LABOR WOMEN: POLITICAL HOUSEKEEPERS OR POLITICIANS?

Robin Joyce

 This  is a part of a paper published in Marian Simms , Australian Women and the Political System , Longman Cheshire, 1984.  

Part 1

 Typical travel conditions experienced by women who organised  country Labor meetings

Labor Women: Political Housekeepers or Politicians?

Myths which limit women’s role and the perception of that role are abundant. The political arena is no exception and the negative images significantly undermine women’s perception of their heritage as legitimate actors in the political process. Women’s political activity in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the early 1900s in Western Australia effectively undermines the myth that they were political housekeepers rather than political activists.

Discussion of women’s work for the party in this early period has concentrated on what has traditionally seen as women’s work: tea making, fund raising and supporting male activists. Although many women undertook these tasks it is also true that many were active in areas which have been seen as exclusively male. Women members made a major contribution to establishing the WA Branch of the ALP. They were active in both the political and industrial wings of the movement, at times concentrating on the Party and at others on trade union activity, often combining the two. There was also a strong overlap with the women’s organisations in the Party and non-party political women’s organisations.  Women were involved in a wide range of activities from the earl y1900s in suburban, country and goldfields branches and unions. They organised new branches (women’s and mixed), addressed election rallies, enrolled people to vote and worked at all levels of the party except that of parliamentary office.  Their union activity also took place on a wide scale, geographically and industrially.

Although some figures stand out, notably Jean Beadle from the early 1900s and Cecilia Shelley from the 1920s, a large number of other women also participated. Some of these women’s names are recorded, many are not. However, the extent of the women’s activity and its success indicates that there was strong group of women who believed in the ALP and women’s rights and responsibilities within that party.

Jean Beadle, ultimately known as the grand Old lady of Labor’, had a long history of activism in the ALP and trade unions.

 

 

Jean Beadle 1868 -1942

Jean Beadle, ultimately known as the ‘Grand Old Lady of Labor’ has a long history of party political and industrial work. Although the title was apparently an accolade representing the labour movement’s respect for her work it has been in part responsible for the process of maintaining the myth. It is strongly suggestive of a woman who remained within the traditionally accepted role for women and effectively subsumes the radical woman who in the early 1900s made feminist demands on the labour movement. Her militancy in organizing women in industry is also rendered invisible, a position that seriously limits the way in which women involved in industrial relations demanding improvements for workers are portrayed in the early part of the 20th century. The woman who held open air union meetings at the Cottesloe Rope Works in the middle of winter, who fought for the right of unmarried women to be permitted access to a maternity hospital in 1896 and who was described as ‘…worth a small army of men or other women’ (Evelyn Wood papers) appears to have been forgotten. Although it is unlikely her admirers who described Jean Beadle as a grand old lady whished to efface her they were successful in changing the image she projected to one that fits more tidily into the myth that women were ‘housekeepers’ rather than activists in the labour movement.

From her arrival in Western Australia in 1901 Jean Beadle became an unpaid organizer in the Australian Labor Party, first on behalf of women and eventually as a full participant in Labor politics. Her work included state wide travel where she conducted numerous public meetings, publicising Labor philosophy and enthusing women and men to found branches of the Party.  Not only was her work arduous in a physical sense a heavy responsibility in political terms.

 

 

For more detailed discussion of this work see WHN Blog, July 30, 2017, Women’s Organisation in Western Australia in the 1890s and Early 1900s.

Women who worked as did Jean Beadle were required to have stamina and political expertise. The latter was necessarily part of Jean Beadle’s role; to be asked to fulfill the functions of organizer, party platform speaker and purveyor of Labor philosophy she must have had status as a politically acute, committed, and intelligent Party member.  Like any successful woman she also ran the gauntlet of misogynist press commentary. She was noted as being ‘…a tough snag to bump against in any argument reflecting on the newly arrived woman politician’ (The Sun 13 September 1908). Although all comments on her activities were not as strong, some merely demanding that she return home and mind the baby or intimating that women should not be involved in political activism, press coverage of the period indicates that women were active and seen as effective politically.

In 1931 Jean Beadle stood for Senate pre-selection and failed to gain a safe position on the Labor ticket. In the same period a full time Party Organiser was appointed – again, not jean Beadle. This, despite her experience since the 1890s and more recent positions in the hierarchy of the Party, particularly as a delegate to Councils, the State Executive, and State Congresses. She also had experience as a fulltime paid Women’s Organiser, on policy committees (contributing to Workers’ Compensation legislation, in particular) and as an industrial organiser.

The successful candidate for the paid organizer position was Bert Hawke, who became Labor Leader and ultimately Premier of Western Australia. Jean Beadle’s apprenticeship of over thirty years’ work in the labour movement and the nature of her work could have been impeccable credentials for at least the Senate. Unfortunately, other considerations outweighed her experience. Her age, sixty-four, could have been one factor; it could have been that her legitimacy as a political figure stopped short of parliament. Whatever the explanation, the chance for a woman to establish the legitimacy of women’s political role in all spheres was lost.

However, what Jean Beadle’s history accomplished was an immense question about the myth that women in the labour movement were political housekeepers rather than politicians.