Academic journal article Hecate

On Women Joining Unions: Anna Booth, Activism and Altruism

Academic journal article Hecate

On Women Joining Unions: Anna Booth, Activism and Altruism

Article excerpt

A widely accepted view both inside and outside the union movement in Australia is that some women refuse to join unions, some join but are inactive, and there is Anna Booth. For years, Anna Booth has contradicted every cliche on women unionists: she is a young woman who is a union leader; she is an attractive and well-dressed official of a blue-collar union; she is a mother of a young child who sits at the highest councils of the union movement.

Since Anna Booth became National Secretary of the then Clothing and Allied Trades Union of Australia in 1987, her image has been part of the pantheon of superwomen displayed in the glossy magazines. Until she joined the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1992, Trish Caswell, another union leader and mother, also featured often in the lists. In most respects no different from the other super achievers, these two women seemed especially unusual since their successes occurred in the trade union movement, a site of highly visible male culture, albeit represented as a specific form of masculinity.

In December 1993, the Weekend Australian published an extraordinary photograph of Anna Booth on its front page under the heading "Union Luminary Clocks Off for Baby". In muted tones of flesh and wood she was shown in a plush room complete with lit candles, sitting on an elaborate rocking chair with her bare feet propped on a couch. Wearing a frock and pearls she held a small laughing boy on her lap thus obscuring her pregnancy.(1)

What did it mean? The theme of the accompanying story was that as for any other woman Anna Booth's biology, her femininity, demanded that career and commitment outside the family eventually must be set aside. Even if ambition to achieve in the public domain is strong, children become "the absolute priority."(2) Moreover, this is necessary because the union movement is strongly resistant to the needs of women and their families. Just like we always knew it was.

However, it was the image itself which claimed attention. Weeks later other union women still referred to it. A picture in the style of a 'women's' magazine, at first glance apparently sympathetic, it was disturbing in its lushness, a kind of 'domestic soft porn',(3) which thoroughly undercut the status and significance of Booth as a national leader. Such an image cannot be read as a sign of a feminised unionism, but rather as an attack on its possibility. In order to enact that most feminine of activities, the achievement of motherhood, even a powerful leader has to jettison her other commitments and withdraw into the home.

Importantly, that domestic life is represented in the photograph as utterly middle class with the setting an expensively furnished, private room quite at odds with a union office or the workplaces of the members of a clothing trades union. Were the seeds of her rejection of a total, lifelong commitment to the union there all along, not just as young woman, but as always middle class, and therefore never a real comrade? The meanings are entangled. The accompanying text claims that Booth rejects the union for its lack of sensitivity to women's needs, but the demands of motherhood are so powerful that perhaps even the best of public workplaces could not satisfy. And at the same time we see Booth as comfortably middle class and, hence, as not on the same side as unionists anyway. As sociologists used to say, the message is highly overdetermined. The image and its location was another shot in the battles over representations of feminist politics and therefore in the targeting of the ways those debates are shaped. The discursive possibilities of feminism are always under siege.

A week or two later, the glossy magazine HQ brought out a five page article on the same theme of the crisis for Anna Booth because of the "conflicting demands of work and parenthood".(4) With room for several photographs the piece is dominated by a full page black and white of a glamorous Booth, again with her young son, this time in a well appointed kitchen. …

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