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The act of remembrance

The Eleventh of November 2014 is a significant day for the labour movement. The anniversary of Remembrance Day, the first anniversary of the Whitlam Dismissal to be celebrated without Gough – and the coming of age of EMILY’s List Australia, as it turns 18 years old.

What do the Great War, a Great Injustice and the birthday of a Labor-aligned feminist organisation have to do with each other, apart from the coincidence of a shared date? Quite a lot.

For the history of the ALP is intimately tied to war and peace; electoral wins and losses turning on how the party handled the domestic consequences of international conflict. At each critical juncture, progressive Labor – and labour – women have shaped policy and campaigning with a strong commitment to peace and international arbitration and an abhorrence of the loss of life of young men. Regrettably, these stories of women’s contribution to the labour movement have often been neglected.

Labor women and the Great War

After securing suffrage, one of the first acts of labor women was to actively oppose Australia’s involvement in the First World War. Emma Miller, Queensland’s famous Labor suffragette and “mother of the labor movement”rallied women to the Brisbane Market Square on the 7th August 1914, delivering a mighty speech in which she observed it was “scandalous that disputes could not be settled without butchery”. Miller said she was forced to oppose all war, for she knew that it was women and children who bore the worst sufferings of it.

Although Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher would commit the nation to defence of Britain, saying “we will defend her with our last man and our last shilling”, Miller was in no doubt as to who would bear the brunt of such a policy and continued to actively work against it.  Miller, Elizabeth Hanretty and Kate Dwyer and many other women across the country helped to establish the Women’s Peace Army during 1914-1917. Outspoken opponents of conscription, they used relationships in community to organise women voters opposed to the military service of their sons.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who took over from Fisher, would take the issue of conscription to two referenda in 1916 and 1917. He would lose both times and cause a tremendous split in Federal Labor in the process, holding onto power only with support of the conservatives. While he was being expelled from the party, progressive Labor women in the Peace Army, along with supporters in the trade union movement – true believers in the anti-conscription platform of the party – would find themselves twice on side with popular opinion against compulsory military service.

During the Second World War, with the threat of invasion in the Pacific, one time anti-conscription campaigner Prime Minister John Curtin would lead Australia to change its stance about compulsory military service. But Labor women, like Jessie Street, continued to campaign for peace.

Jessie, Labor’s conscience during the wars, continued to champion international peace instruments as a means to end and avoid future conflict. She monitored the internment of “aliens” thought to be a risk to national security by touring camps across the country and was instrumental in advocating for the rights of refugees fleeing Europe. She would later be the only Australian woman to attend the San Francisco conference to establish the United Nations.

While women were actively working for the reestablishment of a dialogue for international arbitration, first female Labor Senator Dorothy Tangney was campaigning for a post-war reconstruction that would take care of the families who had lost their husbands and fathers to war. In her first parliamentary speech she called for a strengthening of the welfare state.

All of us know what happened after the last war; that it was a war to end wars, and would make this country fit for heroes to live in, but instead of Australia being made fit for heroes to live in it became a land for paupers to die in. We must be certain that a similar state of affairs shall not follow in the wake of this war. Therefore, I put it to the Senate that one of the chief functions of the Government is to work towards a policy to ensure that, once our national safety is assured, the fate of those on the home front will be safeguarded, and we shall build up a democracy on the very best basis that Australia can provide. The last Parliament laid down the foundation of a plan of social services. Social security is the right of every Australian; and I trust that on the foundation already laid we shall be able to build a much stronger edifice which, no matter how fierce the winds of reaction may blow against it, will be able to endure. Thus we shall make this country what it should be, a model for all other democracies to follow.

For Tangney and other women, war was the impetus to the creation of a welfare state; where widows would receive a pension, veterans would be entitled to free healthcare, housing and other supports and everyone needed a job.

An Australian Labor anti-conscription poster from World War One. Source: Labor History

An Australian Labor anti-conscription poster from World War One. Source: Labor History

During the Vietnam War, peace campaigning was also led by Labor women. Jean McLean, Jean Coxsedge and Margaret Reynolds – all Labor MPs – founded the anti-conscription group, Save our Sons. This campaign would profoundly influence the approach then Opposition Leader Gough Whitlam and the ALP would take on the issue leading into 1969 and 1972 elections.

Arthur Calwell, Dr Jim Cairns and Whitlam, who would bring an end to conscription within days of his elevation to office and eventually bring Australian troops home from Vietnam, are usually celebrated as champions of Labor’s anti-war campaigning during the 1960’s and 1970’s. But women activists – steadfast in their conviction about peace, so much so that they were willing to go to prison for it – are often forgotten when recounting stories of this era.

Labor women continued to play a role in peace campaigning during the Cold War, recalibrating their efforts against the nuclear arms race – often with mixed success. Today, policy in the ALP National Platform is governed by a commitment to peace – to nuclear non-proliferation, resolution of disputes through the UN and International Court of Justice and to caring for those who serve our country voluntarily.

Women helped achieve that, although the Labor history books often fail to acknowledge it.

EMILY’s List exists to support progressive women into parliament. Part of that support is to ensure that the legacy of women leaders of the labour movement is celebrated within the party. On Remembrance Day we pause to remember those who fought and fell at the front line; spare a thought too for those women who worked so tirelessly to protect the peace.

About Tanja Kovac

Tanja Kovac

Tanja is a writer, lawyer, philanthropist and Director of her own communication, leadership and justice consultancy, Kovac & Co. Her writing and analysis on gender, politics and social policy has featured in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, Crikey, New Matilda, The Drum, The Punch and more. Tanja’s poetry has featured in Overland, Avant, Poetica Christi Press and on board public transport as part of the Moving Galleries Project. She is currently working on a book about women’s leadership.

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