ANDREW HAMILTON. Revisiting Iola Mathews’ feminist battlegrounds. (Eureka Street, 28.5.2019)

Jun 6, 2019

When people describe their part in events of our own life time, they often awaken in us recognition mixed with self-reproach. We recognise how greatly our attitudes have changed, but also that our images of significant people and movements are still tinged with our earlier prejudices.  

This was the case when I was reading Iola Mathews’ account of her personal and working involvement in the struggle for a society more just for women (Winning for Women: A Personal Story, Iola Mathews, Monash University Press). Many of her friends, allies and causes belonged to the hostile armies of my youthful imagination, and still bear traces, even though I have since come to recognise their generosity of spirit and the justice they sought.

I grew up in a Catholic world where strikes led by communist unions brought the personal discomfort of cooking on wood fires and regular train and tram strikes. World politics were dominated by the struggle with Communism and its oppression of Catholics; local politics became focused on the bitterness of the Labor Party Split. Communists like Lance Sharkey and Ernie Thornton and politicians like Clyde Cameron and Doc Evatt wore hats of the deepest black, and this spilled out over the left wing unions, peace movements, the Age and abortion campaigners. The United States wore a white hat, but not the Australian Liberal government, the old enemy, which at best wore grey.

My attitudes and my predilection for hats of any hue have changed, and reading this book was a refreshing walk along a long deserted battle field, recognising the camaraderie and generosity in the once opposed army to which many of Mathews’ friends, allies and causes belonged, and putting aside the caricatures that once represented them.

She reveals the persons behind the public masks given to her friends, including Bill Kelty, Jan Marsh, Bea Faust, Bert and Jo Wainer, Gareth Evans and Joan Kirner. Even in matters on which I would take issue with them, such as abortion in which I see the common reduction of the question to one of a woman’s right to choose as a source of sadness rather than liberation, I have come to recognise the depth of women’s suffering and inequality that has animated people who campaigned for its legalisation.

The slice of life described in this book took Mathews from journalism to work with the Women’s Election Lobby and to advocate with the ACTU for the promotion of working women’s advancement. It is partly a story of achievement, of a life that has made a difference. But more centrally she tells how she came to enter the experience of women who have tried to make a difference through their work while also living as partners and mothers. The pain and discrimination she suffered in that experience made her focused on trying to make that path easier and more equitable for others.

In her case the path to marriage to a Member of the federal government and later Minister in the Victorian government, the responsibility of bearing  two children and caring for three stepchildren with a largely absent father for many years, and having to deal with the prejudices and discriminatory culture faced by women in the workforce, sharpened her passion to make society more hospitable to women who worked to shape it. She was greatly helped by the friendship and generosity of spirit of women colleagues who had faced the same challenges.

“The research and advocacy was vast and the work costly. Strategic cases for equal pay and conditions between men and women could involve many cases.

As Mathews describes in detail the campaigns in which she was involved as advocate on behalf of women’s rights, I was struck particularly by the complexity of the task of bringing about change. It is easy for writers to slip into believing that a passionately and elegantly expressed article or book with a true and compelling argument can by itself change the world. This account makes clear that change must be incremental and sustained. Its advocates must persuade key players in government, political parties, business and other institutions, and be prepared both to fight and to negotiate.

Under the Whitlam government she became involved in the Women’s Electoral Lobby and there discovered the coherence and breadth of feminism. The campaigns for child care funding, equal pay and conditions, appointments of women to public positions and parental leave showed the importance both of principled commitment and cogent public argument and also of persistent follow up to fill gaps and change attitudes. Mathews describes the hard slog involved in her work with the ACTU during the Hawke years to make successful submissions to the wage setting commissions. The research and advocacy was vast and the work costly. Strategic cases for equal pay and conditions between men and women could involve many cases.

In her account the most significant figure in this campaign for women’s rights was, perhaps paradoxically, Bill Kelty. A man both open and inscrutable, who could engage with people in all walks of life and encourage highly motivated people to work together, he had an instinctive grasp of what mattered. He could set the successes and disappointments of each battle into a broader perspective of change.

He also ensured that the campaign for women’s rights was set within a vision of the common good. The understanding that what was good for women was good for all Australians was exemplified in the campaign for men also to have paid leave for child care. The freedom of women demanded that it become normal for both men and women to share parental responsibilities without penalty.

To anyone pressing for social change after the recent election, the Hawke years must seem as far removed as Camelot. Iola Mathews describes the personal and political struggle involved in pressing for any reform. It is a timely book.

Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


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