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

A Turning Point

1936 was a major turning point for IWD and in Sydney the first IWD Committee embracing a number of women's groups was formed on the initiative of Florence Lahiff of the women's committee of the Unemployed and Relief Workers Council. The United Associations of non-political groups also played an important role in IWD in Sydney from this time until the '60s. The United Associations had been formed in 1929 by Jessie Street and involved the Women's League, Women's Services Club, Women Voters' Association and ex-members of the Feminist Club. This association set out to work more vigorously around the stated aims of previous feminist alliances. It was strictly non-party political and had little contact, in its early days, with union or socialist women. Most socialist and communist women regarded such feminists as middle class and a-political.

Depression experiences and alarm about fascism and the dangers of war helped to draw these women closer together. During the depression, Jessie Street had developed a sympathy for labor movement and socialist concerns. And communist and socialist women, agitated by the massive destruction of all forms of social and political resistance in fascist Germany, began to look further afield for allies in their political work.

These changes were reflected in the first meeting of the 1937 IWD committee with the participation of Viv Newson and Laura Gapp from the United Associations; Mary Lamm (Wright), an earlier Militant Woman and communsit (who is still an active member of the Union of Australian Women and has an unbroken association with IWD organisation); and Clare Herbert, a clothing trades worker. This committee initiated an IWD conference attended by 300 women who represented most of the women's organisations in Sydney. The conference expressed concern about the dangers of war and the effects of dangerously low living standards on women and children. Mary Wright recently recalled this IWD and the years preceding it:

Although the thirties was a time of misery, doing without and making do, it was also a time of life and activity and involvement for me. Working for the 1929 timber workers when they were locked out and participating in mass picketing was particularly inspiring. I'd put my daughter in a pram at 7 o'clock and go to the picket. The Militant Women also set up relief committees and canvassed door to door.

The 1936 IWD was a few years later when we'd had a lot more experience and it was a tremendous feeling to realise such a great success in coming together with other women.

The IWD committee from that time had a very varied life and a new secretary almost every year.

At another IWD meeting in 1936 at Sydney's Transport House, the speaker was Jean Devanny, communist, feminist and author who, in her writing, speaking and personal practices, stirred up outrage and a small measure of support by linking reproductive control and sexuality to the more general political issues of the day. Responses to her speech at Transport House were indicative of the prevailing attitudes on such questions.

Phyllis Johnson who, in recent years, has been involved with Women in the Community and a women's shelter in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown listened to Jean Devanny as a young woman and recalls her reaction.

Jean dealt with women's sexuality and shocked all of us there. We all felt that she was very politically advanced but to talk from the platform about women's sexuality was entirely out of place. It was a taboo subject.

She said that women had the right to enjoy sex as much as men did, but this was not so because sex was a man's prerogative and that men generally had more pleasant experiences and more sexual excitement than women. We were like stunned mullets really. We never talked about such subjects. It's a damn pity that we didn't and it's a great pity that we didn't understand what Jean was saying to us then. The women's movement might have advanced much more quickly than it did if we had, but we thought that it was right not to talk about such questions.

Abortion and contraception were also used but not talked about. It was not until the explosion of women's liberation that we began to think differently about such questions.

However, IWD was blossoming out and in 1937 the spacious lounge of the Sydney Progressive Housewives was filled to capacity and in Melbourne a rally in support of the women and children of war-torn Spain received good support.

In 1938 the first major IWD gathering in Perth involved women from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Movement Against War and Fascism, Mothers Union, Women's Section of Primary Producers, Young Labor League, Association of University Women, Women's Christian Temperance Union,National Council of Women, Jewish Women, YWCA, Spanish Relief Committee and the Women's Services Guild.

Speakers included author Katherine Susannah Prichard, who helped form the Modern Women's Club in April of that year, and feminist Irene Greenwood from the Women's Services Guild who chaired the Perth IWD committee during the fifties.

A resolution passed unanimously at the 1938 IWD meeting held at the Sydney YMCA hall summed up the main concerns of IWD during these years.

This meeting, representing organisations and individuals deeply concerned with the preservation of peace, international friendship and the defence and extension of our democratic liberties, a fuller and better life for the people and the attainment of social and economic freedom for women, pledges itself to work actively for these objectives.

It also resolved to use IWD as a time to review progress on these aims.

The Sydney IWD meeting of 1939 was described as the largest and most representative yet held. Perth's activity involved 20 organisations and, in Queensland, Women's Progress Clubs throughout the north helped to spread IWD celebrations to new centres.

Well-known feminists and labor movement activists associated themselves with IWD during these years, including: Jessie Street (United Associations of Women), Ruby Rich (Federation of Women Voters), Kate Dwyer (labor movement activist), Muriel Heagney (founder of the Council of Action for Equal Pay in 1937), Eileen Powell (first woman industrial advocate), Nerida Cohen (at the time NSW's only woman barrister), and others already mentioned.


Katherine Susannah Prichard

Muriel Heagney

Marie Gollan

Jessie Street

Jean Devanny

Flo Lahiff

Eileen Powell

Mary Wright (Lamm)

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