Muriel Heagney and the Fight for Equal Pay During World War Two

Beverley Symons

March 1999 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Muriel Heagney, life-time campaigner for equal pay for women workers, trade unionist and Labor Party activist, who died in a St. Kilda nursing home, aged 88, on March 14, 1974. She was a remarkably dedicated champion of women’s right to equal opportunity and equal pay. For over half a century, her unwavering goal was recognition of the concept of a single ‘rate for the job’ regardless of the worker’s sex. This article focuses on Heagney’s efforts to secure implementation of that principle from 1937, through the Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP). Although unsuccessful in achieving her aims, her significant contribution to ensuring that equal pay became a major industrial and political issue in the early 1940s, should not be underestimated or forgotten.1

In 1935 Muriel Heagney published a detailed study of women’s work in Victoria which highlighted their unequal job opportunities and pay rates.
Are Women Taking Men’s Jobs? exposed the reality of women’s confinement to a limited range of specifically ‘female jobs’ in a small number of industries. Heagney argued strongly that equal pay must be fought for as a wage justice issue on the basis of working-class unity, rather than as a means of protecting men’s jobs at the expense of women workers.2 Her book had a ‘major effect in making equal pay a serious national issue’3, and in the revitalisation of organised labour movement campaigning over ensuing years.

The renewed push for equal pay was kicked off at a union-based Equal Pay Conference held in Sydney on 22 May 1937. This significant event ‘heralded the advent of the first conscious equal pay movement in Australia’ and provided the ‘hitherto disparate sources of equal pay agitation’ with a central organisational base.4 Convened by the NSW Branch of the Federated Clerks’ Union (FCU), it was attended by delegates from 53 trade unions, women’s and other organisations.5 According to John Hughes, the then FCU NSW Assistant Secretary, it was his initiative to organise an ‘all-in’ conference of everybody who believed in equal pay and he worked for months to mobilise support from Sydney-based unions.6

In presenting the FCU’s opening report to the conference, Hughes firmly linked the question of women’s unequal wage rates with their economic and social emancipation. Equal pay ‘means the establishment of economic independence for women and provides a basis upon which they can struggle to secure the consummation of full equality,’ he said. It will remove ‘the intolerable unfairness to which women have been subjected in working for a rate below the value of the work they perform.’7 In unanimously adopting the report, the conference endorsed the principle that wage rates should be determined on the basis of occupational rates, i.e. the ‘rate for the job’, rather than on the worker’s sex.8 This principle had long been advocated by Heagney and other campaigners in preference to the limited and ambiguous demand of ‘equal pay for equal work’.

The conference resolved to establish the Council of Action for Equal Pay to campaign for implementation of the policy of equal pay for the sexes. Muriel Heagney and George Weir (Public Service Association) were elected joint presidents at CAEP’s first meeting a month later. In September 1939 she became honorary secretary, a position she indefatigably carried out until the organisation was disbanded in late 1947. There is no doubt that CAEP’s consistent advocacy of an occupational rate applicable to both sexes, and its high-level propaganda and lobbying activities sustained over ten years, were largely due to Heagney’s dedicated commitment, energy and organising skills.

The Council’s minute books, her large correspondence files, records of Court hearings in which she appeared as a witness, deputations to governments, her attendance at numerous conferences and meetings and her extensive writings, are all testaments to the extraordinary amount of time and effort she devoted to the cause (in addition to earning her living). That the efforts of Heagney and her CAEP colleagues did not succeed in achieving equal pay during the war years, does not diminish the historical value of their achievement in ensuring that equal pay became a major political-industrial issue in the early 1940s.

CAEP’s initial policy statement in September 1937 was formulated to allow for the ‘different views [that] exist as to the method in which equal pay should be applied.’9 These differences, which had emerged at the May conference and which became a continuing problem within the Council, centred on the issue of ‘gradualism’, as it was termed. That is, whether CAEP should campaign for immediate implementation of full equal pay as a realisable goal, or the alternative option of progressive rises in wage rates over a period of time, towards eventual equality. The United Associations of Women (UAW), led by Jessie Street, favoured the latter approach, which was overwhelmingly opposed by CAEP’s affiliates.

At this early stage of the organisation, the executive was anxious to achieve unity through a commonly-shared policy. Thus the statement called for the adult female base rate (then set at 54%) to be raised to equality with the male basic wage. But if this was not immediately achievable, then the female base rate was to be increased to a ‘greater proportion’ of the male rate and progressively raised to achieve equality ‘within a reasonable period.’10 In late 1939, however, CAEP’s policy statement was amended to delete all references to proportions and progressive increases, leaving an unqualified policy of an equal basic wage for all male and female workers.11

This change was an outcome of the differences between CAEP and the UAW which had come to a head by then. The UAW withdrew from CAEP in November 1939, reaffiliated seven months later12 and finally cancelled its affiliation in August 1940.13 Clearly a major factor in the break with the UAW was concern that the equal pay case must be presented as a united argument, especially at a time of growing female employment in war-related work. Heagney and others argued that if differences of view were publicly aired, the campaign for equal pay for women entering men’s jobs would be adversely affected.

The antagonism between the two strategic positions culminated during the 1940 Federal Basic Wage Inquiry. Without consulting the unions, the UAW attempted to intervene in the Arbitration Court hearing to argue its gradualist policy, an action supported by some twenty women’s organisations from all states.14 Following an approach from CAEP, the ACTU successfully opposed the intervention.

According to Ryan and Rowse, the unions were furious about the attempted intervention, as they had been putting the equal pay case and the publicity gained by the alternative case would ‘weaken the union demand.’ The UAW’s position made no recognition of women’s strengthened bargaining position because of the war needs, nor of the ‘greater possibility of achieving equal pay in one step’.15 Although Heagney and other CAEP leaders certainly held this view, it is not an accurate reflection of the union movement’s position at the time. None of the seventy unions involved in the Inquiry ‘had made any reference to women’s wages in their applications’, although the ACTU secretary told the Court ‘that a special claim on behalf of women was intended later.’16

Further, at this early stage of the war, the unions and the ACTU did not have a united view on equal pay. It was unclear whether some unions might oppose the female ‘invasion’ of male industries, or what their policies might be on female classifications, pay rates and working conditions. It was not until early 1942 that a common union movement position was reached about equal pay and women’s employment to replace men.

Despite the rift between CAEP and the UAW and the deep animosity between Heagney and Street, by the end of 1940 they actually held similar views about equal pay for women war workers in male industries. The major divergence remained the method of achieving the same basic wage for both sexes; but there was no difference regarding the necessity for equal pay for women entering men’s jobs or new industries.

During 1941 pressure mounted in the union movement to reach a common position on the issue. Employers in many industries were seeking to employ lower paid women to replace men who had joined up or been diverted to essential war production. It had become obvious that large-scale female employment in male work areas would occur, regardless of whether individual unions opposed or supported it. During the first eighteen months of the war, the union movement as a whole had been slow to take a lead on the issue of cheap female labour in industry. Apart from passing resolutions supporting equal pay, the ACTU Executive took no decisive steps towards its achievement until the end of 1941-early ‘42, by which time the situation had virtually reached crisis point.

Between April 1941 and February 1942, five Federal union conferences discussed the equal pay problem in the light of women entering men’s jobs. The resolutions of the first conference in April 1941 represented the high-point of CAEP’s influence within the union movement, being virtually identical with its equal pay policy. The ACTU Executive was urged to develop a united campaign to enforce its equal pay policy throughout industry, and to present a case to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court to lift the female base rate to equality with the male basic wage. These resolutions were subsequently endorsed by the June ACTU Congress, with an additional call on the Federal Labor Party to take the necessary action to provide for equal pay for the sexes.17 At this point, CAEP was optimistic that its demand for women war workers to receive full male rates would be achieved. ‘We believe that we are now on the eve of victory,’ its annual report declared in July.18 Its hopes were further raised in October by Labor’s assumption to government, as equal pay had long been Federal ALP policy and in 1937 John Curtin had assured CAEP of his intention to implement it when Labor came to office.19

In mid-December 1941 Curtin announced Cabinet’s approval ‘of the principle of the extensive employment of women’ in industries lacking sufficient numbers of male workers. A Cabinet subcommittee would confer with unions and employers to develop a plan for the promulgation of enabling regulations. He undertook that full regard would be taken to prevent ‘an invasion of men’s work by cheap female labour’ and that these women ‘shall be employed only for the duration of the war, and shall be replaced by men as they become available.20

Also in December the ACTU Executive adopted an Industrial War Time Policy which stated that women’s employment on men’s jobs in industry ‘shall be accompanied by safeguards providing that when on such work, they be paid men’s rates and that men be reinstated on such work when available.’21 This last demand, meaning that women would have to vacate their jobs for returning men, was not included in the equal pay policy adopted by the April unions conference and the ACTU Congress.

Although most union leaders probably did hold that view, CAEP certainly did not. Muriel Heagney saw the policy clause as negating the longer term principles of women’s rights to equal work opportunities with men. It indicates, she said, that the ACTU Executive are: still a long way behind public opinion on the matter of women in men’s jobs because they are … implying that women’s labour is not a serious factor in industrial life but may be used as a stop gap in this emergency without any ‘safeguard’ as to the economic future of the women so used.22

In February 1942, 72 delegates from 39 Federal unions attended a further ACTU-convened conference. The need to enforce men’s rates had become extremely urgent by this time, as three Arbitration Court hearings were scheduled within days that could set a precedent for allowing lower-paid women into men’s work. The conference called on the government ‘to arrange for an adjournment of Court proceedings and meet union representatives to discuss framing a Regulation to correct the present unsatisfactory position in relation to the introduction of females into industry at less than males’ rates.’ This motion, moved by Ernie Thornton (Federated Ironworkers) and Heagney (FCU), differed significantly from an earlier one by Eileen Powell (Railways) and Heagney, which had unequivocally called for women employed on men’s work to be paid male wage rates.23

Powell (then CAEP joint president), Thornton and O’Dea (Shop Assistants) were elected to pursue negotiations with government ministers, together with ACTU representatives. The fact that Heagney came last in this ballot, with only 10 votes, indicates that her support within the union movement had considerably waned since the high point of CAEP’s influence at the April 1941 conference. Perhaps delegates considered she would be too uncompromising in her insistence that all women replacing men must get the full male rate, whereas Powell, who received the highest vote, might adopt a more flexible approach.

Whatever the reasons for Heagney’s low vote, it meant she was effectively frozen out from the ongoing process of union input into the government’s resolution of the problem of determining the pay rates of the many thousands of women who soon flooded into munitions production and other metal industry jobs.

Over the ensuing weeks there were indications that the government’s plans involved a graduated wages formula, whereby women would start on 60% with progressive rises to the full male rate, provided they reached the same aptitude and production standards as men. In early March 1942, Heagney warned that ‘there is every likelihood of unequal rates for equal jobs being prescribed’. She was dismayed at what she saw as an ACTU-led backdown from Congress policy. Obstacles were being created by the ACTU officers, she believed, ‘in a manner that is surprising, discouraging and, in fact, devastating to all our hopes of achievement of the implementation of equal pay for women taking men’s jobs’ during the war.24

On 25 March 1942, regulations were issued establishing the Women’s Employment Board (WEB) as a special tribunal to fix the conditions and pay rates of female war workers. The rates were to be assessed by reference ‘to the efficiency of females in the performance of the work and any other special factors which may be likely to affect the productivity of their work in relation to that of males.’ The adult female rate was to be set between 60% and 100% of that paid to adult males doing substantially similar work. That is, the Board was empowered to award a rate up to 100%, and to grant equal pay for equal work if the unions could prove that the women were fully carrying out the job as well as men and attaining equal productivity levels.

It is estimated that some 70,000 to 80,000 women were affected by the WEB’s determinations, representing about nine per cent of the total female workforce at its wartime peak. The great majority of these women, working in the munitions, metal and aircraft industries, received 90% of the male basic wage plus margin for the particular job, with 60-66.6% during a two-three week probation period.

In their negotiations with the government, it is clear that union representatives pushed for the full male rate, but the majority of Cabinet disagreed with that position. Also, that the ACTU, the FIA and other key industry unions were aware, in advance, that the WEB would not be instructed to grant equal pay to all women taking over men’s jobs and that its regulations allowed for lower rates. However, they undoubtedly felt confident that the unions’ combined strength could ensure gaining of the full rate in war production industries.

As it transpired, despite continual submissions by metal unions for equal pay, the Board maintained its effective 10% penalisation of the women, on the grounds of their lower productivity than men because of their lesser physical strength, periodic disability and, especially, their higher absenteeism rates.

Muriel Heagney was dismayed at the terms of the WEB regulation, saying it commenced by setting differential rates as low as 60% for women doing men’s work, ‘and placed the onus of proof of “equal work” on the worker to the satisfaction of the Board.’25 Her disillusionment with the Labor government and union officials and her pessimism about the likely prospects for achieving equal pay, can be seen in her comments to a union colleague in mid-1942: Frankly, I have given up hope of achieving anything worth while immediately because here in Australia the Labor Movement and the ACTU executive officers are so terribly reactionary in their views on women as workers. One commences about half a mile behind the starting post in a mile race here when women are involved in any issue, and the trade union officials and Labor ministers as a rule are more difficult to deal with than many big employers of labour.26

Later that year a CAEP pamphlet expressed its disappointment that the WEB had not fulfilled the general expectation when it was established, that the male rate for the job would be paid to women satisfactorily replacing men in wartime. ‘The elimination of sex differentials in industrial standards remains an ideal still to be striven for in Australia.’ It is almost a tradition, the pamphlet went on, for industrial tribunals to assume that ‘women, by reason of some preconceived idea of industrial inferiority, are entitled to something less than the normal occupational rate.’ But in fixing the male rate, no tribunal ‘seeks to differentiate between the comparative efficiency of one male worker against another.’ Yet this question is invariably raised between male and female workers. 27

Heagney was especially critical that the regulation did not provide for the full male rate at the outset, with the employers then having to argue their case for a reduction. She believed it was badly drawn up in placing the obligation on the Board to determine the percentage to be paid:

it should have been reversed and the full male rate made operative at the entry of the women and the onus of proof of lower productivity placed on the employer in exact terms covering average workers including both sexes at a given time.28

Heagney rejected the generally prevailing view within the labour movement, that the WEB’s 90% rate should be accepted as being a good advance on the standard female rate, as a positive step towards equal pay and as the best result achievable at the present time. Her major objection was to the reasoning behind the Board’s decisions, which denied the principle that women had a right to receive the same wage as men on the basis of a rate for the job payable to any worker performing it. To her, the Board’s practice of ‘comparative efficiency,’ i.e. assessing women’s productivity as less than men’s because of sex-based characteristics, represented a belief in women’s inherent inferiority. As she put it, ‘the 90% is no more equitable than 54% since it is based on a sex differential grounded in prejudice and tradition and is quite iniquitous.’29

At the war’s end, in August 1945, CAEP’s annual report gloomily commented about the earlier expectations held for women’s advancement and the achievement of equal pay during the war:

The ‘avalanche’ of woman power crashing down on the predominantly male employing industries that appeared so formidable in 1942 has proved merely a giant snowball that is fast disappearing … The Women’s Employment Board has passed into the limbo of forgotten dreams leaving little of permanent value to mark its period of exceptional opportunity.30

However, despite the WEB’s failure to award full equal pay to more than a small number of female war workers, it did have some positive outcomes. Around 80,000 women received pay rates far higher than women classified as unskilled had ever before obtained from the Arbitration Court. Women metal industry workers on the 90% WEB rate earned around £6 per week, compared to the standard female rate of £2 to £3. Another important gain was not only that the 54% female standard was breached for several years, but that women’s wages sustained an upward trend, resulting in a rise to 75% of the male basic wage in 1950.

The Curtin Government’s decision to establish the WEB contributed to equal pay being shelved for the duration of the war. The Board’s governing regulations enabled it to award less than equal pay in the majority of cases. It was regarded as only a short-term measure to resolve an immediate problem. It was certainly not intended to be a vehicle for permanently changing the Court’s ‘family wage’ system which perpetuated a lower female percentage, or the workforce sexual division of labour, let alone the existing status quo of gender relations.

Above all, it was universally understood that the novel situation of women doing men’s work in industry for male wages, was a wartime necessity only and that as soon as the men came back everything would ‘go back to normal’. That is, women would return to the home as full-time housewives and mothers, or to their acceptable women’s jobs. At the end of 1941 and in early ‘42, the realisation of equal pay did seem possible. However, the level of support for such a measure of social justice for women, was not strong enough to effectively challenge the ideological and material structures that sustained the gender status quo. A crucial factor was the absence of a mass women’s movement demanding equal pay and significant changes in the sexually-demarcated workforce. This level of social pressure took another three decades to develop.

  1. This article is drawn from the author’s PhD thesis: ‘Challenging and Maintaining the Traditional Gender Order: Labour Movement Responses to Women Workers in the Metal Industry, and to Equal Pay, during World War II’, University of Wollongong, 1997.
  2. Muriel Heagney, Are Women Taking Men’s Jobs? a Survey of Women’s Work in Victoria, Melbourne: Hilton & Veitch, 1935.
  3. Jennie Bremner, ‘In the Cause of Equality: Muriel Heagney and the Position of Women in the Depression’, in M. Bevege, M. James and C. Shute (eds.), Worth her Salt: Women at Work in Australia, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1982, p.288.
  4. Penelope Johnson, ‘Gender, Class 8c Work: The Council of Action for Equal Pay and the Equal Pay Campaign in Australia During World War II’, Labour History, no. 50, 1986, p.132.
  5. Minutes of Equal Pay Conference, 22 May 1937, Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP) Minute Book 1937-40, Box 1165/3; and Report of Conference, Box 1164/6(a), MS 9106, Muriel Heagney Papers, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria.
  6. John (Jack) Hughes, interview with author, Bateau Bay, 15 May 1995.
  7. ‘Declaration of Policy for Federated Clerks’ Union (NSW Branch) on Equal Pay for the Sexes’, p.4, Report of Equal Pay Conference, Box 1164/6(a), Heagney Papers.
  8. CAEP Minute Book, Box 1165/3, Heagney Papers.
  9. Report by Executive on Policy for CAEP, Minute Book, Box 1165/3, Heagney Papers.
  10. Ibid.
  11. CAEP Second Annual Meeting and Conference, 16 September 1939, Box 1165/3, Heagney Papers.
  12. Minutes, CAEP meetings, 28 November 1939 and 16 April 1940, Box 65/3, Heagney Papers.
  13. Minutes, CAEP meeting, 21 May 1940, Box 1165/3; Third Annual General Meeting, 16 July 1940, Box 1165/3; CAEP meeting, 15 October 1940, Box 1166/1, Heagney Papers.
  14. Peter Sekuless, Jessie Street: A Rewarding but Unrewarded Life, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1978, p. 73; and Winifred Mitchel1, 50 Years of Feminist Achievement: A History of the United Associations of Women, Sydney: United Associations of Women, n.d. [1979], p.25.
  15. Penny Ryan and Tim Rowse, ‘Women, Arbitration and the Family’, in A. Curthoys, S. Eade and P. Spearritt (eds.), Women at Work, Canberra: ASSLH, 1975, p.22.
  16. Sekuless, op. cit., p.74
  17. Minutes, ACTU Conference re Equal Pay for the Sexes, Melbourne, 22, 23& 29 April 1941, Box N14/126, Federated Ironworkers’ Association (FIA) Collection, Noel Butlin Archives Centre; Australian Trade Union Policy on Equal Pay and Equal Status 1941. A.C.T.U. Takes Action, Leaflet No. 3, Sydney: Council of Action for Equal Pay, 1941; Minutes, ACTU Congress, 3 June 1941, Box N63/51, F1A Collection.
  18. Fourth Annual Report to CAEP Annual Meeting, 15 July 1941, Box 1166/1, Heagney Papers.
  19. ‘Report of Research Commission to First Interstate Conference on Equal Status and Equal Pay’, Sydney, 8 February 1938, ‘Policies re Equal Pay’, p.4, File C24, University of Wollongong Archives.
  20. Digest of Decisions and Announcements, no. 11, 8-16 December 1941.
  21. Minutes, ACTU Full Executive Meeting, Melbourne, 15-17 December 1941, Box,D65, ACTU Papers, University of Wollongong Archives.
  22. Letter from Muriel Heagney to CAEP Joint President, R.L. Day, 17 December 1941, Box 1168/4, Heagney Papers.
  23. Minutes, Conference of Federal Unions, Melbourne, 19-20 February 1942, Box E218/20, FIA Collection.
  24. Report and Minutes, Third CAEP Conference on Women and Children in Industry in Wartime, 7 March 1942; and Report by M. Heagney to FCU Federal Conference, 16 March 1942, Box 1166/1, Heagney Papers.
  25. Report and Minutes, CAEP meeting, 21 April 1942, Box 1166/1, Heagney Papers.
  26. Letter from M. Heagney to A. Wallis, 2 July 1942, Box 1168/6, Heagney Papers.
  27. Are Women Paid Men’s Rates?, Pamphlet No. 4, Sydney: Council of Action for Equal Pay, 1942, pp.2, 8.
  28. Letter from M. Heagney to M. Blackburn, 31 August 1942, Box 1168/7,
  29. Letter from M. Heagney to L. Wickharn, 4 January 1943, Box 1169/1, Heagney Papers.
  30. Report to CAEP Eighth Annual Meeting, 1 August 1945, Box 1166/2, Heagney Papers.