I’ll be talking a little about our family life and about Mum’s working life. I’ll start off by saying that Mum was always proud to be an Australian. When she died, she had been a citizen of this country and a resident of Waverley municipality for more than 60 years. Her ashes will go to Waverley Cemetery, so, in one sense, she will always be there.
Life at Bronte and in the Party
We lived from 1941 to 1968, at 10 Pacific St Bronte a cottage on top of a hill overlooking Bronte Beach. We rented number 10, and indeed did not own a house until after Dad died in 1968 despite the fact that both Mum and Dad worked full-time most of their lives.
We didn’t have much money, but that didn’t matter to us kids, although it was a constant worry for Mum. We never felt we were missing out. One thing our parents were determined we would have, was a good education. We were encouraged to study at school, art school and university so we would be economically independent and able to support ourselves.
Our family was small – very small – just the four of us – no other relatives. But we had an extended family in the friends and comrades our parents met in the Communist Party. Mum and Dad had joined the Party within weeks of arriving in Australia. Their primary concern then was to warn the Australian people of the danger of fascism and war in Germany. Ironically, at the outbreak of war, they were declared to be enemy aliens and had to report regularly to the police.
They were both very active Party members and Number 10 was a kind of open house. There were lots of meetings and almost as many social functions (or so it seemed to me).
However, in the 1950’s, the worst period of the Cold War, life was hard for our parents particularly after the Prime Minister, Bob Menzies, introduced legislation into Federal Parliament to outlaw the Communist Party. The Bill had been challenged in the High Court as being unconstitutional.
One incident in that period stands out in my mind. It was the day the Court was to bring down its decision. Fearing persecution and prosecution (not surprising, given their life experience) Mum and Dad had piled most of their political books in the back yard ready to set them alight if the High Court challenge failed. Mum said that the last time this kind of thing happened to her was in Berlin in 1933 when Nazi students burned books shortly after Hitler had been elected to power. My parents had fled their homeland for a country they believed to be among the most democratic in the world to face the possibility, only 17 years later, of another book-burning.
When they heard the Court’s decision to declare the Bill unconstitutional I remember my parents hugging one another and joyfully carrying their precious library back into the home. After that they both threw themselves into the referendum campaign to defeat the bill. The defeat of this legislation by a vote of the Australian people – a proud moment in Australia’s history – reaffirmed our parents’ belief in this country’s democratic traditions.
Mum never held a senior position in the Communist Party. She worked hard in the local area, in her union and in various peace, friendship and community organisations.
Mum’s working life
When my parents arrived in Australia, pre-school education and childcare barely existed. Indeed, the prevailing ideology was that only bad mothers and mothers who ‘had to’ put their children in kindergarten. Mum knew the great benefit to children of a high quality pre-school education, but there was nowhere she could take Paula.
One of her very first community campaigns was for the establishment of a kindergarten in the Waverley Municipality. She worked energetically with women in the locality to have the first local kindergarten built on the site where the Waverley Police Station now stands. I was able to benefit from the success of their campaign, attending that kindergarten from the age of 3.
After I went to school Mum started teaching, first at Daceyville Kindergarten, then as the Director of Surrey Hills Day Nursery. From there she went as Director to Erskineville Demonstration Kindergarten, run by the Kindergarten Union. During her period of employment with the KU, she travelled on a holiday to the Soviet Union, with the particularly intention of looking at the pre-school education system there. On her return, she spoke of her experiences at a number of meetings, giving a favourable assessment of what she had seen.
But in the anti-Soviet climate of the times, this was too much for the KU and they sacked Mum on the pretence that, as she wasn’t KU trained, they no longer wanted her to run their Kindergarten. She was devastated, mainly because of the slur on her professional ability. Fortunately, she quickly gained another appointment, this time as Director of Miranda. She worked there from 1964 until she retired, aged 68, in 1973.
Wherever she went Mum was respected for her progressive educational approach, her co-operative relationships with parents and her love of kids. For most of her working life, Mum’s wages were very low, despite her onerous responsibilities and high professional standing. Pre-school teachers, including Directors earned about as much as cleaners. It was only in the last few years at Miranda that her salary started to creep up towards that of school teachers.
Throughout her teaching career she was an active member of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, even though the Federation did not actually have industrial coverage of people working in pre-schools. After she retired, Mum continued to maintain her interest in education, particularly where small children were concerned.
Our family functioned on fairly democratic lines and we were certainly included in family discussions. We read a lot, listened to ABC radio programs and were involved in many activities with our parents such as May Day, New Theatre and all the Peace Rallies and marches. But we weren’t pushed into political activity. I was interested in sport and was encouraged in that. Likewise for Paula and her art interests.
We both even went to Sunday school at Bronte Park. We brought home the little Jesus cards and can still sing “Build on the Rock”. In fact the only thing I can remember being told I had to do was attend Jewish Scripture when I went to High School. Naturally I questioned this directive to which Mum responded “If you don’t, you’ll grow up ignorant” – and what could I say to that. If there was one thing we were NOT to do, that was to grow up ignorant.
General political work
Apart from her political work for international friendship and understanding, Mum campaigned hard for the rights of women. She was an active member of the Union of Australian Women, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Jessie Street Committee.
She was deeply concerned about issues of war and peace participating actively in the Ban the Bomb, Vietnam War, anti foreign bases and similar campaigns. She was also passionate about the ABC and deeply committed to reconciliation and justice for the indigenous people of this country. Mum was a wonderful organiser. At her 90th birthday party, the local Federal member, Jeanette McHugh, in talking about Mum, said that she always thought Betty WAS an organisation – and that’s not far off the mark.
One of Mum’s regrets was that she didn’t have time for local work. But she found friends among her neighbours and was, we believe a good neighbour herself. Whenever asked how she was, she’d not say much about herself and would then say “and how are YOU?” She was genuinely interested in people. Mum was an excellent educator, a dedicated campaigner for peace, international friendship, and women’s rights, a brave fighter against fascism, a loyal and generous friend. She was also a pretty amazing Mother. She loved us dearly and we knew she did. 96 years is a long life, even for a fighter like Mum. But what a rich life she had. She worked for many good causes and achieved much. We will miss her.