Book Reviews

Oriel Gray, Exit Left: memoirs of a scarlet womanE, Penguin, rrp $7.95

This is an intersting contribution to the literature of cultural radicalism of the 1930s. Oriel Gray jined the New Theatre in 1937 and with her sister Grayce, was active in Communist Party circles in the 1930s and 1940s.

Two ofthe book’ s best sections deal with the general degree of autonomy the New Theatre clung to in its interpretation of the edicts of Marx House, and the operations of the Communist Party branch in Woolwich -Hunters Hill. Despite the futility of peddling progressive idet1s in this bourgeois enclave, the district secretary returned from Moscow convinced that the revolution was just around the corner and enthusiastically exhorted the re-orientation of the branch towards the industrial workers at Woolwich Dock and Cockatoo Island. But the book is written with sympathy rather than scorn. Gray’s decision to leave the Communist Party is depicted in particulary moving terms. In conclusion, just one reservation: the book seems to have had a chequered career editorially but the retention of some sections of general political history, (quoting in full, for instance, Curtin’s call to America) is most dubious for such material is readily available elsewhere.

Edna Ryan, Two-Thirds of a Man. Women and Arbitration in New South Wales, 1902-08, Hale and Iremonger, 1984. R.r.p. $14.95

Where would we be without that superb book Gentle Invaders, Edna Ryan and the late Eve Conlon’s pioneering history of Australian working women and their long struggle for equal pay, which was published exactly a decade ago? Now, in Two-Thirds of a Man, Dr. Ryan has given us a fine companion volume.

Two-Thirds of a Man examines in dazzling detail the birth (or, rather, the less than immaculate conception) of the infamous “fifty four per cent” solution in the first years of compulsory arbitration. Using transcripts of evidence of four crucial cases concerning women which came before the N.S.W. Court of Arbitration between 1902 and 1908 – cases brought by the Tailoresses’ Union, Laundry women, Tobacco workers and the Shop Assistants’ Union – the author unravels the tangled scion of legal obfuscation, capitalist intrigue and male unionist duplicity which served to thwart the demands of working women for a semblance of wage justice.

Ryan’s book is both courageous in conception (as anyone who has tried to fathom the mysteries of an Arbitration Court transcript will readily acknowledge) and strikingly forthright in argument. If you’ve ever wondered exactly why it is that arbitration has been such a two-edged swore for Australian workers, especially for women, then this book (as they say) is for you. Quibble over the author’s interpretation of the motives of certain of the dramatis personae if you will, but deny at your peril the essence of her argument. Dr. Ryan is to be congratulated for this fine piece of scholarship.