International Women’s day in Newcastle: The First Decade

Ross Edmonds

Much of this article is based on an extract from my book In Storm and Struggle: A History Of The Communist Party In Newcastle 1920-40. (ppl03-4) however it includes additional information which has “come to light” since my book was printed in 1991.

The article will trace developments in International Women’s Day, discuss the issues that have been raised on that day as well as evaluate its significance in the Newcastle community.

By 1931 the Newcastle branch of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) had attracted only six or seven female members although there were a few more involved in the Women’s section of the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM), an organisation set up and largely controlled by the CPA even though its membership was much wider. The leaders of the Women’s section of the UWM were Elizabeth Oliver and Catherine Barratt. Catherine became the first woman to stand for election in Newcastle when, in 1931, she was the CPA’s candidate for Stockton Council1 In 1932 she stood for the CPA for the seat of Newcastle in the State election.2

The women’s section of the CPA, known as the Militant Women’s Movement, had organised the first International Women’s Day (IWD) in Australia in 1928 when a rally was held in Sydney.3 The first IWD in Newcastle took place three years later. At a public meeting organised by the UWM on the 6/3/31 Catherine Barratt announced that everyone was invited to attend a meeting in Islington Park organised by the Women’s Section of the UWM on the 8/3/31 to commemorate IWD.4 Neither the Newcastle Morning Herald (NMH) or the CPA’s paper, Workers Weekly, reported this event. It was however reported in a little known newspaper, Working Woman, which was published monthly by the Militant Women’s Movement in Sydney. 5 It said:

About 200 men and women attended a meeting on 8th March… as a result two women joined the Communist Party. The crowd was interested in the question of organising women in Newcastle. Among the speakers was Lindsay Mountjoy …One of the brightest spots in the IWD celebrations throughout Australia was the meeting of Kurri Miners Wives held on 7th March … 60 attended ..(and) all present promised to support W6rking Woman and endeavour to increase its circulation as well as sending in letters on their problems as women workers under capitalism. 6

A small but enthusiastic meeting was also held in Cessnock on IWD.

The following year saw the beginning of a move within the CPA away from the sectarianism of the previous three years and it appears that it was the women who gave the lead. In Newcastle “a well attended conference of delegates from women’s o~anisations in the district was held on the 23rd February to discuss IWD”.7 At the IWD celebration the women marched in the rain to the Labour Bureau (today’s equivalent of the Dep’t of Social Security) with a list of demands which had been prepared at previous United Front Conferences. A deputation of 15 women was elected to present these demands, which included equal pay for women and the restoration of social insurance. The women met later and a “United Front of Women was set up with a provisional District Committee which will endeavour to set up committees in various suburbs.8

Unlike the 1931 IWD, the 1932 celebration sought to involve women with differing political views. That this met with some success is seen from various reports in Working Woman over the next year, with well attended conferences to discuss a wide range of women’s issues being held in October and February.9 It appears that an IWD celebration was held in 1933 though the newspapers make no reference to it. The April issue of Working Woman says that IWD celebrations were held in various centres however “with the exception of Sydney and the South Coast, no reports have been received from districts.” The April issue of Working Woman, in which IWD reports were printed, has not survived for 1934 or 1935, nor have any other reports until 1937 when both the NMH and Workers Weekly gave coverage to the event. It said:

The women’s auxiliary of the Newcastle branch of the Australian Railways Union (ARU) celebrated IWD by arranging a peace conference in the Longworth Institute. The part which women can play in fostering a spirit of international peace was emphasised by each speaker.

The conference protested against the rapidly rising prices of food and rent, the enormous sums spent on war materials, and the low basic wage and unemployed food relief scales. All this caused special hardships for the womenfolk…Conference supported the demand for a 40 hour week, improved social services and equal pay for women workers Mrs. Moroney, representing the Sydney women, spoke of the lives of the women of Australia and other countries. She appealed to the women to unite to bring about a better life for the people. Other speakers were Miss E. Oliver (one of the organisers of the 1931 IWD), Mr. ADavern (the local WEA organiser), Mrs. E.Ettershank (a local peace activist), and Miss D.Britten (active in the Teachers Federation). 10

With the exception of Mrs Ettershank, all were either members of the CPA or would soon become so.

The first branch of the N.S.W. ARU Women’s Auxiliary was formed in Sydney during 1934 and a branch formed in Newcastle in June 1935. The President of the local branch was Pearl Hickey. Her husband, Tom, was the Northern District Secretary of the ARU.11

The leading role of the ARU Women’s Auxiliary in organising the 1937 IWD was, by 1938, replaced by a new, broader organisation called The Newcastle and District Protective Housewives Association. Usually it was known simply as the Housewives Association and it was to take the main responsible for organising IWD in Newcastle for over a decade. The Newcastle branch was formed in May 1937 and its aims were: to work for the economic and social welfare of women and to foster friendly relations with other organisations working in the same interests. Some of its immediate objectives in 1937 were: a reduction in the price of bread and in rents, a rent allowance for the unemployed, equal pay for equal work, and maternity wards plus prenatal clinics to be attached to public hospitaIs.12

While the Housewives Association in Newcastle was never a front organisation for the CPA, some of its executive, such as Millie Hays and May Gow, were members and no doubt influenced its policies. Others, such as its President Mary McLaggan. were members of the ALP.

The careful thought given to the 1938 IWD is indicated by a press release reported in the NMH prior to the event that a trained nurse would be available to look after the children as “It was realised that many women would (otherwise) be prevented from attending because of the inconvenience caused by bringing children. 13

The main theme of the day reflected the drift towards world war as the Fascist powers pursued their expansionist policies while the other major powers passively looked on. By this time Japan had overrun Manchuria and was in the process of doing the same to other areas of China. The NMH reported the event under the heading “An Appeal From China”. It went on to say:

Madame-Chiang Kai-Shek, wife of China’s Generalissimo, in a message to the women of Australia urges the united effort of the women of the world for universal peace on the principle of justice and righteousness …

The main address was given by Mrs. Nellie Quinlan, Secretary of the N.S.W. women’s section of the International Peace Campaign, to “… a large meeting of women in the lounge room at the Cooperative Store.” 14

She spoke about the position of women in Germany, under Fascism, where the gains of the previous generation of women had been swept aside by Hitler. In Italy things were, if anything, .en worse with women being oppressed by the double yoke of Fascism and Catholicism, though the later was not mentioned by name.

This grim situation was contrasted with Russia where, apparently, everything was rosy as far as women were concerned! Women were the equal of men and illiteracy had almost disappeared. All the professions had been opened to women.

Mrs. A Page, from the Newcastle Housewives, spoke about local problem!, specifically “those of maternal mortality, malnutrition, and the dangerously long time which medical ideas took to reach Australia.” She also referred to the Housewives current campaign for a reduction in the cost of milk and other struggles in which the Newcastle women’s organisations were involved, urging all present to give their support. Mrs. Quinlan then moved “That this meeting deplores the inhuman war of aggression in China and supports the boycott of Japanese goods.” She asked women’s organisations to affiliate with the Northern Peace Council. 15

By IWD 1939 the international situation had deteriorated further. The Fascists had achieved major victories Franco taking control in Spain, the Japanese advancing in China and Hitler swallowing up Czechoslovakia following the Munich “sell out”. The peace movement in Australia was divided and demoralised. The CPA in Newcastle was in a similar condition and preoccupied with internal disputes. It seems that this explains why it is unlikely that any public celebration of IWD took place in Newcastle that year. 16 If one did occur it was certainly small and received no coverage in the newspapers.

By IWD 1940 the worst had happened. Most of the world was doing what it does best – having a war. Some of the demoralisation had lifted however as the Newcastle Housewives Association was able to organise an impressive army of speakers. As in 1937 and 1938, the NMH gave the IWD function extensive coverage. Miss Mary Bird, the Superintendent of the Sydney Day Nurseries (preschools) “advised women who were concerned about the lack of nursery school facilities … to start one in Newcastle. What is needed is a system of nursery schools along the lines of baby health centres already established, she said.” 17

In advocating equal pay for women, Mrs Laum Gapp, President of the Women’s Union of Services, declared that “women must go into industries”, but they should not do so at rates of pay less than men. Miss Mavis Palmer, Director of the Women’s League of Health in Newcastle, also spoke. This choice of speakers no doubt reflected a desire to avoid controversy and appeal to a broad range of women at a time when there were serious divisions on the Left over support for the war effort. The meeting did however pass a resolution reflecting the CPA’s current policy. It:

…stressed the need for women of all nations to get together to cement the bonds of international friendship and understanding. We realise that the settlement of international disputes by war means needless suffering for women and children, and call on our statesmen to negotiate for peace now instead of after years of war.

The meeting also called for “… our governments to make available adequate sums of money to provide maternity homes, children’s creches, nursery schools and playgrounds … (plus) facilities to encourage physical culture and education for women and children.”81 This combination of a concern with both international and local issues, as was shown in 1940, was to be a feature of IWD for the next three decades.

In conclusion I wish to make a few observations about the significance of IWD and the women’s movement in Newcastle during the 1930’s.

Prior to the 1930’s there were a few women’s organisations, such as the Victoria League and various church groups who provided a social outlet and allowed women to do “good works” within the traditional role assigned to them by a patriarchal society. This is not to deny that there weren’t individual women who played a significant role in progressive causes prior to 1930. The Anti-Conscription Campaigns of 1916 and 1917 are a prime example, however it is not until the 1930’s that we see the emergence of women’s groups which sought, in varying degrees, to change the society in which they lived. Those who worked for the overthrow of the capitalist system obviously failed in that regard.

Neither did their work for basic reforms bear much fruit in the 1930’s when conservative governments held power in both Sydney and Canberra. This however was to change in the following decade – but that is outside the scope of this article, except to point out that strong links were established between the Newcastle Tmdes Hall Council and the progressive women’s groups prior to 1940. With its backing, these groups were in a position to influence both the local councils and the left of the ALP from the 1940’s onwards.

Probably the most important aim of the progressive women’s groups which came into existence in the 1930’s was to raise the consciousness of other women. While only a minority of Newcastle women did become actively involved in the struggle for a decent society, it was enough to at least put some of the issues of concern to women on the mainstream political agenda. IWD was an opportunity for the women from various organisations to come together to raise issues of mutual concern, encourage others to join with them, and to draw strength from each other for the struggles ahead.19

IWD in Newcastle, as in most areas of Australia, began as an initiative of women in the CPA. It soon became clear that a more broadly based organisation was needed to run IWD if a large number of women were to even attend the event, let alone become actively involved in some of the issues. Women from the CPA however remained in some leadership positions in the main women’s groups, and therefore in IWD, until the demise of the CPA during the later half of the 1980’s. This ensured an on going conunitment to organisations which provided a challenge to the status quo. It also ensured that the supporters of the status quo would attempt to brand these organisations, and IWD, as “Conununist inspired”. These attempts met with some success as is seen in a 1937 report of the ALP Women’s Auxiliary which “declined to send delegates to the May Day Ccmmittee and IWD Committee.”20 Some women on the left of the ALP did however actively support IWD and the organisations which ran it.

The emergence of IWD in the 1930’s was a reflection of the arrival of the second wave of feminism in Australia. The Suffragettes were at the forefront of the first. wave in the later decades of the 19th Century, while the third wave is represented by the Women’s Liberation Movement which emerged in Australia around 1970. Some modern historians have mistakenly referred to this later movement as the second wave of feminism. This however overlooks the enormous achievements of the women’s movement in Australia during the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Justina Williams discusses this issue from a personal perspective in her delightful autobiography where, in referring to the early 1970’s, she says:

A new generation had come into action and we who had struggled in the past were with them Strangely, they knew little of the patient work, and the sacrifices of earlier workers for equality, who for years had been chipping away at male bastion’- But they eagerly learned of the struggles of the suffragettes in England, as if there had been nothing in between How was it that they knew of Alexandra Kollontai, but not of strong Australian women whose courage had opened doors to the unions and professions, the radical activists in whose steps we were treading today?21

This is a question that still requires further consideration despite the valuable research in this area that has been published in recent years.

I hope that this article will provide a starting point for others as much research into the women’s movement in the Hunter Region remains to be done. Only then will the female activists from this region begin to receive the recognition that has so far been denied to all but a few of them.


  1. NMH 3/12131 and 7/12131
  2. Hughes, C. & Graham, B. Voting for the NSW legislative Assembly 1891-1964, Canberra, 1975.
  3. Stevens, Joyce, A History of IWD Sydney, 1985. p.8
  4. Newcastle Morning Herald (NMH), 7/3/31
  5. Complete files of Working Woman do not exist. It was published monthly from August 1930 until 1936 when it was replaced by Women Today. The editors were Hetty Ross and Jean Devany, both leading Communists.
  6. For information on Lindsay Mountjoy and her remarkable family, the Eatocks, see Audrey Johnson’s Bread & Roses: A personal history of three militant women and their friends 1902-1988, Left Book Club, 1990. pp.41-3
  7. Working Woman, March 1932
  8. ibid, April 1932
  9. ibid, November 1932 and March 1933
  10. Workers Weekly 1613137. For the NMH report see 9/3/37
  11. Edmonds, Ross, In Storm and Struggle: A history of the CPA in Newcastle 1920-1940, pp.l00 & 149
  12. NMH 20/5/37
  13. NMH 8/3138
  14. NMH 9/3/38
  15. ibid
  16. This conclusion which I have drawn is supponed by Joyce Batterham, a CPA or organiser in Newcastle 1938-40. Interviews 1990 & 1994.
  17. NMH /9/3/40
  18. ibid
  19. Interviews with May Gow, Jean Bailey and Lilian Kirkby.
  20. NMH 1/3/38
  21. Williams, Justina, Anger & Love: A life of struggle and commitment, Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 1993. p.230