A History of International Women's Day
in words and images

The Nineteen Fifties and Sixties

The immediate response to the end of the war was one of delirious joy and relief. People poured into the streets when peace was announced to sing, dance, cry and to kiss and hug absolute strangers. Peace brought an end to agonising tensions, to shortages, to the separations, and the long hours of work. The urgency of returning to "normality" gripped many like a fever. There was a boom in babies and marriages.

For most women the blessings in the years that followed were mixed indeed. The trend to shift many more women in paid work into the textile and clothing industries started before the war ended, and this continued. Women who had been metalworkers and ironworkers in aircraft and munitions factories found that their man's jobs and man's pays disappeared. "Rosie the Riveters" went back to waiting on tables at not quite pre-war levels of pay. "Equal pay" was reduced to 75% of the male rate.

Many of the comprehensive full-day nurseries and other child care centres which had appeared during the war disappeared along with federal government funding for such projects. Some women found themselves widowed on inadequate pensions or the companions of severely war-shocked men, with little community understanding of or support for their problems.

The full import of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to dawn and many women gave birth to the first atomic generation. These children, faced with the fragility of life, on a massive scale, produced a revolt against traditional values. This bewildered parents and placed extra pressures on women, as Experts debated the extent to which working mothers might be blamed for social problems.

As the suburban dream grew out of the post-war housing shortages and a rapidly expanding consumerism, too many women found themselves prisoners of their new homes and captives to the growth industry of valium and drug therapy for suburban neurosis.

Peace also brought the Cold War as new spheres of interest were struck in Eastern Europe, China and the Pacific region. The technologies triggered by war accelerated both growth and contradictions - development and underdevelopment, privilege and underprivilege, treks to the stars, space adventure and the potential for total annihilation. From time to time the Cold War flared into open conflict in Korea, Hungary, the Suez Canal and, later, Viet Nam and other areas.

During the 1950s, politics of all kinds were played out against the background of extreme bigotry and a dwindling democratic practice. Attempts were made not only to ban the Communist Party, but to give the government powers to declare who was or was not a communist, with the onus of proof on the accused. It was a time which has been described by radicals and conservatives alike as one of hysterical witch-hunting during which anti-communism was used to smother political dissent or to blacken opponents, whatever their real persuasion.

One off-shoot of this was that left and radical groups, including IWD, were refused the use of many public halls. These, and other more long-standing personal and political tensions, also disrupted the co-operation established between women's groups during the war.

While much of the war-time co-operation had been the result of a strong national sentiment in support of the war, it, too, contained subterranean tensions which sometimes flared into open dispute. In one instance, in a Sydney factory where women from more privileged backgrounds had gone to work to aid the war effort, they came into conflict with working class women when they refused to join the union, or concern themselves with industrial disputes over equal pay. 4

Nevertheless, it had been possible in 1944 to bring together 200 women from 90 organisations throughout Australia (despite travel restrictions), including representatives from traditional women's organisations, feminists, and unions. This conference agreed on an Australian Women's Charter which called for equality in opportunity, work and pay, better health services, child care, pensions and welfare, and supported the need for better Aboriginal welfare through federal government controls, and land rights for tribal Aborigines.

The conference was initiated by Jessie Street and resulted in increased tensions between her and another influential feminist, West Australian Bessie Rischbieth. Rischbieth, who had been overseas during the war, saw the Charter Movement as a direct rival to the Australian Federation of Women Voters which she had founded in 1921.

Street's membership of the ALP and involvement in other radical politics during war became a vehicle for sectarian disputation between these two important feminists, resulting in a weakening of the feminist movement as a whole, particularly of the Charter movement and the United Associations of Women in Sydney, and Rischbieth's own organisations, the Women's Services Guild and the Australian Federation of Women Voters in Perth. 5

Lucy Woodcock

Nell Johns

Vera Deacon

Flo Davis

Eva Bacon

Kath Walker

Nancy Wills

Henrietta Greville

Irene Greenwood

Lucy Barnes

The participation of communist women in the Charter movement had also become contentious, fanned by the Cold War and communist support for strikes, particularly the 1949 coal strike.

IWD was affected by all this, and from 1945 until 1950, was mainly marked by small meetings, luncheons or concerts organised by socialist or communist women.

The formation of the Union of Australian Women in 1950, with the aims of working for world peace and to safeguard the rights of women and children, provided a new organisational focus for IWD. In co-operation with the United Associations of Women in Sydney, and feminists such as Irene Greenwood in Perth, IWD was then able to make a small but positive contribution to the airing of issues such as equal pay, child care, peace, and some of the problems facing Aboriginal women. Often, IWD activities adopted varied and innovative forms in efforts to make up for lack of public interest or open hostility.

Vera Deacon was Sydney's IWD joint secretary in 1950. In that year, a group of women and men addressed 800 people in the Assembly Hall on peace, democratic liberties and living standards. Vera spoke recently about those years:

I became aware in the mid forties of the history of IWD, of its connections with the struggles of the garment workers and to me it was quite an inspirational thing. I saw it as an educational aid to make women aware of their power and also to carry on a proud tradition where women had stood up for themselves. It struck a special chord with me because my mother had been a shirt maker in a factory and she filled me with stories of how they were exploited.

During the war everyone wanted peace and were concerned about what would happen after the war, but that's when all the marvellous idealistic dreams we had seemed ta fall by the wayside because the cold war brake out almost immediately With the dropping of the atom bomb we also knew that somehow the world had changed irrevocably and peace was a central issue far all politically conscious women.

I had come to Sydney from Newcastle and when the coal strike took place in 1949, Melva Harrison (now Melva Merletto of Wollongong) and I were among the women who organised street meetings and some of them would be very rowdy. We always got a mixed reception. As I'd come from the coalfields, l knew miners, they were part of my background. I know now that there was a lot of sectarianism in that coal strike, but there was also a lot of bitterness on the coal fields left over from the lock-out of 1929-30, the shooting of miner Norman Brown at Rothbury, and the long depression years. Also, the coal towns were dead and there were no amenities. My own brother was drowned on Xmas Eve 1946 in Hebburn No. 1 coal mine dam at Weston near Cessnock because that was the only place the children had to swim.

The men were striking in 1949 for something better and, though they lost in one way, they won in another. The government was eventually forced to conciliate, the Coal Tribunal was set up and conditions gradually improved. You don't get progress without making a stand.

I don't remember how I became the joint secretary for IWD, perhaps it was because I was young and energetic and I was in the New Housewives Association.

There was Ella Schroeder, Elwyn Cunningham, Hetty Searle, Vena Barton, Bonny Ellis and Melva Harrison, maybe others, and we did all the usual things. We lived life at such a tremendous pace each day that it's hard to remember. We worked very hard to get a broad contact with women in communities and women 's organisations and there was a big enthusiastic meeting in the Assembly Hall. Its main emphasis was peace, living standards and democratic liberties. Democratic rights and civil liberties were very hot issues in 1950. The miners' leaders had been jailed and many others, including myself, were arrested for distributing leaflets or holding meetings. Then there were all the proscribed organisations who couldn't use the Town Hall.

The 1950 IWD stands out in my memory and the other outstanding one was in 1975 when we went to the Sydney Town Hall. I met a lot of old friends there and I thought that was marvellous. It seemed that IWD had reached a zenith after all those years.

In 1951, '53 and '54, the main Sydney IWD activities were meetings and concerts held in the Conservatorium or Teachers hall. Speakers included Lucie Woodcock (first woman vice-president of the Teachers Federation and campaigner for married women's employment rights and equal pay); Della Nicholas (Elliot) (assistant secretary of the NSW Clerks Union for five years and secretary of the Trade Union Equal Pay Committee); Ada Bromham (Women's Christian Temperance Union); Viv Newson (the United Associations of Women); and artists Jean Blue, Elwyn Cunningham, Tanya Butler and Dot Mendoza. More men from the peace and union movement also began to appear as speakers. An additional feature was hospital visits where gifts were presented to the first baby born on IWD, or the oldest woman.

In Perth, in 1952, Katherine Susannah Prichard prepared a portrait of internationally famous women for an IWD function organised by the Modern Women's Club.

Copy of Katherine S. Prichard's original draft for Perth's IWD, 1952.

In Brisbane, the Union of Australian Women, who were the main organisers, frequently involved other women's groups, particularly the Women's Christian Temperance Union. In 1954, Eva Bacon, a Union of Australian Women leader, became the IWD secretary and remained so until the seventies.

IWD has always been very dear to my heart, Eva said recently, I acted as organising secretary of a broad committee for more than 20 years.

We saw IWD as a campaign, needing work almost all the year round with March 8 as the highlight, rather than a one-day function.

The Brisbane IWD committee also adopted specific themes for their activities which sometimes linked in to other public activities such as Under Fives Week when they concentrated on the needs of children. They organised luncheons and concerts which also fairly consistently involved Aboriginal women, or raised their demands and problems.

Perth activities in 1957 drew 400 people to a meeting in Trinity Church Hall to listen to Irene Greenwod, sportswoman Shirley Strickland, writer Donald Stuart, Cecilia Shelley (Hotel, Club and Restaurant Union), and John Bottomley (Education Department). The continuing public success of IWD activity in this city was undoubtedly due in large measure to the involvement of Irene Greenwood and Katherine Susannah Prichard.

At a luncheon in Adelaide in 1957, the main speaker was Phyllis Duguid on Aboriginal welfare. Other issues included equal pay and opposition to the atomic tests being held in Australia by the British government.

Brisbane women took advantage of 1957 being the 50th anniversary of women exercising their right to vote in that state. This had been legislated for in January 1905, with the first election being in 1907. The basement of the Town Hall was packed for a display of photos, documents, posters and crafts. At a meeting and dramatic depiction of a march of women towards complete emancipation, speakers Jessie Street, three women who had voted in May 1907, an Aboriginal woman, and others addressed 300 people. The theme of the day was unity for equality, world peace and the happiness of children.

In Sydney in 1957 attempts were made to decentralise activity to reach a wider audience. Sixteen factory meetings were held and addressed by 14 different women speakers, mainly Union of Australian Women and Waterside Workers Federation Women's Committee members.

An IWD meeting was also held and Jessie Street and union leader Tom Wright spoke about equal pay to 250 people. Guests of honour included Labor Party founding member Henrietta Greville, Marian Dreyer, an Aboriginal singer Nancy Ellis, Elsie Rivett and Mrs Griffiths of the Women Justices.

In 1958 Brisbane's IWD activities also attracted 3-400 people to see a dramatised Cavalcade of Women and hear guest speakers author Dymphna Cusack and Dame Sybil Thorndyke who recalled her part in the suffragette movement. She also spoke about world peace and the capacity that socialism and women have to constructively influence world history. The meeting received a message from Eleanor Roosevelt and others.

Eva Bacon reports that a post mortem discussion following the Brisbane activities considered that "we could not be satisfied that permanent growth of the militant women's movement or political understanding of the woman's question had been achieved" These remarks revealed the difficulties even radical women were having in breaking through the barriers holding them back. These problems were to remain for almost another decade.

In 1958, Sydney IWD held an international handcrafts and jewellery exhibition in Anthony Horderns store which was opened by Lucie Woodcock and televised. At an IWD meeting, Lucie Barnes, activist in the Australian Women's Charter and the Civilian Widows, spoke on the history of IWD and quoted from a poem published in the United Associations of Women newsheet of August 1957.

These verses seem to sum up the stoical determination of many of the women who continued to organise politically during these years:

We shall not travel by the road we make

Ere day by day the sound of many feet

Is heard Upon the stones that now we break,

We shall be come to where the cross-roads meet.


For us the heat by day, the cold by night,

The inch-slow progress and the heavy load ...

For them the Road,

For them the shade of trees that now we plant,

The safe, smooth journey and the certain goal...

And yet the Road is ours! as never theirs;

Is not great joy on us alone bestowed?

For us the Master Joy, of pioneers!

We shall not travel, but we make the Road.

In Melbourne Mrs. Monk (whose husband was a Labor Party union leader) chaired a parade of Asian women in costume and luncheons were held in Newcastle, Adelaide and Wollongong where Mrs. H.V. Evatt was the speaker.

IWD Card distributed by Women's International Democratic Federation in 1959

Activities in 1959 continued in the same vein, spreading once more to Townsville and Rockhampton in the north of Queensland. In Townsville Jean Devanny spoke about the history of IWD at a cavalcade of women through the ages and other speakers discussed the Colombo peace conference and children's libraries. In Rockhampton the Trades and Labor Council issued an IWD leaflet in the meatworks and cannery where many women worked.

In the 1960s, a major addition to IWD activities was the participation of a number of international delegations.

Eva Bacon, national co-ordinator of IWD in 1960, welcoming visitors form China, Chao Feng, (centre) and Tai Fang, to Brisbane.

In 1960, Madam Chao Feng from the National Women's Federation of China and Madame Roesijati R. Sukardi, a journalist from the Indonesian Women's Organisation, attended meetings from Sydney to Perth. Eva Bacon from Queensland acted as the co-ordinator of the tour.

This visit was probably the biggest job handled by Brisbane.' she told me. "In coordinating the national tour the main difficulties were the facts that China was then not recognised by Australia and that not all states had functioning IWD committees at that time."

A campaign was necessary to secure visas from the Australian government for the Chinese delegation and, finally, both delegations were delayed to the point where the Brisbane, Townsville, Rockhampton and Cairns meetings had to take place without them.

The overseas guests also missed the Sydney IWD meeting. However, Lucie Woodcock had prepared a brief history of NSW women, starting with Aboriginal and convict women, for the IWD meeting and it was read by actress Nellie Lamport. Noreen Hewett from the Union of Australian Women spoke and Henrietta Greville Handed on the torch of women's progress" to a younger woman. Similar symbolic ceremonies took place in other centres.

In Adelaide, 6-700 people attended a Town Hall meeting and concert and were fortunate enough to hear the overseas visitors.

Melbourne IWD secretary Nell Johns recalls some of the behind the-scenes organisation for such visits:

Undoubtedly the inclusion of overseas visitors gave a lift to attendance at IWD in that period although it had its moments of worry. I used to live in dread of how I would cope with visitors, organise a function and try to get women to take more responsibility for the success. In fact one turned from being a hostess to planning the places to take visitors, such as schools, housing estates, kindergartens etc. and, in particular, those trips around the Botanical Gardens. I rather wondered if I would survive.

For most of this period I worked for the Tramways Union and when we had the visit from the Chinese women it was necessary for me, at the last minute, to go with them to Adelaide.

My boss, Clarrie, was on holidays, so l did not worry too much, got all my work done and went off to Adelaide. I sat on the platform with the visitors and felt felt quite happy and contented. Afterwards, in mixing with the crowd I heard a voice in my ear which said, "Who the bloody hell is looking after the office?' Yes, it was Clarrie. I'd forgotten that he had a daughter in Adelaide and how was I to know that he'd be there. However, he just had to like it or get a new secretary and he wasn't prepared to do that.

Nell also talked about how Melbourne IWD became solvent after many years of never having any money left over and when individual donations from women and some unions kept the committee going.

We had been offered the loan of an exhibition of Russian dolls, and we had approached a big firm to exhibit them. Three days before the arrival of the Chinese I was informed that we could not exhibit the dolls on their premises.

I spoke to a solicitor I knew and he said, "Ring the bastard up all night at half hourly internals." He said later that he was only joking, but I stayed up all night and did it.

At 9 a.m. next morning I had a ring from the firm's manager who said they were very annoyed but in light of our loss of finance what amount did I think would compensate. The IWD committee suggested one hundred pounds ($200), but I said that wasn't enough and asked for three hundred pounds, thinking they'd beat me dawn. But they gave it to me on the condition that I sign a form saying that I would never reveal the name of the firm. I walked on air all the way back from that interview and IWD was financial far a long time after that. The exhibition was later held in the Myer Mural Hall and was a terrific success.

In recalling some of the preceding years, Nell remarked, "Today younger women have taken IWD to heart and I feel proud that I participated in those terrible dreary years of struggling to get a celebration off the ground to find that only 20 or 30 stalwarts would turn up."

Soviet women's delegation for IWD 1962 being greeted at airport by Junior Eureka League members. At back, from left, N. Kulebiakina, A. Lednikova and Mrs. Parfenova.0

In 1962, three Soviet women, Mrs. Parfenova, editor of the Teachers Gazette, A. Lednikova, a judge, and N. Kulebyakina from the Red Cross, visited for IWD. Aileen Beaver, Sydney IWD secretary, toured with the visitors who were also 14 days late because of Australian government delays in granting visas. For this tour and that of Henrietta Katz in 1964, Aileen Beaver (Building Workers Union Women's Committee) and Ina Heidtmann (Sydney Waterside Workers Union Women's Committee) shared the secretarial-organising work on a state and national level.

In Sydney, the public rally for the Soviet visitors was preceded by a peace walk through the streets and this walk became an annual IWD event in Sydney and Melbourne. In Melbourne, the IWD Committee was warned that if the Soviet visitors participated in the peace march they would have their visas withdrawn, and they had to walk on the other side of the road. In Brisbane, women went annually to the Shrine of Remembrance to place a wreath with the pledge "to do all we can to preserve the peace of the world".

In Brisbane, a highlight of the activity in 1962 was a special evening for a dramatic presentation of the Ballad of Women written by Dorothy Hewett and Nancy Wills. Nancy contributed over many years to the dramatic and artistic presentations of IWD in Brisbane.

In Newcastle, where Trades Hall research officer Merv Copley had become (the first and only male) IWD secretary, there was a Mayoral IWD reception and, in Sydney, the Building Workers Industrial Union produced an IWD card. Trade union women's committees comprised of the wives or friends of male union members helped to organise IWD in a number of cities.

IWD functions continued up to the mid sixties in Sydney, Brisbane, North Queensland, Newcastle, Wollongong, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth, many with peace and prices as the theme. In Sydney, the IWD Committee also selected a Woman of the Year carrying on a tradition of playing up the importance of individual women.

Union of Australian Women members in Sydney on a "walk for peace" to Wynyard Park - IWD 1963

In 1964 Henrietta Katz from the Union of French Women visited, when the special theme was Protect Our Children - Stop French Tests in the Pacific at meetings in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle, Wollongong, Rockhampton and Townsville

By 1966 the Viet Nam war also began to feature. In Brisbane, Aboriginal activist and author, Kath Walker, shared the platform with Bill Hayden who spoke about the unsuccessful attempts of the ALP opposition to introduce a Bill restoring the rights of married women to employment in the Public Service.

Annual IWD "Walk for Peace" - 1964

In Brisbane, the 1968 IWD gave its proceeds to an Aboriginal Rights Seminar and, in 1969, a Miss Equality contest provided funds for a Women's Rights Seminar and an educational grant for an Aboriginal girl.

By 1970, most IWD activities had taken another downward turn and, in the preceding decade, while many important issues had been taken up, IWD revealed little awareness of the deep conflicts that had developed in many women's lives, and were to explode at the end of 1969 with the formation of the Women's Liberation Movement.

Perhaps this was partly due to the absence of a diverse and autonomous women's movement with specific women's priorities, as well as concern for the "common good". Perhaps it was partly due to a generation gap between the new liberation movements of the sixties and the long-standing ones who also had weak or no links with the young intellectuals of the day who were the main voices of these movements. Perhaps it was partly due to the influence of a socialist movement whose political theory had become fixed and unable to cast new insights into the political, personal and sexual crises of the time.

Nonetheless, IWD and the women who organised it had helped to keep alive a tradition of political involvement, often in hostile circumstances, and the next decade of feminist development was to change radically political priorities and agendas.

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