Women activists inspiring generations

Women teachers have agitated for the removal of barriers to equal opportunity throughout Federation’s history.

Inspiring stories of their contributions to the Union in its first 100 years will be documented in a booklet to be launched at the Women’s Conference in August 2018.

The narrative will tell the story of women’s participation, struggles, activism and advocacy as a significant force in Federation throughout the century, and will explore the social, historical, educational and political, including feminist context, within which Federation has operated throughout its existence.

Here are a few ’70s and ’80s recollections linked to presidential officer Barbara Murphy, who will be featured in the booklet.

Redressing the past 2000 years

Gail Shelston, Federation’s first Women’s Coordinator and Life Member: From time to time I would hear rumblings of discontent with the direction of the Women’s Action Program. Some members stopped coming to the Affirmative Action Committee, complaining that it needed to be more focused on specific industrial issues, eg maternity leave, permanent part-time work etc. While all these issues were important and part of the program, they were not the whole picture. What was needed at that time was a more general awareness among Federation members of discriminatory attitudes and practices, how they operated in schools, their effect on student development and what could be done about them.

Without that, it seemed clear to me, and I think to Barbara, there would be little chance of the Women’s Program in general, and the Women’s Coordinator position in particular, continuing beyond 1975. Federal funding had been received for the position for 1975 only, 1975 being designated International Women’s Year by the United Nations.

This was the 1970s – we were about redressing the discrimination of the past 2000 years, not simply some aspects of it within a narrow industrial framework. Barbara really got that and I loved and admired her for it. She had a fine and open mind and a generous and kind-hearted spirit. Her quiet comments to me along the lines of, “You keep doing it how you’re doing it”, reassured me in moments of fear, doubt and worry. I was and am deeply grateful.

Thankfully, the 1975 Annual Conference voted to continue with the program and the position of Women’s Coordinator, whether or not federal funding was received. As a consequence, the program continues to grow and expand to this day. This is due in no small measure to the work of Barbara Murphy and women like her.

Amplified voice

Jennie George, General Secretary (1980-1982), President (1986 to mid-1989) and Life Member: Having a woman as a Presidential Officer [Barbara Murphy Senior Vice President 1976-81 and Deputy President from 1982-83] meant her lived experiences as a female teacher were elevated to centre stage. Campaigns in support of infants mistresses’ promotion rights, relief from face-to-face teaching, access and improvements to superannuation, reductions in class sizes, all helped to improve the lot of a predominantly female workforce.

Discrimination challenged

Marie Muir, Life Member: During the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Department decided to amalgamate the infants and primary promotions lists. Promotions positions in infants schools were all held by women. The Department, in their wisdom, decided to amalgamate the lists by putting all infants teachers at the bottom. That meant that all infants mistresses had their seniority wiped off overnight, even though they had been running a school for many years. This was a clear case of discrimination against women by way of administration. In other words, the Department’s planned changes were inherently discriminatory against women.

With Barbara Murphy’s support, I was able to convince Federation to support me to challenge the Department before the Equal Employment Opportunity Tribunal. It was not easy getting Federation’s support, as in those days, many men in Federation were not convinced it was a worthy challenge. The first challenge was before the Equal Employment Opportunity Tribunal, where we won, and then on appeal before NSW Supreme Court with a final appeal to the High Court. While we lost in the courts we won on the ground because the Department amalgamated the infants and primary promotion lists using the agreed date of promotion for all.

Taking on the grey suits

Meredith Bergmann, former NSW MLA and then delegate for the forerunner to the National Tertiary Education Union: In 1979, Barbara Murphy was elected to the Labor Council Executive to represent the Education Group of Unions — the only woman on an executive of 28. For the rest of us women it was a huge boost to our feelings of inclusion. Labor Council was a tough gig then, not just for women but for anyone. Three hundred men in grey suits attended every Thursday night. There was the tight-knit brotherhood of the Right but there was also the steely coterie of the hard men of the Left. They were not easy. They resented white-collar workers, newcomers and women.

One night in 1983, all of Barbara’s sangfroid was needed. The Left women had been battling to get a speaker from the newly formed NSW Anti-Discrimination Board to speak to Labor Council about workplace discrimination. Their efforts were being frustrated by the then Secretary of Labor Council, Barrie Unsworth.

At a Labor Council meeting, just after Barrie had refused yet again to allow the discrimination issue onto the agenda, he announced that the Building Unions’ entrant in the Miss Australia Quest would be addressing Labor Council the following week.

Not surprisingly women delegates were outraged and a huge and spontaneous hissing sound erupted as they expressed their disapproval. Unsworth’s face went red and he responded with the now infamous comment: “If she did come here, she wouldn’t get competition from any of you lot.”

Well, the women immediately trooped out of the auditorium and slammed the door. Through the key hole we could hear Barbara taking up the cudgels on our behalf. We could hear her beautifully modulated voice declaiming, “That was a terrible thing to say, those women are serious job delegates and you treat them like wannabe beauty queens”. Eventually Unsworth apologised and we trooped back in.

She was also part of the women’s group that wrote a pamphlet addressed to the male delegates, which we handed out at the following week’s Labor Council meeting explaining why we had walked out and how we were being denigrated as unionists and job delegates. It was the beginning of the Left Women’s caucus.

This article is based on speeches given at Barbara Murphy’s funeral, held in September, and a memorial service hosted by Federation in October, plus tributes in a booklet.

— Kerri Carr