With the Declaration of War, Brisbane became a city of khaki-clad Black and white American men. The treatment of the Blacks by the whites brought to life the humanity and inhumanity, the idealism and corruption, the heroism and depravity of a world gone mad. I left for Sydney.
The war was against German and Japanese facism and it was time to hop into a force, to pull my weight. I despaired at the thought of wearing a uniform. The Australian Women’s Land Army offered an opening. I set off with a group of women, some in slacks and others in skirts, in a dog box carriage from Central Station bound for the sleepy town of Young. The cherry trees carefully nurtured by the farmers were now burdened with a super abundance of fruit ready for harvesting. I missed the now dimmed lights of Sydney but the openness and crisp air took me back home and I began to remember. And think.
The monotony of filling and emptying my hands with black and red fruit gave me many hours to think. To think of the war raging in the Pacific. Thousands of lives lost each day. The hatred of the enemy ever increasing. Where was the drive to halt the dehumanisation of man and woman. Would the family of the world ever cure itself of the habit of war? Would this terrible war end, and the Germans and the Japanese with all the nations of the world unite and say ‘enough’? The destructive forces threatening us robbed me of my individualism and left me bereft of ideas. We always needed justice for the poor and disillusioned, the young and the ill. Comfort for the failed and the humiliated, confidence for the frightened. The elmination of torture and that none should be prey to the torturer.
War brought a serious lapse of integrity. Treading over those who would be different in our singlemindedness to destroy. Fear growing out of being destroyed. Just now I would think the concern for the soil of Australia seems precious. What of the days before the war with a world not so full of urgencies and so much space for human error. My hands tired of picking cherries and the day’s end had come. The sky pied with grey and crimson – like blood-stained pebbles. The earth was angry and we were angy too.
I was probably the first Black Australian woman to go into Europe to see the city of Berlin as just a mass of rubble. I came back and talked publicly about the ravages of war. Other women went in and saw what war had done. And out of this I believe I made a contribution towards building the Peace Movement in Australia. No easy task in the midst of the Cold War, with McCarthyism taking control of the minds of the people.
I heard the Women’s Charter activist and spokesperson Lucy Barnes say: ‘The women are just as disdvantaged as the Aborigines.’ I did not agree with her. Black Australians were and still are the most disadvantaged of all people, but I was apprehensive to dispute her. Jessie Street was telling me: ‘God helps those who help themselves and god help those who don’t.’ Then there was the famous Torres Strait Island blues singer, Dulcie Pitt, telling the press: ‘It’s hard to be a woman, but harder still if you are a woman and Black’ and Lucy Woodcock, senior vice-president of the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation at a meeting she was chairing to form the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship in 1956 saying: ‘Now Faith, you must organise the Aboriginal women. The women bear the children and accept responsbility for the family’s well-being.’ Those women worked in the unpopular cause of equal status for women. All were protagonists for women’s rights and all to some measure influenced my thinking about freedom and independence for women …
Black rights were an unpopular cause and few people wanted to be associated with a ’cause’ that might brand them as communist. Gibbs experienced rejection by some whom she hoped would had had the courage to join her. McCarthyism was at its height in Australia. The only white voices heard speaking about the Blacks were those of the anthropologists who were finding the Aborigines an interesting ‘species’ to study. When Gibbs and I went to enlist the help of Rex Connors (then a member of the New South Wales Parliament), Connors said to Gibbs: ‘Are you a red?’ Gibbs replied: ‘I wouldn’t come to you if I were. I am here because I am Black.’
When Pearl Gibbs came to our flat another early morning, her patience now worn thin, she looked over her cup and said: ‘You want to get off your behind and give us a hand.’ Over the tea and toast we planned a movement. It was a movement that should involve both Black and white, Jews and gentiles, political and non-political – but dominated by none. We joined forces.
Gibbs held feminist beliefs, so it was not surprising that Jessie Street was one of the first to join us. Among other women we sought to enlist were Grace Bardsley, who knew how deprived Black workers were because she had worked in a union office in the north; author Dymphna Cusack; Rosene Guterman, a humanist with a good track record of caring for the deprived and the rejected; Hepzibah Menuhin whom we hoped would give us a benfit concert; and Marjory Pizer the poet. We formed the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship with Jessie Street at the helm, steering us toward the need to change the federal Constitution. This took us into a 10-year campaign for a referendum, a daunting task indeed. It took up 10 years of my life. The clause we wanted deleted from the Constitution was section 51, subsection 26:
”The Parliament shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to …
‘(xxvi) the people of any race other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws …’ [emphasis added]
The Aborigines were governed by state laws, except those living in the Northern Territory … Jessie Street knew it was necessary for the federal government to be responsible for all Australian Aborigines if their needs were to be met. Education, health, housing and employment required financial resources which only the federal government could provide.
On 27 May 1967, 90.2 per cent of the Australian voting population voted in favour of the change …
Faith Bandler (c) 1992
Editor’s Note: Voting is compulsory in Australia, which means that the percentage of the Australian population voting in favour of the Constitutional amendment was enormous.
Faith Bandler is recognised in Australia for her substantial work in the Referendum Campaign as well as her work generally in respect of the rights of Australian Aborigines, Torres Strait Islands and Pacific Islanders. She holds the AC, the highest award in the Order of Australia. Her father was from Vanuatu and Faith Bandler identifies as a South Sea Islander Australian. Her books include Wacvie, a biography of her father, published in 1977 by Rigby, Adelaide, Australia, and Welou, My Brother, published in 1984 by Wild & Woolley, Sydney, Australia. On the Aboriginal Education Foundationi (AEF) she worked with Di Graham, a strong supporter of Indigenous Australian rights and a renowned feminist.
From her home in New York, at 120 Paine Avenue, New Rochelle, Carrie Chapman Catt writes to Mrs Ashby, a member of the International Woman’s Suffrage Alliance and a colleague in the struggle for women’s rights.
The date? 1 August 1945.
The subject? The Australian Women’s Charter.
Street is the Charter’s major proponent. In August, she is to be in London, following her attendance as Australia’s delegate at the San Francisco Conference of the UN.
‘I am anxious that you should give her a good chance to see and talk with you privately and at length,’ writes Chapman Catt. ‘Australian women have a dream that they should be able to get women all over the world to endorse their Charter and try to get it adopted in their respective lands …’
‘Please read the Australian Charter carefully,’ she asks.
Thirty years earlier, Rose Schneiderman of New York, NY, is calling for international cooperation, too. Writing in the April 1915 issue of Life and Labour, the journal of the USWTUL first edited by Alice Henry with Miles Franklin, she promotes women’s economic rights:
‘The suffragists have blazed the way for recognition of the economic value of women, value which cannot be enforced without political freedom backed by economic organization.’
Through her work with the WTUL, advocating equal pay and women’s industrial rights, Schneiderman affirms the broader dimensions of women’s struggle, strengthened when taken across international boundaries and combined with other demands.
Across centuries and across decades, Schneiderman, Chapman Catt and Street are not alone. In London in 1840, at the International Convention on Slavery, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott meet with women from Britain and the Empire. They are affronted and outraged at being required to downgrade their participation in the International Conference – a cause to which they are devoted through activism and intellect – through being hidden behind a curtain, listening to the debate from the gallery. Not only are women not entitled to be delegates. Not only are speaking rights denied them. They are not allowed to be seen.
The snub causes international rumblings. US women plan their first women’s conference forSeneca Falls, which takes place in 1848. Women’s wage justice is high on the agenda atSeneca Fallsand in Street’s Australian Women’s Charter, which affirms women’s right to engage in paid employment. Almost one hundred years later, Chapman Catt suggests that the old rights andwrongs set out in the Seneca Falls Declaration should be incorporated into the World Women’s Charter, forming the first chapter. Chapter two should incorporate the terms of the Australian Women’s Charter:
‘You should submit this rewritten Charter to such organisations inEnglandas seem most likely to join in a movement for endorsement and adoption. That Charter Mrs. Street could take with her wherever she goes and by such means as you think best, it should next be submitted to all countries …’
Fifty years after women meet at Seneca Falls, and almost fifty before debates about the content of the Women’s Charter, Life and Labor carries articles from women taking an internationalist view of the labour movement and women’s industrial struggle. Australians are contributors and even more closely associated with the journal. When in January 1906 she moves from Melbourne to Chicago, as first editor Henry brings with her journalistic expertise and respect gained in Australia. She brings along, too, her Women’s Movement activism and the support of confederates and mentors, Catherine Helen Spence amongst them. She carries letters of introduction from Spence to Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams and Anna Garlin Spencer amongst others. She knows from direct experience, working internationally in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, that the movement for women’s rights necessarily crosses national boundaries. So does Franklin. She joins Henry in the US in October of the same year, traveling via England. Soon she becomes joint editor of Life and Labor.
Over the decades of her absence from Australia, Henry maintains her links with women at home. She corresponds with Muriel Heagney and in 1935 her words appear in the forward to Are Men Taking Women’s Jobs?
’Now the national conscience has at length been touched regarding women … the results may react upon the whole field of industry that men too may be the sharers in the benefits.’
… Women have always been international in their approach to Women’s Movement activism. The struggle for the vote engaged women from all over the world – Australian women travelling to the United Kingdom,United States,Canada and Europe to join their sisters in the struggle. Australian women gained the vote and the right to stand for Parliament in South Australiain 1894, and inWestern Australia women gained the vote in 1899. In 1902, women gained the right to vote in federal elections through the passage of legislation through the federal Parliament, and in 1903 the first women in the British Empire to stand for Parliament did so in Australian federal elections. The year before, 1902, when Vida Goldstein travelled the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt demanded to see her – as the only woman in North America who had the right to vote.
Jessie Ackerman was one Northern Hemisphere activist who went the other way – travelling some five times to Australia, as a journalist, and writing about her experiences in the 19th and early 20th century.
This internationalism is important when, at times, Women’s Movement activists appear to believe international activism became prominent in the 1970s and onward, only …
This is an extract from Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt’s UNSW PhD thesis ‘Wage Rage – The Struggle for Equal Pay and Pay Equity’ 2007. Her 1979 SJD thesis was on ‘Evidentiary Issues of Consent in Rape’ with the University of Michigan.
Jessie Street National Women’s Library Ultimo Sydney Australia is a specialist library which collects preserves and promotes the literary and cultural heritage of Australian women. It is unique resource established in 1989 and named in honour of the well-known activist Jessie Street. The Library holds a large research collection covering every aspect of women’s issues, views and history; an extensive loan collection for members; an impressive collection of journals and an archival collection – source material on some of the most important features of women’s participation in the life of the nation. Part of the archives is a particularly interesting collection was donated to the Library by one of our long time members Marlene Ardetto.
A bundle of papers, found on top of a wardrobe which was being thrown out, belonged to Josephine Kearney, nee Downing, who was born in Glengariff, Ireland in 1876 and died in Sydney 1957. The collection comprises a small assortment of papers which when put together give some insights into the life of the remarkable Josephine Kearney nee Downing.
The papers include:
- Western Australian Certificate of title made out in the name of Josephine Downing, Spinster of Perth for a block of land containing twenty-seven perches being portion of Swan location 34 and being Lot 23 on deposited plan 2693 Perth Western Australia dated June 24th 1905
- A contract between Alexander Matheson &Co (agent for the vendor) and Josephine Downing, Spinster of Perth for the purchase of a block of land in Perth Western Australia at the cost of 8 pounds &10 shillings to be paid in ten monthly instalments of 15 shillings per month. Josephine Downing’s address as the purchaser is Post Office Kalgoorlie. The document is dated December 16th 1904
- 7 receipts from Alexander Matheson & Company document payment of a deposit of 1 Pound made on December 15th 1904 on the lot 23 Burswood. Subsequent payments of fifteen shillings were made in January 1905, February 1905, March 1905 and April 1905. An instalment of 1 Pound was made in May 1905 and a final payment of 3 Pounds and 10 shillings was made in June 1905
- A Certificate of Marriage dated November 19th 1905 states that John Rohan a catholic priest duly celebrated the marriage of William Kearney a farmer of Lansdale, bachelor and Josephine Downing, spinster, occupation domestic duties of Sydney at St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney. The bride groom’s birthplace is stated as Ballarat Victoria, his age is 34.He states he is the son of farmer Edward Kearney (deceased) and Margaret Maher (deceased). Josephine Downing aged 29 gives her birthplace as Glengariff Ireland and her parents are listed as farmer Patrick Downing (deceased) and Hannah Downing (née Connelly) as her mother. Witnesses were Charles Edward Thomas and Florence Edith Hansen
A black & white photo which has no identification on it shows a couple presumed to be Josephine Downing and William Kearney on their wedding day in November 1905 in formal wedding attire. In the photo a petite young woman (probably Josephine) is standing, probably to show off the very elaborate long white frilly dress with a most unusual hat perched upon upswept dark hair. A beautiful bouquet of flowers resting on a small table is held by the woman. The groom (probably William Kearney) is dressed in a formal dark suit with a wing collared shirt and small corsage of flowers at his lapel. He is seated on a highly decorated chair.
How, in 1904 when most women didn’t work, did Josephine Downing, a young single Irish woman living in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia managed to acquire enough money to put a deposit on a block of land and pay it off within six months remains a mystery. It was most unusual for women to be involved in the purchase of property at that time. The fact that these records were kept together with Josephine’s marriage certificate indicates that these records were highly valued by Josephine. The story behind the purchase of this land may never be known but these documents tell a story of the courage of a young woman in a foreign land determined to put down roots and to be part of the new country she was living in. It is interesting to note that within six months of the final payment on the property Josephine Downing had moved to live in Sydney and had married William Kearney a farmer from Ballarat Victoria.
These and many more sources are available at Jessie Street National Women’s Library, Australia. Check out their website at: http://nationalwomenslibrary.org/