Scenes from a Life in Feminism

By Thornton, Merle | Hecate, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Scenes from a Life in Feminism


Thornton, Merle, Hecate


Scenes from a Life in Feminism

I am delighted and honoured by my invitation here to share in the celebration of this seventieth International Women's Day in Queensland. I am also pleased by a certain irony. The last time I was treated to refreshments at Queensland Parliament House was thirty-four years ago in the course of lobbying the then Justice Minister on the subject of the liquor law and its prohibition of women in public bars; that Minister did not take us seriously. I'm glad today is different.

I certainly cannot speak for all Australian women, but I can speak as one whose life in some quite pointed ways demonstrates the changes during my epoch. And I can say where I believe we women are up to now, on the advancement road.

I was born in 1930. My earliest infant school memory is a circle of derisive laughter. I was playing marbles with a little boy. Not done.

My high school -- Fort Street Girls' -- academical, disciplinarian. Our teachers were single or widowed, exceptionally well qualified. Teaching was one of the few things open to educated women. Students were the top few percent of achievers from a broad area of Sydney. Half of these clever girls left school for the workforce at or shortly after school leaving age -- then fourteen years and eight months. From the sixty-five lucky ones, just five of us went directly on to university as full-time students. I was assisted by an exhibition and a scholarship, but was nevertheless exceptionally fortunate to have parents willing to make big sacrifices for me to be a fulltime student. At the time it was widely considered pure waste -- even dangerous -- to expose women to higher education, since they would only get married.

My first job application on graduation is to CSIRO. But I am told that it will not be considered -- they want a man. Eventually I go into the public service -- the Department of Social Services (Social Security). I am a `graduate clerk' -- one of the early ones -- intended for fast-tracking -- intended by someone but not by the seniors who had gone up the seniority ladder. My task for the first week is to address envelopes by hand from a list. It is explained that this is lest I think any job is beneath my dignity. You see, I am doubly an upstart -- both graduate and female.

I soon have a demonstration of what to expect should I marry. A female friend at the next desk marries. Not long afterwards there is a phone call to our section. Could the caller speak to Mrs B? There is no Mrs B. working there. Oh, she used to be Miss A. When my friend reaches the phone the dobber has gone and so has her job.

The legal situation was that the regulations under the Public Service Act stipulated a woman officer would, on her marriage, be deemed to have resigned. If she had more than eight years' service, she was to receive one week's pay for each year of service `to compensate her for loss of a career.' Concealment of marriage was not only distasteful for the woman, but difficult to achieve; there were plenty of dobbers. The Clerical Officers' Association was no help -- it was the backbone of support for the marriage bar.

I am promoted on secondment to the ABC where I am on the General Manager's personal staff, handling all his official correspondence. I read the Broadcasting Act and regulations, but no relief there -- instrumentalities mimic the marriage bar of the Service. Already I am married, and with difficulty I successfully conceal my marriage for a few years till I am half-way through my first pregnancy. Then in 1956 I choose resigning in preference to being fired for moral turpitude (not their words). Women who `lived in sin' were at that time very actively persecuted both socially and in employment.

Another world.

Cut to Canberra 1959-1960. I've taken a research assisting job. Nell accepts a lectureship in Queensland where he is wanted at once. We decide he will go there ahead while I continue in my job for a bridging period. …

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