Fighting back in the depression years
An earlier version of this chapter appeared as ‘Brazen Hussies and God’s Police: Feminist Historiography and the Great Depression’, Hecate, vol. VIII (1) 1982.
What took place during [the depression] was a massive but mute mobilisation of Australia’s housewives to fight for the survival of the institution which gave them their special role in society ... In this way women helped ensure that even during a period of economic turmoil some basic form of social cohesion was maintained and that any threat of widespread revolt against the political and economic order which had caused the Depressionwas contained.
-- Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police
The women however remain hidden in the background often in isolation ... The sense of guilt and failure of unemployed women and of wives of the unemployed was no less strong, but it was internalised, was hidden from families, was brushed aside as unimportant in the face of the greater task of survival.
-- Judy Mackinolty, The Wasted Years
This is the conventional analysis of the depression. Both criticise historians for paying less attention to women’s suffering than that of men; both portray women as ‘God’s police’, shoring up the collapsing social fabric. Margaret Power likewise argues that they ‘served a valuable function in defusing discontent and maintaining social order’.
Was that really the case? This chapter takes a look at the 1930s and draws very different conclusions.
The economic background and the trade unions
Soon after the depression’s onset there was a 10% across the board wage cut, and many industries saw increased hours and eroded conditions. But of course the most pressing problem facing the working class was unemployment.
It is generally accepted that unemployment during the depression was not as severe for women as for men. This was largely because they were restricted to certain sections of industry which were not necessarily the worst hit. Twenty five percent of breadwinners were women in 1933 and, throughout the thirties, the female workforce continued to grow as did their labour force participation rate. However, the 1933 census showed 15% female unemployment (for men it was 26%) and as there must have been a great ideal of hidden unemployment and underemployment, it is clear that conditions for women workers were harsh.
Practically no relief work was available to them and government sustenance was also denied. Kent-Hughes, Victoria’s Minister for Sustenance declared in 1932 that while domestic work was available at any wage, under any conditions, anywhere in the State, jobless women would be denied public assistance.
The depression is generally regarded as a time of unparalleled male chauvinism among male workers, because of the way male trade unionists attacked married women and blamed them for unemployment. It is certainly true that many trade unions were hostile to married women workers, and Queensland shop assistants actually had a parade of sandwich-board men as part of a campaign for legislation to exclude them from industry. The Clothing Trades Union (CTU) seems to have had a policy, whether official or de facto is not clear, along the same lines. And many other unions were similarly antagonistic. Muriel Heagney’s disillusionment later on in 1942 seems to anticipate a modern radical feminist perspective:
Frankly I have given up hope of achieving anything worthwhile immediately ... the Labour Movement and the ACTU executive officers are so terribly reactionary in their views on women workers.
Firstly it must be said that the response was not actually entirely unmitigated sexism. While opposing married women, the CTU did give some help to young unemployed women and showed some concern by organising ‘Pound days’ and collecting clothing. The union participated in a meeting of unemployed women at Trades Hall and gave financial help to individual members. Other unions helped in similar ways. In the late thirties, at the instigation of Heagney, the unions founded the Council of Action for Equal Pay, which was active for several years.
To fully understand the union officials’ hostility, we have to see it in the context of a failure of the traditional methods of trade unionism: their customary approach could not cope with the problems posed by the depression. It was not just misogyny, because the official trade unions failed male workers too.
The early depression years were a time of working class defeat. The economy began to slide toward depression and unemployment in 1927. From 1928, there was a series of major industrial confrontations initially involving the waterside workers, whose prolonged unofficial strike was broken. This was followed by major defeats of the timber workers and the miners on the northern NSW coalfields. By the start of the depression proper in 1929, many trade unionists were disillusioned with the failures of their existing leaders, and were prepared to consider alternative and more radical ideas. This provided the Communist Party with opportunities leading to the formation of the Minority Movement (MM) with its militant approach and attempt to raise consciousness on a range of issues. It also provides the context for the rank and file actions which occurred sometimes independently of and sometimes in opposition to the union officials.
But first let us look at Heagney’s approach in a little more detail.
The welfare approach
The assistance available to unemployed women was admittedly totally inadequate, but even had the limited attempts been extended, and the full weight of the union movement been thrown behind Heagney’s efforts, for example, this would not have helped much in building a movement to liberate women. Heagney’s approach was itself fundamentally flawed.
There is no doubt that women in some ways were worse off than men. The plight of unemployed single women who had no family to fall back on was desperate. It was in response to their predicament that Muriel Heagney organised a ‘Girls’ Week’ in Melbourne in 1930, which raised £5000. With this money, an Unemployed Girls’ Relief Movement (UGRM) was set up, whose main activity was the establishment of centres where the ‘girls’ could drop in for company, use sewing machines or attend education courses. In addition, they offered relief work in cooperation with the government: in return for a small allowance the women sewed clothes to be distributed to the needy, or made jam. Large numbers of women passed through the doors of the centres, and Heagney felt that their effort ‘in building up a women’s cooperative movement ... [was] without parallel in Australia’.
A group of Sydney Labor women carried out a politically similar type of work; NSW Premier Jack Lang gave them the use of a building which they ran as a hostel for homeless women without any further government assistance. Jessie Street, another well-known feminist of the time, and her United Associations of Women were also concerned to help the female unemployed. A meeting of women’s organisations in 1931 decided on a strategy of teaching women to farm.
There were numerous other examples of voluntary relief work, generally consistent with what Summers calls the God’s Police role. At the time, the Communist newspaper Working Woman attacked these efforts, claiming that in one of the sewing centres, material was cut into strips and then sewed together again just to keep members occupied.
But criticism at this level is quite inadequate. Even if the participants had been very usefully employed, and even if the government had not interfered with their operation, there are serious problems with such a strategy. As one writer points out, these centres were effectively a form of work for the dole. It might have been better than starvation, but they represented very cheap labour, severely undercutting women’s already miserable wage rates.
Summers herself accurately criticises the welfare approach of middle class voluntary work:
They unwittingly collaborated in the perpetuation of these injustices by devoting their energies to trying to alleviate the symptoms of that distress, rather than fighting for social changes which might remove them.
Summers wrongly exempts Heagney and her centres from this critique. She admits that the education courses they offered left something to be desired. Housewifery, drawing, singing and elocution sound more like training for Jane Austen heroines than job training during the Depression. Had the UGRM survived, Summers argues, it might have been able to grapple with the dilemma. But the dilemma lay in the welfare approach itself.
As with refuges and rape crisis centres of more recent times, the 1930s welfare approach saw women as essentially victims needing help. Rather than mobilising a large political fighting force, they concentrated on helping the needy or retraining the few. They offered the unemployed bandaids for their wounds when what was needed was weapons and organisation for a fightback.
Some might argue that there was no basis for such a fightback ¾ that since they lacked union organisation and were weighed down by their household cares it would be utopian to expect women of the time to have done more than whimper quietly and submit. Summers gives us a picture of Heagney taking a principled feminist stand in splendid isolation. ‘But there was little she could do for she had virtually no support.’ Power similarly refers to the small group of Sydney feminists as ‘voices in the wilderness’.
I take a contrary position. If we restrict ourselves to looking for clear articulation of feminist principles, we will find very few. But if we look for the participation of women in the struggles of the day then we will find they did not remain hiddenin the background.
Unemployed women organise
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; or at best they show women as fundraisers. Actually they played a very active role in the unemployed movement.
Edna Ryan for example describes speaking at numerous street meetings in Sydney:
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.
Although sustenance and relief was for men only, since government support was distributed at local government level, 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. In Port Adelaide, there was a women’s unemployed committee, with 150 attending meetings. After one meeting over a hundred 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 in some children 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!"’ The demonstrators won their demands, including immediate relief for six women and a man with a sick wife and an eight-day old child. In Glebe (Sydney) in the same year, when police tried to assault male unemployed leaders at a meeting, ‘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.
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 in the Melbourne dole strike the women were not as active as in NSW although, ‘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. In almost every suburb a few women were active, 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 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.
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 no regular second hand dealer would bid for it at the auction. This was successful, butthey were worried about some ‘ladies’ who had also turned up at the auction. ‘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 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.
The courage of these female activists is highlighted by events in 1930 when a number were arrested by police acting under orders from the NSW Lang Labor government. Pat Hurd, the daughter of Communist writer Jean Devanny, was only 17 at the time.
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 ¾ the traffic was held up right back to the railway station.
Although she had been standing on the sidelines, Pat was arrested:
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.’
Once in gaol 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:
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. As one reminisced,
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.
And this militancy was by no means simply at men’s instigation. In fact they 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.
Brazen hussies and strike support
There are a number of cases of female support for male strikers. In the seamen’s strike of 1936, where a Seamen’s Wives’ Strike Committee of 20 in Melbourne seems to have collected and distributed strike relief as its main activity. The committee secretary said,
It makes you laugh to hear that men ought to go back to work for the sake of their womenfolk. This is our strike as much as it is the men’s.
In her novel Sugar Heaven Jean Devanny describes the wives’ role in the Queensland sugar cane cutters strike of 1935.
Best known and most inspiring, however, is the Miners’ Women’s Auxiliary. Miners wives have a tradition of action from the 19th century: they stopped trains carrying scabs, marched and picketed, argued with scabs and ‘tin-kettled’ (banging on pots and pans in a war of nerves). Such was their reputation that they were rebuked for ‘forgetting their sex’, and in one strike the manager allowed the men strikers to address the scabs but refused the women.
During the depression, this tradition developed into formal organisation. The 1934 Wonthaggi strike saw the first women's auxiliary and in the following years auxiliaries sprang up in many mining centres. However, the national leadership didn’t recognise them until 1939. This suggests some reluctance by the officials to endorse an organisation which might ‘interfere with the domestic work of the union’. There was hesitation at the rank and file level as well:
Lots of the men didn’t like their women taking up public action ... We used to go to Lodge [Union branch] meetings and address them. Some of the men were embarrassed and so were we but we soon got used to each other.
Sometimes the men put up more of a fight:
I remember I heard about a meeting being held that night and decided to go. We had built a shack and it only had one door. My husband sat in the doorway so I couldn’t go, but I was only about 6 stone so I slipped out the window and away down the road I went ... he was alright after that ... got used to it and always minded the children so I could be in all the meetings and demonstrations.
Activities included picketing, demonstrating, petitions, raising money, press conferences and speaking on the radio. Even the soup kitchens and socials took on a political character during the long strikes of 1939 and 1949 in NSW. Despite the term ‘auxiliary’ this was obviously a case of the women organising in their own right and in their own interest.
It wasn’t that the Women's Auxiliary just supported men ... it was our own survival we were fighting for … I tell you it built character, those struggles ... Somehow when you’re in your own little family everything just goes along and you nestle in. When everything is an upheaval ... it’s different ... everyone is together.
They called us brazen hussies ... it was unheard of ... the coalfields women didn’t take long to cotton on ... basically they were fighters ... they had to be
The brazen hussies probably found the president of the Federation pretty paternalistic, when the auxiliary was finally recognised nationally in 1939:
In the past, women folk have been isolated from an industrial point of view and to some extent have indirectly assisted the ruling class on account of their lack of knowledge and understanding of the class struggle. Lately however considerable progress has been made by their support of the Federation in the national strike.
Never let the facts spoil a good prejudice!
Other unions set up women's auxiliaries during the thirties. But they do not seem to have had the spontaneous and fiery militant quality of those in the mining communities, and were more orientated to conventional activities. Members of the ARU auxiliary baked their own bread against price rises (and won a reduction of one penny) and they also had a clothes fund for babies of mothers on the dole. They did participate in a big rally in the Sydney domain protesting about the dismissal of married women. In some country centres, the women's auxiliary was the main focus for the union.
There seems to have been almost a continuous battle between textile employers and workers throughout the depression. It started in August 1932, when Victorian employers cut wages by 15%. This was in addition to the 10% across-the-board cut for all workers two years previously.
Immediately 700 employees at Yarra Falls Spinning Mills, 500 of them female, went on strike. Following an offer to reduce the cut to 7.5% the union officials convinced the strikers to return to work pending further negotiations. Not long afterwards, at a mass meeting which consisted ‘largely of young women and girls and boys dressed in knickerbockers’, 1000 textile workers voted to strike again, electing a committee which sent speakers out to other mills to spread the strike. On the same day, the dispute spread to Launceston, where 1000 workers from three mills struck and picketers pitched tents in the street when rain set in.
With 3,500 out in Melbourne there were too many to meet in Trades Hall, so ‘the strikers went to the Temperance Hall, the girls marching along Russell Street singing.’ The strike was solid and the mood determined, but unfortunately inexperience and lack of organisation in Melbourne allowed the union officials to independently talk members in Ballarat and Geelong into accepting the offer. None of the rank and file decisions about leaflets and picketing were carried out. The strike ended in Melbourne after 10 days, and 6 days later in Tasmania. Although forced to settle, they had achieved a partial victory in reducing the cut to 7.5%.
A little over a year later, a second important mass strike occurred in the same industry, this time in New South Wales. The issue was a new award which meant wage cuts, speed up and night work for women. The strike started in Orange where there were ‘disorderly scenes’.
A party of more than twenty girls ... went in search of other girls who had offered for work that morning. They shouted insulting names at the loyal workers. Then they went in a body to a hotel, where another worker boarded, and sought to gain entrance to her room. Sergeant Roser seized the leader of the girls and conducted her to the police station in a car.
With the spread to Goulburn and Sydney there was much active picketing and fundraising. Again the union officials ‘on many occasions ... completely ignored the strike committee and ... prevented it exercising direction and control of the strike’. And again the strike ended with only a partial victory, despite a militant mood that could have taken it to complete success. The full operation of the new award was prevented in most mills, but there were some losses. A number of smaller stop-works and disputes occurred in the wake of the major strike. For instance workers at the Commonwealth Weaving Mills in Sydney were able to prevent victimisations, but at a number of other mills they could not be averted.
A third wave of strikes occurred in early 1938, again in Victoria. There was a range of issues including dismissals and night shift rates, but the strikes focussed on piece rates in the new award. About 2,500 workers were involved altogether, many of them women and juniors, and, as each mill settled, another would go out. Although some workplaces elected strike committees, after the first few days control passed to the Trades Hall. The workers seem to have won substantial wage increases.
In fact, the textile industry was seldom free of disputes during the thirties, and smaller strikes were regularly reported in the daily press. Part of the explanation for the militancy in this industry might be the fact that unemployment peaked earlier in the sector than in manufacturing industry generally. Having gone into recession in 1927, the textile industry was recovering strongly by 1931-32, due to devaluation and tariffs. Employers could perhaps therefore afford minor concessions not available in other sectors. The Militant Minority Movement were active in the first and second strike wave, and their agitation seems to have had some effect.
The clothing industry also had a large female workforce. Organising in this industry was much more difficult than in textiles, because workshops were smaller with sweatshop conditions common. In addition, piecework and outwork must have undermined efforts to organise into unions. The union officials’ role in suppressing incipient militancy was also an obstacle. Although the Militant Minority Movement distributed leaflets to clothing workers during the 1932 strike they never got any foothold in the industry.
All the same, there were a number of instances of industrial action. A one-week strike in a Melbourne factory in 1930 gained a new weekly wage based on the previous piece rates. Workers in at least one other factory were also able to prevent a wage cut.
A larger dispute occurred in July 1932, when clothing workers were again faced with a wage cutting award in addition to the 10% across the board cut. The union’s strength was concentrated in men’s ready-made clothing, and about 700 of these workers, mostly women, engaged in a short-lived strike. They reluctantly returned to work under pressure from the union officials, who convinced a mass meeting to accept the employers’ offer of a restoration of wages. This led to defeat because the employers never carried out their promise.
A new system involving speedup led in March 1935 to 170 ‘girls’ from three men’s clothing factories striking. After 10 days out, they went back to the comment from the union secretary, one Mr A Wallis, that ‘the new system ... would benefit both employers and employees’. A short strike at Universal Clothing in July 1937 did win a retrospective wage rise.
Female rubber workers engaged in a number of strikes. An act banning mass picketing allowed police to disband daily pickets at Hardie Rubber Works in June 1930. Several years later, 180 ‘girls’ at the same factory struck over piece work rates. When the strikers went to collect their previous week’s wages, the police surrounded them in an attempt, as a union official put it, to create a ‘fear psychology’. When another group of 500 strikers rejected a union executive recommendation to return to work, the case went to arbitration, the judge commenting:
It is deplorable that a big and important union like this one, which has always given assistance to this court in all industrial matters should be defied by a handful of women who are nothing but rebels.
The executive responded that it was doing everything in its power to persuade them to return to work.
Following the dismissal of two female tobacco workers in May 1935, approximately 50 strikers held out for over a year. A levy on others in the industry provided strike pay, and the matter came up in parliament after police used violence to break up a picket. The union clearly gave a fair degree of support, including sending delegates interstate to publicise their case, and forming a ‘flying squad’ to visit tobacconists. But since the factory resumed production with scabs within three weeks of the strike’s commencement, the only hope of victory lay in spreading the strike. Although they seemed to have considered this action, it never actually occurred.
A number of other industries also saw women take industrial action. In 1935 there was a strike at Melbourne basket shoe factories over the demand to be covered by the bootmakers’ award. Most of the strikers were European migrants. Pantry maids at Carlyons Restaurant in Melbourne’s Spencer Street campaigned successfully against overtime and victimisation with most joining the union, while in Sydney there was also a successful campaign to organise hotel and restaurant workers. Railway waitresses met in October 1937 to discuss several grievances, and formed a section of the Australian Railways Union. In 1933, Western Australian domestic servants gained the right to be addressed as Miss or Mrs.
Given that there was industrial action in most occupations where women were found, it is clear that it is quite mistaken to say:
Lack of trade union and other organised support meant that women fared badly, for the more strongly organised sections of the community were pacified at the expense of those less able to defend their rights.
Certainly their unions were often weak, but there was nonetheless a substantial level of rank and file action. In many cases women strikers received adequate and even quite good support from their union officials. If they or their unions lacked the power and political awareness to create a really adequate overall response to the economic and social crisis of the thirties so, after all, did most men.
Right wing women organise
Radical and working class women weren’t the only ones to organise. In opposition to, and frequently in conflict with them, was the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire, launched in 1929 under the capable and experienced leadership of Adela Pankhurst Walsh.
Daughter of the famous British suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, Adela came out to Australia in 1915. Originally a militant socialist and feminist, and for a short time a member of the young Communist Party, by the end of the twenties she had swung sharply to the right. Not only was she now for industrial peace but she had also left behind any support for women’s rights, claiming that these women were sapping the initiative of men who had ‘spilled their blood over the whole surface of the earth, and strewn their bones thick beneath every sea in the interests of future generations.’
The Guild hoped to ‘end the industrial and class strife and to restore industry on a basis of cooperation and good will’. Although the first point of its charter was ‘to combat communism and all forms of class government’, one is not really surprised to find Lady Rhondda and Lady Gordon as its patronesses. Mrs David Maugham, daughter of Australia’s first (conservative) prime minister and married to a prominent lawyer, was president for several years, and names prominent in Sydney’s social and business world were also conspicuous among the membership. Turnover in the executive resulted not from ideological differences but from the resignations of ladies leaving for overseas trips. The NSW Chamber of Manufacturers gave it consistent financial support, and other employers’ organisations contributed in various ways.
In its early years the Guild was very active among working class housewives in the industrial suburbs of Sydney and nearby centres such as Wollongong. At ‘industrial tea parties’ (where free food and entertainment were draw cards) the wives of unemployed men obtained fabric at cheap rates, to be made into clothes and then sold by the Guild. There were also weekly meetings, children’s circles (‘little outposts of empire’) and charity work.
The Guild was anathema to the Communist Party, who constantly reviled Adela Walsh. The CPA’s Militant Women’s Group called her ‘Mrs Liar Walsh’ or ‘Mrs Traitor Walsh’ in their publications, and the Sydney and Cessnock groups followed her around to her various meetings to expose her politics. The Guild answered the insults in kind, attacking ‘Madam Kollontai and her shrieking sisterhood.’
One tea party in Miller’s Point (Sydney) in 1934 proved ‘a most unpleasant afternoon’. The secretary reported:
The Communist Women, led by Mrs Jean Devanny came in a body and interrupted continuously ... We all felt proud to belong to the Guild when we listened to Mrs Walsh quietly answering the avalanche of questions that was hurled at her while honestly trying to help these people.
Most of the Guild’s efforts went into the workplace. At the invitation of employers, Adela and others would speak to lunch hour meetings in shops, factories and on the docks. A speaker at the Alexandria Spinning Mills in 1937 focussed on the urgent need for Australia to remain loyal to the empire. At the end of the meeting, she sold her audience wool to make winter bed covers for those unable to afford them.
These factory incursions often provoked hostility. At one meeting at IXL in 1936, the Guild speaker managed to overcome the resentment.
‘What do you want here?’ hooted an interjector ... ‘You never wash a cup!’ ‘You couldn’t do a day’s washing!’ screamed others. Hastily Mrs Metcalfe held up her flag of battle ¾ a large double bed quilt made from knitted squares ... [She] explained that this quilt was made by cooperation and loving friendship. Only by cooperation could success be achieved. First of all in the home, and then in industry, by cooperation between capital, management and labour.
On earlier occasions in the same factory the Guild came off second best. Adela as the speaker was heckled:
Adela started to speak: ‘I only wish to get more work for the unemployed ...’ But the indignant workers howled her down and made her get out. We looked over the wall and saw Adela and her friend running down the lane.
This may not have been the entirely spontaneous action it was claimed to be, but as a participant said, ‘There is not one communist in this factory, but there is not one of us would stand a twister like her.’
Whenever there was a strike Adela would appear, speak to the workers and hand out leaflets. Not surprisingly she was popular with employers, who got into the habit of sending for her at the first whiff of industrial action. By 1936, she was addressing 30 audiences a month as well as speaking every Sunday in the Domain.
The Guild was not the only right wing women’s organisation of the period. For example in September 1931, an anti-communist meeting in the Sydney Town Hall included the women’s section of the Sane Democracy League, the Feminist League, the National Association of Women, the Women’ Christian Temperance Union and the Progressive Housewives’ Association. They all wished to take the offensive to defend Country, Religion and Morality; marriage itself would be smashed if left-wing ‘fiends’ had their way. The meeting passed a motion demanding the ‘expulsion of communism from this country, vigorously, unconditionally and uncompromisingly’. The disruption of the meeting by radical women, presumably members of the CPA, led to ‘wild scenes’:
Seven women were ejected. One fought a constable with her fists, and others attacked the police with their handbags. They shouted at the top of their voices while they were being ejected.
So much for the picture of ‘mute’ women in the depression! In reality, they played many roles, including that of working class fighters. They were to do so again in the World War that followed.
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