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Revisiting Iola Mathews' feminist battlegrounds



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.

Winning for Women: A Personal Story, by Iola MathewsThis 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 HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Winning for Women, Iola Mathews, feminism



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Existing comments

Andy, you make me feel a little better about some of those early ill-informed attitudes from which I'd like to think I've escaped over the years. I thank in particular my assertive mother. The equality of women is so obvious yet society has been so slow to reject the sexist discrimination that was seen as simply the way it is. It is very sad that the Catholic Church has been slower than most to learn a lesson that is supported by the most fundamental teachings of Jesus. I look forward to reading Iola Mathews' account of fighting this societally ingrained sexism.

Peter Johnstone | 31 May 2019  

I spent many years in Catholic education. So many people of goodwill, devoted to serving their fellow human beings, had their understanding of current affairs shaped by the NCC’s News Weekly, seemingly having insufficient time to read more widely! Their views astonished me often, being so out of step with their values.

Maxine Barry | 31 May 2019  

I am all for a Feminissim that stands up for the protection of the rights of the child in the womb of it's mother. Were all women educated about how not to abuse, nor allow men to abuse their bodies, legal or illegal abortion would be unwarranted. Children must be given first and foremost the right to have human rights from the day of conception. The right to be acknowledged as 'a human being' and not somebody's 'property,' during the whole period of gestation, at birth and into adulthood. Because, all the criteria of modern molecular biology acknowledges Life is present from the moment of conception. All Human Life, must 'now' even if it has not, be defended against the coming and going of foggy ideologies denying this truth. A 'human being', cannot be considered 'property' of another human being- yes, not even by it's biological mother. I am for a Feminism that also states "under no circumstances, should a woman or man be ever given 'legal rights' to kill another human being". Women's Rights flourish in accordance with women choosing to do the Right thing First. Because no good ending can be expected in the absence of the right beginning.

AO | 31 May 2019  

Peter Johnstone. I suspect your assertive mother was very like my assertive mother. I suspect also that they were formed in the society which predated second wave feminism and appreciated the unique position occupied by the mother as the cradle of Humanity itself and, because of that, were respected on the whole. The uniqueness of womanhood as mother, succour and confidante to male and female both, without discrimination, is something that men can never equate with or emulate. This uniqueness placed women in a position superior to that of men and to which men could never aspire. Second wave feminism changed that by encouraging women to step down from that unique position, to forsake motherhood in favour of competing temporally with men and to embrace the liberated world of profligate sexuality protected by the convenience and efficiency of the contraceptive pill the most influential and liberating child of first wave feminism. The "equality" achieved by second wave feminism is a far greater disaster than anything our mothers had to contend with simply because it promises women inferior false goals. I'm sure your mother like mine and my modern daughter and grand-daughters was "liberated" and would have lost much had her liberation embraced the goals of second wave feminism. It was and still is a disaster because it equates women with the inferior male, the least important of the two players in our God's plan for creation. I lived in London at the height of second wave feminism with my blue-stocking, English Protestant/Catholic convert wife and experienced the extremes of second wave feminism's proponents, many sadly apostate Catholics. It was some education, believe me! I much prefer mothers like yours and mine.

john frawley | 31 May 2019  

An analysis as eloquent as it is astute, John Frawley.

John RD | 03 June 2019  

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