2013 is the centenary of some of the most prominent events in the name of the women’s suffrage movement. One of the most famous took place on 4 June 1913, when Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at The Derby in protest at the lack of women’s rights. We have some amazing documents held at The National Archives on Emily Wilding Davison, which were recently filmed for the Channel 4 documentary Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette (shown in Britain on Sunday 26 May 2013).
Surveillance photographs of Suffragettes (catalogue ref: AR 1/528)
The story of Emily Wilding Davison, the first martyr in the name of women’s rights, will be preserved in history, but the suffragette movement was more than just the work of one woman. The many records held here at The National Archives are testament to the number of women who bravely fought for justice (a few of which are pictured right – catalogue ref: AR 1/528).
A game of cat and mouse
Another historic event in 1913 was the introduction of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913, also known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, owing to the way the government seemed to play with prisoners as a cat may with a captured mouse. The Act allowed temporary release, on licence, for suffragettes on hunger strike, until they were well enough to be rearrested and complete their sentence.
Eileen Casey, 1897. Image by kind permission of Sarah Laughton
One of the lesser known suffragettes released under this act was Eileen Casey (sometimes referred to as Irene in the records) formerly of West Park Road, Kew, which some of you will have walked past on your way from Kew Gardens station to The National Archives. Eileen went to prison several times as a result of her actions in campaigning for women’s rights. Like Emily Wilding Davison, Eileen had a ‘royal encounter’ that resulted in her arrest and conviction for possessing explosives in Nottingham Market Square on 24 June 1914, the day King George V visited a factory in Nottingham’s Lace Market. That was just one year after Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of his horse at The Derby.
On the day I was researching the suffragette records, I was very fortunate to be asked for the file on Eileen Casey (catalogue ref: HO 144/1206/222067) by Document Services as it had been requested by a member of the public. That person was Sarah Laughton who was researching Eileen Casey, her great aunt, and she was keen to find out what my interest was in her ancestor.
Through my correspondence with Sarah, she told me about her research into her courageous great aunt Eileen:
‘I found the file [at The National Archives] absolutely fascinating. They included both the newspaper cuttings about her court appearances and the official documents about her arrests, hunger strike and force feeding…I have some truly dreadful verse written about this period of her life by a contemporary. When she was arrested for being in possession of explosives in 1914 she was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment but was luckily released with all the others when war was declared.’
Prior to her conviction for possessing explosives in 1914, Eileen had been arrested on 19 March 1912 for ‘damage’, was arrested a year later on 17 March 1913 for ‘placing noxious substances in a pillar box’ and convicted once again on 3 October 1913 for ‘setting fire to letters in letter box’.
File on Eileen Casey (catalogue ref: HO 144/1206/222067)
In October 1913, Eileen was sentenced to three months in prison. During the first week of her imprisonment she went on hunger strike which resulted in ill health and led to force feeding. However, her fragile state – reported on 7 October 1913, only four days after her arrest – meant that the force feeding soon came to an end. On 9 October 1913, the Chief Constable of the prison received a letter ordering the release of Eileen Casey under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. It stated that if she failed to return to prison on 18 October 1913, she could be arrested without a warrant. Eileen didn’t return to prison then and avoided going back until 1914.
Instruction to release Eileen Casey (catalogue ref: HO 144/1206/222067)
An explosive performance fit for a king
Eileen Casey. Image by kind permission of Sarah Laughton
On 24 June 1914, Eileen left her lodgings with a green dressing box and paper-wrapped parcel and walked to Nottingham Market place where the royal visit by King George V was taking place. Police officers in the area noticed Eileen’s suspicious behaviour around the royal stand and questioned her at the scene about her activities and connections to other militant suffragettes. Eileen admitted to being Irene Casey, the militant suffragette of the same name who was wanted for not returning to Leeds Prison in October 1913. Detectives arrested Eileen and took her to Guildhall for further questioning where they found on her person 20ft of fuse wire, a detonator and five quarter-pounds of cheddite, along with other items as shown in this incredible list:
Press cutting (catalogue ref: HO 144/1206/222067)
I think it would be fair to say that Eileen was a woman who liked to come prepared! Within the records are newspaper clippings about Eileen’s trial which took place on 26 June 1914, including one in the Nottingham Guardian, that notes her protestations where she is quoted as saying ‘This will go on until women get the vote!’ and ‘I hope I will be more dangerous before I finish!’. The article goes on to describe her ‘terrific struggle’, with no fewer than five officers in the dock upon announcement that she was to be remanded, providing some great insight into her character and the struggle, quite literally, to stand up for women’s rights.
Press cutting (catalogue ref: HO 144/1206/222067)
A local hero
As well as her great aunt Eileen, Sarah told me about the whole Casey family who lived in Kew and also supported the women’s suffragette movement:
‘Both Eileen’s mother (Isabella Casey (nee Reay)) and sister (Kathleen – Sarah’s grandmother) were arrested for offences connected with the suffragette movement; Eileen’s mother also spending time in prison. Her father, a doctor, was also a supporter of the suffrage cause and their home on West Park Road, very close to you at The National Archives, was a house that welcomed any suffragette known to Dr and Mrs Casey or not.’
Eileen Casey. Image by kind permission of Sarah Laughton
I was struck by the courage of the whole Casey family in fighting for women’s rights and the amazing history we have on our doorstep. I was equally in awe of Sarah Laughton’s quest to research this piece of family history to pass on to her children so that it is not forgotten. Sarah and her children should be immensely proud of their ancestor Eileen and her strong determination to campaign for women’s rights even when it meant putting her life on the line.
According to Sarah’s research, Eileen went to Japan in 1923, following the death of her mother, where she taught English for a number of years. Eileen then moved to Australia at the outbreak of the Second World War where she became a translator (she spoke a number of European languages including Esperanto, as well as Japanese). She stayed on in Australia for some time and became the master of an Emulation Lodge (a Masonic lodge which had both men and women).
When she returned to England she lived in London and was a member of a committee ‘Calling all Women’. Eileen spent the end of her life in a nursing home near Sarah’s parents in Hampshire.
Eileen Casey, 1965. Image by kind permission of Sarah Laughton
I am extremely grateful to Sarah Laughton for sharing this incredible piece of family history and for allowing me to use it, and her amazing photographs, in this blog post. I will always remember Eileen, especially when I am walking down West Park Road on my way to and from work, and her incredible actions as one of the many brave women that had the courage to stand up for women’s rights, which so many of us take for granted today.
Rebecca Simpson (c) June 2013
Rebecca Simpson joined The National Archives’ press office in November 2012. Beginning her career at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, she has worked for a number of Government agencies, charities and arts organisations including English Heritage, CABE, Tate Gallery, Southbank Centre, Relate and LandAid, working in press, communications and events management. She is now part of the team generating media coverage and raising awareness of The National Archive’s diverse collection of records, which includes the annual release of files, UFOs, MI5 as well as some of our more quirky treasures.
Virginia Hall’s life reads like a spy novel, with twists and turns of dramatic suspense. The truth is that Virginia Hall is indeed among the most respected allied spies of World War II. Without intentionally pursuing a career in espionage, she found herself working for the British and eventually the Americans after she proved herself as a valuable asset to the allied war effort.
It could be argued that Virginia Hall is one of America’s greatest heroes, yet few have heard of this amazing woman. Born in Baltimore in 1906, Virginia had a dream to become the first woman ambassador for the United States. She was on her way to fulfilling her dream, working as a clerk at the consular office in Smyrna, Turkey, when a hunting accident took her left leg and seemingly her life’s dream, too. Any ordinary person might have given up and gone home. But, Virginia Hall was no ordinary woman!
Virginia Hall refused to give up on her dreams and, despite a number of obstacles, she persevered, eventually putting herself in a place to change history. She wanted more than anything to serve her country by stopping the German war machine as it made its way through Europe. Her applications to be in the Foreign Service were turned down over and over. Consistently rejected because of her disability and her gender, Virginia was not a woman who took no for an answer. A “no” for Virginia really meant “look for another way.”
When she made her way to France, Virginia Hall continued to look for ways to be of service to the United States, however, without a position available, she decided to offer her services to France instead. When the opportunity arose, together with her Jewish friend, Claire de La Tour, Virginia volunteered to drive an ambulance in France. They survived several frontline missions, transporting the wounded to safety, before escaping to southern France during the German occupation. Virginia made her way to London, where she trained to be a spy with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). She went back to France as a master spy, where she rescued downed airmen, radioed vital information to the Allies, and led three battalions of French Resistance forces in guerrilla warfare. Known as la dame qui boite or the Limping Lady, she rose to the top of the Gestapo’s Most Wanted list.
In November 1942, the German Gestapo posted a notice all over France: “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous Allied agents in France. We must destroy her.” Virginia was forced to escape through the snowy Pyrenees Mountains on foot. She traveled with a guide and three other men who were also escaping. Walking through the mountains was a dangerous and painful experience for Virginia, but she and her companions arrived safely to a train platform in Spain. Only while waiting there, the group ran into trouble. Without proper papers, Virginia found herself in the infamous Figueres prison where she remained for six weeks.
Virginia had so solidified herself as a bonafide spy, when the United States was staging the efforts to end the war, US General Bill Donovan ushered Virginia back to France to gather necessary information for the planned D-Day invasion. When the war ended and people were being recognized for their efforts, General Donovan personally awarded Virginia with the Distinguished Service Cross, the US Army’s highest military decoration after the Medal of Honor. No other civilian received such an honor.
Because Virginia Hall’s story has not been widely popularized, children’s author Nancy Polette decided to research and write a book devoted entirely to Virginia Hall’s story. The book is called, The Spy with the Wooden Leg: The Story of Virginia Hall, and it was written for children 10 and older.
Polette, an 83-year-old woman who shares memories from the World War II era, wrote the book to give access to young readers, and especially young girls. Polette felt compelled to tell the inspiring story of an extraordinary, determined woman who makes a great role model. This unconventional hero embraced her disability and risked her own life to save others as she overcame adversity time and again to achieve her dreams. Virginia Hall changed the course of history as the spy with the wooden leg!
Meagan Frank is a freelance writer and a mother of three. Meagan and her family live in Woodbury, MN. She is currently the Senior Writer for Books Make a Difference magazine, www.booksmakeadifference.com and she is working on her own book about youth sports.
In January the Greenwich University Centre for the Study of Play and Recreation launched ‘Children and the Law’ as a new strand in its programme. The conference introducing the strand was supported by the Centre together with the London Network for the History of Children, the Society for the Study of Childhood in the Past, the University of Greenwich Safeguarding Hub, and the Life-Cycles seminar, Institute of Historical Research. The flyer announcing the launch and conference noted that despite the uproar surrounding ‘the activities of sometime celebrity and BBC identity Jimmy Savile many ‘important questions have not been raised nor addressed’:
‘Why are the voices of the young not listened to or considered of value in the courts or in legal processes? Conversely, how could legal systems be better adapted to respond to the voices and concerns of the young, rather than excluding or labeling them through increased criminalisation or limitation of resources such as housing?’
‘Children’ includes both girls and boys, as the presentations during the day conference affirmed. Yet for historians concerned about women’s rights and the impact of the law on women, many had a particular resonance. Girls are recognised by the United Nations as being particularly disadvantaged the world over, simply by reason of being female. This was significant in the presentation by Dr Ishita Pande of Queen’s University, Ontario, entitled ‘Sexology, the Education of Desire and the Conduct of Childhood in Late Colonial India’ and the accompanying paper in that session, ‘Courtrooms and Truth Telling – What Chance a Child?’ by the author of this WHN Blog.
Dr Pande analysed sexological literature produced in India between 1891 and 1929. That period was selected because the age of consent was raised to twelve years for ‘women’ in 1891, and in 1929 ‘a path breaking law sought to restrain the marriage of “children” below fourteen’. How, asked Dr Pande, did ‘vernacular sexology help constitute, contest and disseminate norms of childhood’ in India. In this, she referred to the effect Havelock Ellis, through his research and writings, had in India – an effect that, participants noted, was profound throughout the Western World, extending not only into psychological and psychiatric discourse, but impacting on the law in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand as well as India.
The issue of child-brides and child-wives is one that continues to engage the law and social sciences today, as well as the United Nations in its efforts to gain recognition of the negative consequences of child marriage and its impact, particularly, on girl children. The Parliament and courts of the United Kingdom have been involved, with Parliament endeavouring to outlaw child marriage through immigration restrictions. The courts have, however, obliged the government to return to the legislative drafting board to ensure that legitimate, consensual arrangements between young adults are not impacted.
That the issues surrounding child marriage are not isolated to India was apparent in that Dr Pandit’s paper led to a lively discussion on child marriage in India and other parts of the subcontinent, its existence in other parts of the world, and its relevance to countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia in light of migration.
Children as offenders and as offended against was the subject of Dr Lily Chang’s paper and that of Penny Wilcox. Dr Chang, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, presented ‘in absentia’ under the title ‘Adjudicating War: Juvenile Offenders in Wartime China, 1937-1945′. She took as her subject the rise in juvenile crime following the First World War and Great Depression, and up to the War of Resistance fought by China against Japan. Her research was based on legal case records of juvenile offenders, previously unexamined, adjudicated by the ‘collaborationist’ Shaghai District Court for the First Special Area. In this, Dr Chang looked at war in its social impact on juveniles living in urban areas, and ‘how the Court attempted to challenge the liminal space occupied by juveniles within the legal sphere that once marked the parameters of childhood and adulthood’ by legal definition. She sought to illustrate how the war ‘crystallised’ the Court’s attempts to ‘introduce the process of a “legal construction of childhood” through an analysis of its legal reasoning towards juvenile offenders under wartime conditions’.
Solicitor Penny Wilcox looked at ‘Changes in Youth Justice post 1998′, subtitling her presentation ‘A Practitioner’s View’. The watershed year of 1998 was chosen because it was in 1998 that the major report Misspent Youth was published, leading to the establishment of the Youth Justice Board, the development of Youth Offending Teams, and ‘changes in custodial regimes’. Ms Wilcox emphasised the low age of criminal responsibility existing in the United Kingdom as contrasted with that existing elsewhere in the European Union, and focused on identifiable groups of young people, including youth ‘in care’, black and minority ethnic youth, youth with learning or other difficulties, and girls’. For girls, the notion that there is a rise in violence and, hence, violent crimes committed by girls, along with the rise of ‘girls in gangs’ is prevalent today, although this notion has been articulated in times past. Particularly in the nineteenth century, ’girls in gangs’ was written of in the United States as in the United Kingdom, and the rise (as it was seen) of ‘the Women’s Movement’ in the 1970s led to a spate of criminological and populist writing suggesting that this movement was ‘turning girls and women to crime’, particularly violent crime. Here, it is difficult to determine whether indeed numbers are ‘soaring’ (although generally violent crimes against the person remain stable over time), or whether courts and care agencies are treating girls and women differently in different periods.
The highlighting of ‘learning difficulties’ in Ms Wilcox presentation was prescient, for education consultant Katherine Marshall of Waltham Forest Dyslexia Association followed with her own presentation on issues relating to the law and dyslexia, and ways in which law and practice need to catch up with developing knowledge in the field. Although dyslexia has been seen as primarily a ‘boys’ learning issue’, Ms Marshall’s presentation made clear that this is not so. She posited that girls may be and have been more likely to be able to ‘cover up’ the condition, through being less visible in the education system or being consigned to educational streams where dyslexia was less evident.
Dr Lucy Bland of King’s College, London, provided introductory insights into her new field of research, ‘Adoption and Ethnicity: thoughts on the study of mixed-race GI babies in Second World War Britain’. She became interested in pursuing this research in consequence of a 2012 change announced by the United Kingdom government, that local authorities would be required to reduce delays in adoption by ‘no longer seeking the “perfect ethnic match”‘, otherwise known as ‘racial matching’ or ‘same race’ policy. Dr Bland’s presentation was particularly invigorating as she sought comment on the direction of her research and the way her research might be enhanced. To date, she has found little research into adoption and particularly the issues relating to GI babies in the United Kingdom.
The launch of the ‘Children and the Law’ stream was complemented by the launch of the University of Greenwich Safeguarding Hub, announced at the conference by its initiator, Janet Webb of the School of Health and Social Care. This is an important initiative, as is the inclusion of the ‘Children and the Law’ strand. Both have a significance in terms of current events, as well as providing avenues for exploration of history, particularly in relation to women and girls.
Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) February 2013
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is Visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham. A short piece on the issues raised by the Jimmy Savile revellations is published as ‘Charity, Celebrity and the Corporate Condonation of Child Sexual Abuse’, OnLine Opinion, 19 November 2012, http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=14367 (accessed 19 November 2012)
The war was on. The girls joined the Land Army, Bill the navy, and Gladys evacuated to Horsham. The twins were stationed there. They lived their lives and we lived ours. It was all day at work, at night on bunks in the air raid shelter. Our customers became our friends. I helped many babies into the world: the women in the shelter had to wait for the ambulance to come, and often it was late. Meanwhile, gunfire was sounding the whole time.
We kept the shop until early 1950. We were bombed so many times and the rationing was a nightmare. The war was over, so we sold up and emigrated to Tasmania. We were able to stay at the shop until we left for Tilbury and the Orion, early in May. The hirecar people drove up with the car that was to take us to Victoria Station: it was the new Daimler, bought for weddings! Even the police on point duty waved us through.
I had never been on a ship before and enjoyed the five week voyage. We visited ports along the way, places I had never seen and had never imagined I would see. We made friends with the other passengers, particularly with a couple who were travelling to Tassie too. We remained friends for many years.
Soon after we arrived, we bought a house, ”Harbour View’, inWest Hobart, overlooking the river Derwent. We had to wait for our boxes to be sent over from Melbourne. Then it was a question of what we could do to earn a living. I loved cooking. We read the paper and noticed the numerous advertisments for men wanting board. We took on four boarders. David was a clerk in the post office and the first boarder. Later he became a statistician. He stayed for 36 years. Doctors came to stay with us for a short time. Some boys left to get married, whilst others returned interstate. Most did office work. I even did their washing. John moved in in 1959, and has remained ever since. John and David and Henry and I became a family.
In 1960 I returned to England for six months to visit my sisters and dad. I celebrated my fiftieth birthday on the Arcadia and a party was held on ship. We had left many ends untied, and things undone, when we left England. Henry had returned earlier, in 1953, to clear up what we had left behind. Then, in 1969, we travelled around the world, visitingCanada and a cousin I had not seen for 21 years. I loved America. Portugal I found exciting and beautiful.
We stayed away for two years. Then, not long after we settled back in Hobart, in 1972 we returned toEngland. This time, the return was intended to be more permanent. We bought a house in Bexhill,Kent, to be with my sisters. But we found life was not the same as it had been in the past. It was a bitterly cold winter with snow in Bexhill. We sold up and came home to Australia. John and David were missing us. We missed them, and we missed Tasmania and the river Derwent. The country was adorned with spring flowers when we arrived home in May.
When Henry died in 1976 I was lost. I carried on in a daze, until my doctor (who was also originally fromEngland) told me I should get away and see my sisters. I had lost trace of my brother. I took the doctor’s advice, setting out for London and the Continent. I flew toLondon on 15 June 1977. It was strange on my own. I wasn’t young any more, and I felt it. But I wanted to travel to see my family. I had to go. So I did.
I travelled around Europeon a 28 day tour. In Vienna I went to the opera. Switzerland was breathtaking. In London I stayed at the Tower Hotel, at Tower Bridge. After 10 days I set out for a week long tour of Devon and Cornwall. I had never been on my own before.
On the Devon and Cornwall trip, I visited the New Inn, Staple Gardens. It was closed and boarded up. The owners had been friends of my mum and dad, and I had stayed there many years ago. Horse drawn carriages stopped there on their way from London to Portsmouth, changing horses. Stables at the back of the inn housed the horses and the stable boys. I strained my ears for the rattle of the harnesses and the clip clop of the horses’ hooves.
Now, my sisters were widows (all except Mable). Gladys and I went to Brighton and Hove. I stayed with Elsie in London. Flossie and I went to a holiday camp at Hayling Island where I won the fancy dress as ‘Wot! No Ashes!’ a play on Australia losing the test cricket to England. I travelled so much and renewed so many friendships, that I did not feel I was getting older.
Having travelled independently around England and Europe, I was now confident about travelling alone in Australia. A friend whom I’d met on myLondon trip lived in Queensland. The year after returning from England, I went to Surfers Paradise, renting a flat and inviting my Aunti Nanie, my mum’s sister, who lived in Brisbane, to holiday with me. I did all the cooking and stayed a month. I met up with the friend I’d made in London. For a number of years afterward, I travelled to the Gold Coast twice a year, doing a week’s tour of Queensland and New South Wales. I still visit Queensland regularly, so that now I have seen all of Queensland and northern New South Wales.
I am agile and I enjoy life. As for grey hairs – no, my hairdresser looks after that. Of wrinkles, there are probably a few. I have a few spare parts, two eye implants, a new knee and hip. I still enjoy the opera and operarettas, and mysteries, which we can see courtesy of the video.
Edith Amelia Webb (c) 1995
Born in Peckham,London, in 1910, Edith Amelia Webb emigrated to Austarlia together with her husband, Henry, in 1950. She wrote this autobiographical piece when living in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1995.
This is an extract from a piece of the same title, published in Glorious Age – Growing Older Gloriously, Artemis Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 1996 (compiled and edited by Jocelynne A. Scutt).
On this day in 1939, just a few months after the Nazi invasion of Poland that had marked the start of WWII, a determined Polish Countess and former beauty queen marched in to British secret service headquarters and demanded to be sent on an active mission. ‘She is a flaming Polish patriot, an expert skier and great adventuress…’ the startled British officer reported, ‘I really believe we have a PRIZE’.
Countess Krystyna Skarbek is now better known in Britain by her adopted name of Christine Granville of which, she later wrote, she was ‘rather proud’. When she volunteered for service she was already on her second husband and third name, Krystyna Gizycka, and she was known on paper simply as ‘Madame G’. By the end of the war she had gone through many more identities, from her first alias, Mme Marchand, under which she was sent into Hungary in December 1939, to the ‘admitted libelous’ code-name the British gave her in Cairo, ‘Willing’, which spoke loudly both about Christine’s mode of gaining information, and the male British sense of humour of the time.
Christine was the first woman to work for the British as a special agent during the war. Despite having a life expectancy of just a few months while on operations, she was also Britain’s longest serving female agent, active in three different theatres of the war. For her outstanding courage and huge contribution to the Allied war effort, she was honoured with the OBE, the George Medal and the French Croix de Guerre as well as an array of service ribbons that would have made any General proud. And yet, as a woman, Christine was ineligible for British military honours, and had to accept their civil equivalent – something that enraged her and many of her female colleagues, one of whom wrote in disgust that there was ‘nothing remotely civil’ about what they had done.
Although Christine trained and served alongside men throughout the conflict, her gender always informed her experience of the war. She was in southern Africa when Poland was invaded, and by the time her ship reached Europe her home-country was occupied. Unable to sign up to fight alongside her compatriots, Christine determined to get Britain to support her plan to ski across the hazardous Carpathian mountains taking money and propaganda to the Polish resistance, and information – on microfilm hidden inside her gloves – back out. At this point the secret services were only recruiting through the Old Boys network, but Christine had contacts within this group and quickly used them to good effect. No other women would be taken on for another two years. Christine’s combination of independent-mindedness, determination and charm had given her the contacts she needed in Britain, Hungary and Poland, but it was her gender that ensured she would be less conspicuous travelling around an occupied country than any able-bodied man, and secured her the job. Christine was exceptional.
Christine crossed into occupied Poland four times over the next year, bringing back information that at times had the potential to change the course of the war, and helping to ‘exfiltrate’ thousands of Polish and other Allied officers to continue the fight overseas. When occasion demanded she was quick to exploit her femininity to good effect, once charming a Wehrmacht officer into carrying her package of ‘black-market tea’, in fact incriminatory documents, through a security check. She also happily made love to the cream of the Polish and British secret services in every country she crossed, many of whom later described the ‘mesmeric power’ she held over men.
But Christine also fully employed her contacts, language skills, creative brilliance and sheer blunt courage both to undertake her missions, and to save not only her own life, but also the lives of several fellow officers and agents. Once under interrogation in Hungary she feigned tuberculosis by biting her tongue so hard that it looked as though she was coughing up blood, until she and a compatriot were thrown out. On another occasion, in occupied France, she walked into Gestapo headquarters and demanded the release of three colleague just hours before they were due to be shot. Using a combination of bribery, and bravado about the ‘imminent’ approach of Allied forces, she saved the lives of the men and went on with them to help coordinate the resistance in advance of the Allied liberation of the south of France.
Yet at the end of the war, in May 1945, Christine was dismissed with just £100. A British memo stated simply, ‘she is no longer wanted’. As an aristocrat and former British agent, Christine knew she could not return to post-war Communist Poland. But as a Pole, and a woman, it was soon clear that she was not hugely welcome in Britain either. The qualities that had made her so valuable as an agent during the war were no longer appreciated in women during the peace. Without secretarial skills she was difficult to place, memos moaned, and she was soon being referred to as ‘this girl’, while her applications for continued work were dismissed as ‘a headache’. The country that had employed Christine to risk her life in three different theatres of war, now only begrudgingly gave her citizenship and completely failed to provide work worthy of her service and abilities.
In 1952, after seven years of menial jobs in London and as a stewardess on various passenger ships, Christine was stabbed to death by a rejected lover. It was a pathetic end for such an extraordinary woman. Although very few special agents have been murdered for love, at least outside of novels, Christine should not be remembered as a tragically romantic figure. Today women in the Resistance are all too often seen in such terms. Perhaps the best known female special agent is Sebastian Faulks’ heroine, Charlotte Grey, and she is not only fictional but achieves very little. Even the most famous true stories, of Violette Szabo and Odette Samson, celebrate outstanding courage and sacrifice rather than significant achievement. If my new biography of Christine contributes anything, I hope it will highlight the role, use and abuse of Poland during the war, and rebalance the view on the effectiveness of British female agents.
Clare Mulley (c) October 2012
Clare Mulley is author of The Spy Who Loved, the secrets and loves of Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of WWII, published 2012. Her website is www.claremulley.com
The Woman Reader (2012) by Belinda Jack is a wide ranging account of women’s historical writing. In her review of the work, Bee Wilson focusses on the pertinent question it raises: ‘Why for millenniums did men try to control what women read?’ Other important questions are: what did women write to evade that control? What subversive methods did they use in their fiction to give it the appearance of suitability? What did women do to ensure that they and their feminist works were published? One response was producing overtly ‘suitable’ and covertly feminist fiction. If the men to whom Jack refers had known how women’s literature would progress they would have been even more concerned. In particular, historical fiction has developed in way that threatens traditional ways of looking at women’s role.
Philippa Gregory refers to herself as a feminist writer, and her historical and contemporary work give abundant clues to her feminism. Her recently published selection of three historical essays, non-fiction accounts of the women in her fictional accounts of the ‘wars of the cousins’ reveals her method, which is focussed on writing women back into history. Zoe Fairbairns is a feminist writer who, while not having made a name as an historical writer has written a feminist historical saga. Stand We at Last (1983) is a feminist approach to British women’s history from the 1850s to the 1970s. Benefits (1979), newly published as an ebook, presents a chilling account of women’s position in the political world of the 1970s, which still resonates with the 2000s. Katharine McMahon’s historical novels are rich feminist perspectives on women and medical practice in World War 1 in The Rose of San Sebastopol (2007) and past legal practice in The Crimson Rooms (2009).
Of the three, Gregory and McMahon are the identifiable writers of feminist historical novels. Gregory is also the most well-known, mostly through her historical work but also through contemporary novels such as The Little House (1998). Fairbairns’ work is predominantly contemporary. However, Stand We at Last provides a compelling and accessible introduction to the body of her feminist work. Each writer has used historical fiction in a way that undermines the control of women’s reading. They have produced work that, while ostensibly is safe because it is ‘women’s fiction’, questions women’s place in history. Historical novels have had a mixed reception, not all of it respectful. Again, such a reputation has added to the advantages a feminist writer can enjoy in her writing history. Each writer has written her history inspired by women’s role, actions, feelings and aspirations.
Gregory has rejected the traditional way of writing about historical events which either centres on men deemed to have made history or, if they focus on women, have seen them largely in a romantic role. Gregory writes about women as the makers of a history which exists in parallel with the history of men; links women on equal terms with men’s traditionally superior role; or highlights the disadvantages affecting women who, despite these, operate capably with intelligence and fortitude. The women are also often portrayed as manipulative, cruel, antagonistic to other women and veritable ‘lionesses’ on behalf of the men in their family – son, brother, husband or father. They also neglect, or are actively antagonistic, to daughters, sisters or mothers.
The lack of ‘sisterhood’ amongst the female protagonists raises the question: how feminist are Gregory’s historical novels? Firstly, Gregory places women at the centre of her work. In non-romantic work, this is an important feature of feminist fiction. Secondly, women are acting in as wide a community as the men with whom they are associated. The only activity in which they are not physically present is in battle. Admittedly this is a major portion of the lives of men: it was the work of kings, would-be kings and their supporters. However, while uninvolved directly in the wars to win land and crown women are also depicted in physical and life threatening battle. One of the most dangerous is their fight to bear a son. Gender controlled the means by which women and men fought for the crown or land. Gregory makes it abundantly clear that women’s dangerous role was to provide a male heir for either purpose. Women and men united in seeking advancement for their family. As individuals, women were pitted against each other, often as pawns of the male members of their family.
Gregory is writing historical fiction that is soundly researched and realistically charts the tempo of the times. However, by placing women at the centre of her work she provides a feminist account of that history. Most importantly, Gregory graphically illustrates the discrimination against women that is the foundation to the history she writes.
Fairbairns’ Stand We At Last has been described as ‘a family saga’ and an early paperback edition cover features a bonneted woman in 1800s dress, clearly defining the novel as historical fiction. However, the novel is a strong feminist account of women’s lives. The issues that are familiar in novels about women, sexuality, marriage, motherhood and death are seen through a feminist prism. Like Gregory, the discrimination that features in women’s ‘normal’ is shown in its sometimes brutal reality. Explicit feminist issues are also raised in Stand We At Last. Women’s suffrage; their right to land ownership; implementation of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which becomes a personal as well as public issue for some of the protagonists; middle class women’s move into paid work; women as colonists; sexual freedom and sexism in a university environment; abortion; and the 1970s women’s movement.
Women in this contemporary novel also deal with the consequences of war. A young wife dies as the result of syphilis her husband catches in the army. Another is an oysterseller at the army barracks in the 1860s. She bears a child to a man whose comfortable lifestyle dismisses marrying her. Although the consequences are not as severe, the First World War creates the environment in which a young woman loses her virginity to a man who is joining up. In the Second World War women are depicted working on the land; caring for injured male family members; and dying on the home front.
McMahon focuses on professions such as the law and medicine and depicts the irrationality of the discrimination women suffered, concentrating on the early years of each profession. In her blog she notes that her type of historical fiction is sometimes criticised because it does not ‘take real people… put[s] words into their mouths, and [try] to work out how the past would have been for them’. She says ‘My type of historical fiction takes real events…and tells a fictional story about fictional characters, but with an authentic (whatever that means) historical setting’. Significantly, in the context of writing about the way in which feminist writers use historical environments to project feminist arguments in an acceptable way, she goes on to argue: ‘But do not dismiss. One type of historical fiction is neither more nor less valuable and fun than the other.’
McMahon’s comment makes a salient point about the three types of historical novel covered here. They are ‘fun’ to read. At the same time the feminist authors are writing about topics which are clearly not ‘fun’: discrimination against women in their private and professional lives in the past. That the past resonates with the sexism women encounter in contemporary society makes the historical novel an excellent vehicle for making feminist arguments in a form in which thoroughly undermines the men who wanted to control women’s reading.
Robin Joyce (c) November 2012
Robin Joyce’s PhD thesis is entitled ‘The Troublesome Woman: A Study Barbara Pym’s Novel and Short Stories’. She began her academic life as an historian, covering the period in Australia’s history when women fought for the vote. In particular, Robin identified women’s early activism in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and trade unions, concentrating on women such as Cecilia Shelley and Jean Beadle – ‘the Grand Old Woman of Labor.’
 Bee Wilson, Review of The Woman Reader, “Culture” The Sunday Times, July 1 2012, p.36.
 Philippa Gregory, Interview, BBC Radio 4, September 2012.
 Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones The Women of the Cousins’ War (2011) Simon and Schuster: London.
US Army Nursing Corps Sisters wait to disembark at Greenoch, Scotland, August 15 1944.
One of the great benefits of Black History Month (October) is that it prompts us consider the absence of BME people, or even of references to race, in the subjects we are studying, if we can’t find their presence. For example, in writing about British women who sailed in WW1 and WW2 I’d initially thought that all the need for skilled personnel would bring large numbers of women from India, the Caribbean and other British colonies into the war effort. Surely they crossed the seas to help ‘the Mother country’ and the Allied cause between 1939 and 1945?
But they are barely on record – and it seems were barely involved. By contrast, US evidence, with all its clear racism, shows just how black women were excluded or relegated.
In Britain there’s no record of whether BME women were among the troops and voluntary workers who went overseas. And no black or mixed-race people appear to have been among the many women entertainers, such as Vera Lynn, sent out from Britain.
Afro-Caribbean enthusiasm for the war effort meant people from the West Indies were keen to participate. But the British government were reluctant to let black women over here. Years of argument about this, between the War Office and Colonial Office, ensued. One internal memo said ‘Dear Thomas: In brief we are quite prepared to accept European women from the colonies, but I must emphasize we cannot accept coloured women for service in this country’ [my italics].
An unknown number of nurses came privately from the West Indies to the UK. When they arrived they did not, of course, work solely with black men as their US sisters did.
Finally, policy changed. Near the end of 1943 black women sailed from the Caribbean to Britain to become part of the women’s branch of the army, the Auxiliary Transport Service (ATS). Fashion designer Hermione X and 299 middle-class ‘coloured’ women were ‘accepted’ onto Britain’s shores. Seemingly they paid their own fare.
A year later, and five years into the war, more Afro-Caribbean female service personnel were sailing to the UK to become ATS. Probably under 500 did so. In October 1944 they set off (via Trinidad and New York) on the by-then much-worn troopship Queen Mary to Scotland.
Because many had had a privileged upbringing they were shocked at conditions on the ship. One un-named woman said: ‘We had to sleep on wire covered with canvas. Sugar bags covering wire that was our beds! Some of them started to cry. I was always trying to make peace, telling them “You joined it, you glad to be coming, so you must accept what you getting.”’
White British servicewomen also sailed on such troopships as they went out to postings overseas. Perhaps because of the Blitz and being socialised to stay cheery, none of the testimonies I’ve read mentions the awful mattresses on ships. None, allegedly, let themselves cry either. They mainly complained in the approved stoic and jolly manner about water shortages and overcrowding on such vessels.
In the US the authorities were similarly reluctant to utilise black women’s labour. They imposed a quota on nurses that wasn’t successfully challenged until 1944. Only 479 of the Army Nurse Corps’s 50,000 nurses were black (0.8 per cent). They were expected to work with only black troops.
The first African American women to sail overseas in the war were ANC nurses who went to Liberia. Later they went to other parts of Africa, Burma (where they nursed Chinese troops) and the South Pacific (which suggests that a very different version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, featuring white nurse Nellie Forbush, could have been written.) In June 1944 a unit of 63 black ANC nurses came to the 168th Station Hospital in Warrington, Cheshire. Their role was specifically to nurse German POWs – the least desirable patients. 
6888th Postal Battalion women in Rouen, 1946
The largest group of African-American women who sailed to war were part of the army. 855 women were the only black WACs to serve overseas. They were postal workers in the elite 6888th Postal Battalion. They initially came to Birmingham circa January 1945. Later they crossed the Channel to work in Rouen, and later Paris.
Historian Brenda L Moore interviewed many of them, who said they had been trained how to board a ship via cargo net and to climb ropes (these were not skills with which any British women service personnel boarded ships).
They sailed in two batches, aboard two of the worlds’ most iconic liners, that had been converted to troop ships: the Ile de France and the Queen Elizabeth. Myrtle Royden on the Ile de France thought it was ‘loaded to the brim …with bombs and ammunition.’ This made it a legitimate target and Germany attacked. The ship had to take evasive action (zigzagging). And the convoy was attacked by a u-boat before reaching Scotland.
Women in the second contingent, such Dorothy Johnson on the Queen Elizabeth, didn’t have any trouble; she found it ‘a rather luxurious journey’ full of the mateyness and mingling that was so typical of troopships, where the rare women – whatever their ethnicity – were very popular indeed. First Lt Mildred Dupree Leonard made the crucial point that status was the key divide and so officers had it relatively easy on these hierarchical ships. ‘We [officers] were living in the best quarters [whereas some] enlisted personnel were down in the hole.’ She likened it to travelling on an ocean liner: ‘the further down on the ship you go, the less pleasant the trip.’
Women of 6888th on both ships made the comment that tens of thousands of servicewomen made, whatever their trip, whatever their ethnicity: seasickness was the main feature of the voyage. The Atlantic can be particular unpleasant in winter and the Ile de France’s zigzagging worsened it. One of the post women, Miss Rhoden, said she had to hang on with all her strength the veering was so severe – and noisy: ‘the sirens, the banging, the horns, and the whistles; the galvanized cans were banging and clanging.’ And in their cramped cabin women’s perfume and cosmetics whizzed off the shelves, ‘flying through the air like marbles.’
But they made it. And no black British or black American women were among the hundreds of women is recorded as being among those who died on ships in the two wars. However, I think this is highly unlikely, and that evidence of fatalities will emerge.
According to the information available, black British and US women were not allowed to play a proportionate part in either war. Consequently they did not experience full access to that bonus, mobility, that was such a key feature of war for white women.
For those who did travel, their experiences of overt and subtle discrimination during voyages is little known. Broadly speaking, all women tended to be seen as intruders on wartime ships. But as British merchant vessels were operated by crew used to dealing with a range of people from other countries, it may be that the African-American women travelling to Britain in WW2 experienced less overt racism than they usually experienced in the US. Certainly, in general, BME women suffered additional hostility – for example, delayed trips – which deserves acknowledgement.
Jo Stanley (c) 2012
Dr Jo Stanley, FRHistS, is an expert on the gendered sea. For Yale University Press she is currently writing Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas (2013). She is an Honorary Research Fellow at Lancaster University’s Centre for Mobilities Research.
 Ben Bousquet and Colin Douglas, West Indian Women at War, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1990, p119.
 Judith A Bellafaire, The Army Nurse Corps, US Army Center of Military History. http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/72-14/72-14.HTM. See also http://5thplatoon.org/aboutus2.html
 150 Caucasion WAACs (their auxiliary status, marked by that exta ‘A’ was dropped in 1943) had served in North Africa from November 1942 and many other served in Europe. Although women were only allowed overseas later than men, Africa-American women were only permitted to go two years later than that. It was expected that African-American WAACs would come to Britain in 1942, as secretaries and chauffeurs who would ‘bring a touch of home to the [black] soldiers.’ But Director Oveta Hobby’s concern that they were just being seen as escorts for black US troops meant the plan was shelved for two years. Brenda L Moore, To Serve My Country, To Serve My Race, New York University Press, New York and London, 1996, p81.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p105.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p107.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p106.
 Cited in Moore, To Serve, p107.
 Depending on how long they’d served, these postal workers rotated back to the US, finally leaving in March 1946.
I was born in Darwin. My mother is from the west coast of the Northern Territory, the Daly River, and my father from Broome on the west coast of Western Australia. Broome is built on the land of the Yaoro and Bardi people. I am descendent of the Yaoro people and probably also the Bardi. My skin name is Na’amitji, which is the female version of Namatjira, so Albert Namatjira [the artist] is my brother.
Like the South Sea Islanders kidnappened to work in Australian sugar cane fields (‘Blackbirding’) Asians were shanghaied, sold, and brought to Australia to work in the pearl-diving industry. My great-grandfather was brought to Australia from a little village called Vigan in the far north of the Philippines. My father is of Filippino, England and Aboriginal descent.
One of my cousin’s father is Japanese, interned during the Second World War. My Aunti Lina, married to Matsumato, a Japanes man, was interned with her children. Dad’s brother, Pinky Corpus, was allowed by the Australian authorities to be responible for them, as their chaperone or monitor. Little did they know he was also part Japanese. Through my mother I am part Japanese, part Irish and part Aboriginal, and I have four Aboriginal ancestral groups going right down to the Gurinji people, who were in the walk-out against Lord Vesty during the 1960s.
My parents dumped me. I cannot claim I was one of the stolen kids. I went to Darwin Primary School, annd then Nightcliff. When I began, there was only one government school, ‘normal’ school. There was a Catholic school down the road, and then there was an Aboriginal school on the Bagor reserve compound, the other side of the barbed-wire fence from the mission. While I was learning fractions, the Reserve School girls in the same grade were years behind.
The institution in which I was raised was run initially along an age and gender dormitory system overseen by a kind, unmarried white woman, Miss Shankleton (Laelie). In the early 1960s the Home moved into a new compound which had a cottage system in which each individual cottage was run autonomously although coming under the general jurisdiction of the male (married) superintendent.
I lived at the mission. The savage white couple in charge of my cottage belted me constantly. Every time I had a migraine headache I was accused of trying to get out of work, although I wasn’t. Brought up in that system from birth, we took pride in our chores. I got sick and tired of running away to my parents and their relatives, and being brought back to the mission home by police. It never dawned on me to run away to welfare. Later I went to the former superintendent of the home, who organised through welfare for me to be placed elsewhere, so I went to school in New South Wales.
I had an older brother who was adopted. My younger brother was in the institution with me. My mother was stolen when she was six-years-old. With the Second World War, the Methodist Overseas Mission brought everyone from Croker Island to Otway in southern New South Wales near Wollongong. There, my mother was impregnated at 10. The Methodist mission people put up her age. She lived out the rest of her life assuming an increased age. She tried to tell me she was 19 when she had me but she was only 15. She had my older brother when she was 11.
I attended Parramatta High School. I didn’t like it, though probably created a lot of the problems myself. I was stupid. I got so angry and just bashed, instead of trying to reason. A whitefella, Phillip, got hit bya softball bat, his nose swelling enormously. He sat on a suitcase with his legs wide open, making light of his predicament: ‘Louise, I’ve got a nose like you. I’ve got an Aboriginal nose.’ I went bang, smash, ‘I haven’t got a big nose.’ Conscious of coming from a society of many nationalities in all colours and shapes, I was constantly reminded I was different. Some friends would say, in winter, when everyone was wearing stockings, gloves and beret: ‘Gee, you wouldn’t know that you were brown from behind.’ Constantly telling me that I was not quite one of them, they seemed preoccupied with colour. I reacted violently.
By the end of first term I had bashed up everyone bashable. Everybody else ran away. I came home with my school books and ripped right through them all with my biro, screaming, ranting and raving and demanding to go home. My foster father asked if I would like to try another school. No, but I didn’t want to return to the violence of Retta Dixon Homes. My foster father encouraged me. I went to Greystanes. Half the teachers were Jews, including the principal. The other half were white Australians. I got on with all the Jews, and with very few of the others.I still fought and argued with teachers but began to settle down.
I had all the encouragement possible – so much so that I felt I was cocktail Black. The emphasis was that it was great I was in high school: there was only one other Aboriginal in high school in New South Wales going for the Intermediate Certificate. The school psychologist came to look me over. At Nightcliff Primary School I had come within the top five in grade seven. When I went south I became quite dumb, just scraping through. It wasn’t until university, getting distinctions for almost every assignment I lazily submitted, that I realised how difficult it was at 14, changing from a child into a woman, gonig from a town of 13,000 people to a town where the white people were all crazy – I mean, had you heard of the Beatles? Then there was the Viet Nam war, and learning new concepts like time. Before, at the mission, at school, everything was delivered, and it just happened.
I tried for the School Certificate and failed, so went to work in the Commonwealth Bank clearing department. I wanted to be a teller out there with the public. Not many women were working as tellers at the time. My concept of a bank was the local branch down the road where they knew the local people, and I had visions of eventually working in the Comnonwealth Bank in Darwin. In Sydney, they reallycouldn’t place me in a branch because being an Aboriginal I might offend the customers. But in the clearing department I had a wonderful boss, Alison Reid. Most of the women were fantastic.
The clearing branch was tucked away from the average businessman in the street (as they were in those days). Workers who had physical and mental impairments were not able to become permanent members. I was, because I didn’t have any disabilities, although as an Aboriginal my permanency could have been contested.
My supervisor fought for equal rights for women in the bank. Alison Reid supervised 100 or so women. A bloke on our floor, who had never ever received a promotion, was earning more than she.
Alison was in the union. We got along well, not just because I was Black. She said if you were an Australian you should be paid for the work you do, and just because you were a woman you shouldn’t receive three-quarters of the pay. When I joined in 1966, they had just started allowing married women to continue working for the Commonwealth bank; during my time they also allowed pregnant women to continue. Alison fought for all that.
Louise Liddy-Corpus (c) 1992
Born in Darwin, Australia, in 1949, Louise Liddy-Corpus has worked in public relations and journalism, and inequal opporutnity. She has spirit ancestros, but her main Dreaming is a particular waterfall in Nangiumerri lands. She wirtes: ‘I am a waterfall. I was a waterfall bfore I came into the human form, and when I die I will go back to the waterfall.’
This is an extract from ‘Taking Control Now’ in Breaking Through – Women, Work and Careers, Artemis Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 1992 (Jocelynne A. Scutt, ed.).
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.
I was always called ‘Young Val’. Surrounded by adults, I am not sure how I filled my days, but as a child I was never bored. We lived in the bush where there were trees, birds and insects and, as my mother always said, if Jimmy and I ran out of books to read we read the labels on the cans and bottles filling the food cupboard. It was a wonderful, healthy and happy life.
School was my big experience at seven-and-a-half years of age. My father worked as a ganger and powderman on construction railways in New South Wales. Mum ran a boardinghouse for navies, three meals a day. Brother Jimmy, nearly six years older than I, was sent off to school during the week, coming home for most weekends and holidays. Somehow, I expect from my parents and Jimmy, I learned to read and write. By the time I began at school I was able to keep up with the other seven- and eight-year-olds. This meant I was quickly moved into my own age group.
At 15 I left high school having gained my Intermediate Certificate. Depression years meant no teachers college: my great ambition to be a teacher was no more. Living in the country there were no jobs, so an advertisement in the local paper: ‘School dentist wants young girl to look after children, prepared to travel’, caught my attention. Magic word – travel. I joined the family, which travelled to Sydney for school holidays – and I was a glorified housemaid!
There were three children. The girl was the eldest, about eight. Then came a boy of four and the baby. My employer was a travelling school dentist with wife and family living in Ballina, a small country town. They wanted somebody to mind the children, but when I arrived I found I had to do all the housework, or most if it, as well as wake up the children, squeeze them orange juice, bath them, make breakfast for them, and all those other child tasks! The couple entertained fairly lavishly and the girl who preceded me wore a uniform and a little cap. I refused to, so that was that.
… Having looked over Sydney, I decided I would stay, first checking with family friends to see if I could live with them. Farmer & Co (now Grace Brothers/Myer) needed sales girls for a sale – so there I was, somewhere to live, a job and an okay from my parents.
I was kept on after the sale. Juniors did all the menial jobs – dusting, cleaning, carrying for senior sales assistants. A Scotswoman, Miss Ferguson, was our head. Miss Ferguson was in her thirties when she arrived in Australia. She was firm but fair: extremely strict, very hard-working, always in at work before anyone else, and she kept us on our toes. Years later, when she was quite old and we were visiting her, she told us she had been too hard on us. We said no, she had taught us so much. I recall her saying: ‘Always smile when you answer the phone’, ‘Do not judge people by their clothing’, and so on and on.
Miss Ferguson thought I needed fresh air. She said I must miss the country, so made sure that at least once a week I was sent off outside taking tram, bus or train. Often it was to collect stock, or better still to deliver a lamp or lampshades to a customer’s home. It was exciting to a kid from the bush to go into homes in the ‘upper-crust’ areas of Bellevue Hill or Point Piper.
In the lampshade department we sold lamps and shades and cushions and a few other odds and ends. There was a bedding department next-door and the chap who was buyer for the bedding department was buyer for our department, despite Miss Ferguson’s being the head and actually doing the buying.
Selling is probably difficult for shy people, but I had to do it, as without a job I couldn’t stay in Sydney. As a junior, I didn’t serve any customers for almost 12 months, because that was the seniors’ job. Juniors weren’t allowed to speak to a customer. We had to run the messages and tidy up … The seniors at Farmers were trained in what we’d now call customer relations. The juniors were trained too. When I first went there, even though it was only for three weeks, for a sale, I had to do two days training before I began in the department. I was paid to be taught where the items were in the store, how to write out dockets, how to speak to people. When ‘permanent’, for another two years we went out to class once a week and had homework. We did a little bit of psychology, a little bit of window-dressing, a little bit of everything that went on in the store. It was excellent training.
In those days no one was paid a lot. I was paid a whole 32 shillings and sixpence a week. The seniors at 23-years, not at 21, got about £3/0/0 a week. They also had what they called ‘spiffs’ – commission on certain articles they sold. That’s probably why they did all the sales.
Then came the Second World War. My brother and many male friends went away. I was envious, but suddenly came a call-up for women. The chance for me and so many other women to join the airforce and experience a different way of life came when Clare Stevenson, who was to become director of WAAAF (Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force), was called up to Government House by Lady Wakehurst, the governor’s wife. Clare Stevenson was working at Berlei’s when the message came that she was needed at Government House at four o’clock that afternoon. She said she couldn’t possibly get there; she had clients coming. Finally after a lot of insistence she said she would be there at a quarter to five. She arrived to find it had been decided in advance that she should lead the WAAAF. She said she couldn’t, that she wanted to keep on working at Berlei’s and that she wouldn’t do it. Some weeks later her appointment was published in the paper. At the same time she received a telegram saying she had to take up her appointment the following week …
I sent the papers home for my father to sign and my mother must have tossed them because he didn’t see them, so I got another set. I tried the people I was living with. The woman and I sat up half the night, finally talking her husband into signing my father’s name to the space provided. I was 20 then. You had to be 21. When my father came down he asked me how I got in without his signature. I told him and he thought that was so marvellous, it was very resourceful.
We were enlisted for service in Australia and its territories overseas, including New Guinea. So began a whole new existence, a whole new life for ‘the girl from the bush’.
Val Buswell (c) 1988
Extract from oral history ‘Eighty-Eight’s Fair Enough’ in Glorious Age – Growing Older Gloriously, Jocelynne A. Scutt (ed.), Artemis Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 1988.
Born in NSW, Australia on 4 January 1922, Val Buswell trained as a salesperson with Farmer & Co in Sydney, later going into business for herself as a travelling sales representative. She was active in many organisations and women’s groups, and in 1989 was appointed a member of the National Women’s Consultative Council (NWAC), the Australian women’s representative body appointed by the Prime Minister. Her work for women was recognised in the Order of Australia (OAM) in January 1993.