The following review of the book REBEL WOMEN in Australian working class history, eds Sandra Bloodworth and Tom O’Lincoln, appeared in issue #14 (Xmas 2000-March 2001) of the Christchurch-based magazine revolution, one of the predecessors of this blog.
by Linda Kearns
Women’s oppression, its relation to capitalism, and how to fight it have been matters of controversy both on the far left and between the far left and feminists.
Feminists have long criticised the far left for trying to subsume women’s oppression into class. But a cursory glance at feminist studies and recent feminist theory tends to indicate that the vast majority of women – working class women – receive short shrift from the ‘sisterhood’.
In fact, there has also been a certain amount of nicking going on, as feminist historians have joined the fad for disaggregating the working class. So where working class women are dealt with, it is gender rather than class which have been of interest. Moreover, gender has been seen as counterposed to, even oppressed by, men of the working class.
Even socialist women, women who consciously chose to identify as, and fight as, socialist women – and not as feminists – have been appropriated – or expropriated by feminists: Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai are two Marxists who spring to mind as victims of this fad.
Sandra Bloodworth notes, for instance, the way the widely-used Australian historical revisionist historiographical text Creating a Nation “effectively subsume(s) working class women’s history into that of the middle class feminist movements and identif(ies) the class battle as male” (p18).
By contrast, this book provides accounts of battles by working class and socialist women who fought on a class basis for both women’s rights and workers’ rights, and saw these as indivisible.
Papers in the book cover women’s involvement in struggles in the mining centre of Broken Hill from the 1890s to WWI; nationally in the Depression years and during WWII; and three specific struggles of more recent times – for equal pay in the insurance industry (1973-75), the 1981 strike by mainly migrant women workers and Kortex, and the Victorian nurses’ strike of 1986. Another paper looks at women and the left from 1945 to 1968.
The authors are not dry and dull liberal academics, developing career niches by pontificating on the working class as a profitable object of study, but are political activists in the class struggle.
Perhaps the most inspiring paper is that on the Kortex strike. There, migrant women workers – Turkish, Arab and other nationalities – most with no trade union experience or history of militancy, began industrial action as a result of dissatisfaction with their official union ‘representatives’.
Gaining a taste of their power in an original protest against the union officials, the women went on to demand improved working conditions and pay. The very lack of union experience proved of assistance, as it meant the women had not been house-broken by official unionism. They were therefore prepared to be ‘unrespectable’ and do whatever was necessary to win their struggle.
In the course of the strike, the men fell in behind the women’s leadership, often doing the kind of ‘back-up’ work once expected of women in the labour movement as well as in the home. As Bloodworth records, “As they fought to change their circumstances, the Kortex strikers also changed themselves and those around them” (p132).
Not a male thing
The Victorian nurses’ strike, dealt with by Liz Ross, provides another account of how seemingly passive women workers can break out of their ‘shells’, challenging employers, union officials and stereotypes alike. Far from being a ‘male’ thing, the class struggle provides women workers with confidence and experience and can help unite the class across the lines of gender and race.
Moreover, as the papers on Broken Hill, the depression era and women’s militancy during WWII show, women workers were fighting for our rights long before the modern women’s movement arrived to lecture us on the primacy of gender over class and implore us to unite with bourgeois women rather than with the men of our own class.
The book might have been strengthened by something on Aboriginal women workers. For instance, there must have been struggles by Aboriginals employed on outback stations and also broader political struggles against oppression in which Aboriginal women were involved.
It might also have been useful to have a short concluding paper on the way forward, counterposing socialism and women’s liberation to feminism, especially since all the authors are active participants in the struggle for human liberation.
These points aside, this book is highly recommended. It is a welcome restatement of the centrality of class and offers inspiring examples of how working class women – and the working class as a whole – can mobilise around class and gender emancipation. It won’t sit comfortably on too many academics’ bookshelves, but people interested in changing the world will find it useful.