the women…oh they hated them…biggest cowards on earth, all the blah, blah, blah in the world but they couldn’t stand up to the women. When you’re hungry and you can’t feed your children you get pretty angry. – Bessie, in ‘Living It Up on the Dole’, Mabel, June 1976.
Women were also active in the eviction struggles. In Melbourne’s inner suburbs, the UWM was very well organised and, according to its well-known leader Jim Munro, stopped many evictions. The police caught them in Fitzroy once and “belted the insides out of us; men, women and children.” On another occasion, when some furniture had been seized to pay overdue rent, UWM members went around to make sure that no regular secondhand dealer would bid for it at the auction. This was successful, but they were worried about some ‘ladies’ who had also turned up at the auction. According to Jim Munro, “Our wives and everybody got alongside them and growled, ‘You bid for this you bitch, and I’ll tear your bloody hair out’. ‘You open your mouth and I’ll kick your guts in!’” The furniture was safely returned to the dispossessed family.
While men appear to have been the main organising force behind anti-eviction actions, the women didn’t always wait for them to act. When a Footscray family was to be evicted in 1935, the husband went as an individual to the local authorities – only to be told to be out before Christmas. But, as reported in Working Woman, the women of the district, “had made up their minds that no eviction was going to take place, and they elected a deputation to wait on the Town Clerk and place the case in its stark reality before him.” This tactic was successful – and just in time, because the wife gave birth that day.
Events in 1930 highlight the courage of these female activists. Acting under orders from the NSW Lang Labor government, police arrested a number of women. Pat Hurd, the daughter of communist writer Jean Devanny, was only 17.
So we called this fantastic meeting in the Lower Town Hall. And that was my debut as a speaker, in front of all these hundreds of unemployed women. We decided we’d have a march up to parliament house and present a deputation… This huge big police inspector with all his policemen standing across the roadway called upon us to stop and read us the riot act…and then asked us to desist and go home. None of us would do it. Some women lay down on tram lines. One woman started fighting a policeman with an umbrella and there was great melee, oh a terrific fight. All these hundreds of women – the traffic was held up right back to the railway station. – Interview with Pat Hurd, in Kay Daniels and Mary Murnane (eds.), Uphill All the Way, 1980.
Although she had been standing on the sidelines, Pat was arrested. She recalled, “Then they started to drag me…through the streets of Sydney. And I got indignant… So I started to punch one of the blokes and hit him with the handcuffs. He said, ‘That’s assaulting the police. That’s another charge.’”
In jail, they decided to show their solidarity with a number of male eviction fighters, who had been framed and sentenced to 6–9 months, by joining them in a hunger strike. Hurd recalled, “It was an act of solidarity with these wrongly arrested anti-eviction fighters. Some of the women were so weak they had to be taken to hospital and forcibly fed at four days. I lasted the longest… I finished my eight days’ hunger strike.”
Such activity had a lasting impact. One woman reminisced in Mabel, “We were always fighting and demonstrating in those days. It made me a militant…you had to get into the struggle to survive…we were all in it together…although we had nothing…you didn’t have time to think of your own troubles.”
This militancy was not simply instigated by men. In fact, women often resisted their husbands’ attempts to protect them from violence.
The men were having street meetings too. It was illegal you see…there was no free speech. My husband told me not to come up to town this night as there was going to be trouble. Well, I dressed my son up when he went off, and off I went. I was walking up the street when this big policeman ordered me off. Someone yelled that Paddy was in gaol…well, I was furious, I turned on the policeman and stamped my feet at him and told him, how dare you speak to me like that amongst other things. Everyone was clapping and singing out…anyway, he backed off and never arrested me. – Aida, quoted in Mabel, 1976
About the Book
Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History, an anthology edited by Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O’Lincoln, includes a series of chapters challenging traditional images of women as passive victims during the upheavals of the 20th century. A variety of campaigns and struggles are covered including strikes in Broken Hill, battles for equal pay during World War 2 and beyond, organising within unions and the Left in the post-war years, and industrial action by migrant workers and nurses in the 1980s. Copies can be purchased here.
- Depressions (1929)
- History - Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Labour_Worker's rights
- Movements_Campaigns - Women's rights
- Strikes and lockouts