The memoirs of
By Daphne Gollan
Partly because the contemporary women's movement arose in the
advanced Western countries and most of those who first wrote and spoke
for it were articulate middle-class women, it has not taken long for
the movement to begin to write and rewrite the history of women. The
probes are now directed not only at the generations of the grandmothers
but also at that of the mothers. I have been asked, with other women,
to write of my experiences as a woman of the left — I was a member of
the Australian Communist Party — from the 1930s onward.
Just as the rediscovery of the lives of women who fought for
vote has radically altered the old view of them as brave but batty,
half-ludicrous, half-heroic figures, it may be that the story of the
mothers will correct the common picture of us as earnest toilers in the
field kitchens of the army of labour, devoid either of broad visions of
the future, or of any intimation of the specific problems of women's
My background was that of an English family, middle-class in
but of the respectable poor in income, which came to Sydney in the
1920s. I grew up during the Depression. At the end of 1929 the first of
the three wage-earners in the family of five, my brother, lost his job,
followed by my father and my sister. I remember my sister coming home
one Friday night, standing in the hall, saying to my mother,
pleadingly, half-smiling, "I have lost my job." And my mother who was
deaf, replying, "I didn't hear you. What did you say?" but she had
Then they went into the kitchen and shut the door. It was not
family where anything to do with money, sex, alcohol or private
problems was discussed in front of a child. But politics were. My
father had worked his way from High Church of England through
Protestant fundamentalism and Lloyd George liberalism to a humanist
socialism, pulling my conservative mother and the family after him.
They had all become firm Labor voters, possibly for the sake
peace. My father was an irrepressible sharer of his thought processes.
He was never employed again after the Depression. But he tried hard. He
would walk into town to read the jobs vacant pages in the Sydney
Morning Herald posted up outside the Herald building in Hunter
We lived in a small cottage, which we were buying. That was
from foreclosure by Lang's Moratorium Act of 1930, but we lost what was
left of the family savings when the Government Savings Bank closed in
1931. My father and brother went to the country trying to make some
sort of living — my brother worked as a milk carter and my father grew
tomatoes on the Richmond River, which were the best in the district
until floods engulfed them. We were on the dole; I remember my sister's
humiliation when she and I collected dole groceries. My mother died of
cancer on Christmas Day 1931 in a church hospital on the other side of
Sydney. None of her family was with her when she died, although she was
asking for us.
By the middle of 1932 the four of us were together again. We
fervently supported Lang and cheered him at the huge rally in Moore
Park just before he was defeated in the state elections. My brother
found a job in a Botany spinning mill. He worked on afternoon and night
shifts. There was no direct transport from Botany to our suburb so he
rode a bicycle.
I remember his coming home in the mornings, after the night
before I left for school. His clothes were covered with pieces of raw
wool, like cotton-wool, but creamy in colour and with a nasty smell. He
would sit, unable to speak. This was the first time I ever saw anyone
with a grey face.
For our family the Depression began to lift in 1934 when my
returned to his skilled job as a printer. Although he and I were found
to have tuberculosis in that year, we survived that crisis. My brother
was treated without having to leave work. The family was afloat again.
The Depression, which temporarily aroused my brother and
an interest in politics, radicalised me for life. It gave me an
instinctive class consciousness, which recognised not only an
unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, but also the utter
powerlessness of the oppressed to control their own lives. I had seen
the respectable hard-working members of my family caught and tossed
about in the catastrophe of the Depression, unable to influence in the
slightest degree events concerning themselves.
The improvement in the family fortunes happened equally
independently of their will. The economy had simply begun to pick up.
From my father's political ramblings I gathered that solidarity and
struggle were the only weapons the oppressed could use to free
I have dwelt on the Depression only to show that that
together with my father's preaching, inclined me to socialism.
Considering myself a socialist from the age of 12, the only question
was whether this socialist bent would remain an attitude of mind or
whether life's experience would force a deeper understanding and
As for female conditioning in my childhood and adolescence, it
curious mixture of repression and freedom. I rarely went out and never
met boys socially but was allowed to read what I liked from the modest
collection of books at home and from libraries. The foundations of
painful and farcical socio-sexual relations were well laid in the form
of bumptiousness arising from precocious reading, social shyness, and
an insatiable interest in the mysterious other sex.
During the late 1930s the Spanish Civil War and the advance of
German fascism dominated the international arena. Some understanding of
the implications of fascism came to me at school through a Jewish
friend whose family worked with anti-fascist refugees.
In 1937 I went to see Clifford Odets' play, Till the Day I
at the New Theatre and haunted the theatre thereafter. A stream of
powerfully written plays were staged there, on war, fascism, Spain,
unionism, and working-class life. Perhaps the charged atmosphere of
1938, the year of Munich, may have given urgency to the propaganda, but
I found the message compelling.
In August, removing myself from the New Theatre, I applied to
the Communist Party. I was employed at the Mitchell Library and
staggering through a degree course as a part-time student. I wished to
join the Communist Party because it seemed to me to be the only
political organisation which actively stood for socialism and opposed
fascism. But it must also be admitted that part of the attraction of
the Communist Party was that I found it shocking and conspiratorial.
I had been greatly impressed at the theatre by one party
whose pockets were always stuffed with circular letters from the Sydney
Committee addressed "Dear Comrade". It was only after I joined the
Communist Party that I found that with Spain, China, and the people's
front against fascism I had also inherited the USSR.
I was placed in the University Branch (Unit 31), which had
dozen members. From time to time functionaries from the State Committee
came to the fortnightly meetings. They were grave but not unfriendly,
knew the answers to all the political questions, and were regarded by
us with much respect.
The authority exercised by functionaries over the rank and
rested in part on their being interpreters of the policy laid down by
the higher committees, and in fact on our recognition that these men
lived isolated lives of unremitting work, much of it routine, for which
they were paid a pittance.
For them an obvious danger of corruption lay in the growth of
sense of power, which flowed from the deference with which we listened
to them. Not that such considerations entered my head. My problem on
joining the party was that of all women in organisations in which they
are greatly outnumbered: that of overshadowed development.
The limits of women's experience in the public domain are much
narrower than those of men and, for young women in particular, much of
their experience is mediated through men. The way to the wider reaches
of the outside world is in the protective custody of men friends. I had
managed to find my way independently into the Communist Party, but once
there was speedily headed off, cornered and captured.
At the very beginning of a new intellectual venture one fell
before learning to open one's mouth to make the essential blundering
attempts to arrive at a position for oneself. Others would expound
everything so much better.
Throughout 1938 and into 1939 the main international campaigns
the party were in support of collective security against fascism. The
abrupt conclusion of the German-Soviet pact threw the anti-fascist
movement into confusion, and when war broke out in September 1939 our
branch met to consider our attitude to it: was it anti-fascist? in
which case we supported it, or was it imperialist? in which case we
The party leaders supported the war to begin with, but our
tutor, Guido Baracchi, argued and convinced a number of us that it was
imperialist war. There was a tense meeting at which Baracchi's
arguments were set against those of the party leaders.
We were subject to heavy pressure to desert Guido's position,
the vote only two of us supported him, one with eloquent argument, and
the other, myself, in silence. Within a month the line changed and we
were all opposing the war. Because of its antiwar stand the party was
declared illegal in June 1940.
We were instructed in elementary conspiratorial procedures,
how to make a party meeting look like a literature discussion group and
how to meet and follow someone you had never seen before to an unknown
destination. That was exciting. We also had to practise using false
names. Pseudonyms present problems — it is difficult enough to remember
one's own, let alone anyone else's. So before the branch meeting at
which we were to present our names and use them, I worked out one which
would be hard to forget.
When my turn came I put forward Cleopatra Sweatfigure as my
revolutionary pseudonym. There was a pause, then the comrade from the
Central Committee said, "That's enough, comrade. We are not joking.
This is a serious matter," and so on. In fact, I was not joking. The
colours of life were very bright then.
One had a clarity of vision that in later years returns only
the help of alcohol. It was true that it was not amusing to be opposed
to the war. There was the intense isolation we felt from the people we
met and worked with. Refusal to make professions of patriotism, no
matter how shallow, was regarded as subversive.
Dissenting views, which a week before the war had simply been
differences of opinion became, a week later, treasonable. We were
harassed by the forces of the law. In 1940 I had become secretary of
the New South Wales Youth Parliament, a delegate body to which trade
unions and organisations with young people sent representatives to
debate youth problems
The Youth Parliament put forward reformist demands on
apprenticeship, employment and housing, and a peace program, which
reflected some aspects of party policy on the war. One day two
plain-clothes policemen came to see me at work and told me to supply
them with the names and addresses of all the people who attended the
sessions. They said they would be returning. This filled me with gloom.
I assumed that when I refused I would be charged with something.
The possibility of imprisonment did not bother me, but the
of breaking the news to my family did. I could hardly expect them to be
satisfied if I simply came home one day and remarked, like Captain
Oates, that I would be gone for some time. One lived two lives, one in
the party and one in dubious respectability at home and at work.
The theoretical basis of our opposition to the war was the
analysis of the 1914-18 war as being between predatory imperialist
powers and that the revolutionary workers' struggle had to be directed
against their own governments. Although looking back it seems to me
that the Communist Party was so faithful a mouthpiece of the USSR's
foreign policy that we were not adopting a stand of genuine
revolutionary internationalism, nevertheless at the time I found the
Leninist analysis a sufficient argument for opposing the war.
The question I ask myself today is what position might we
women's movement to adopt in the case of war. Obviously the broad
movement, reflecting as it does so many different tendencies, would be
divided. Perhaps the most weight we could hope the simple concept of
sisterhood to bear would be that of a pacifist position, regarding
support for war as a contradiction of women's universal role as
life-givers. But if our country were engaged in a war which, from a
socialist viewpoint was unjust and had to be opposed, is there any
other argument that feminist socialists might use against it?
During the Vietnam War I heard a position outlined, which was
on rejection of imperialism as a manifestation of patriarchy, but it
was not fully worked out. Returning to my story, the plain-clothes
policemen did not come back. I believe their intention was to leave me
for a time to worry and wonder.
Yet another change in the party line followed the German
the USSR in June 1941. From opposition we went to support, although not
overnight. There were a few of us who thought the character of the war
had not changed, but for the great majority the entry of the USSR
guaranteed that it became a genuinely anti-fascist struggle.
Once the Labor Government took office in October 1941, and
more after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the fighting
much closer to Australian shores, the Communist Party committed itself
wholeheartedly to the war.
I resolved the problem of my split private and political life
marrying in May 1941. It could also have been resolved by moving into a
place of my own, but wages were still very low and personal
perspectives correspondingly modest. As for men and women living
together without marrying, even in radical circles this normally
occurred only if there were impediments to marriage.
In the Youth Parliament we marked the change of line by
peace policy and turning to propaganda on behalf of the war effort with
meetings, conferences and even a crowded town hall rally, all designed
to encourage young workers to work harder. Our about-face was much to
the discomfiture of those Christian pacifist youth organistions, which
had found enough in common with our peace policy to stick with the
Youth Parliament in its difficult days.
At another level we responded to the rapid advance of the
towards Australia by calling for a people's army. Some of us trained
briefly in the hills near Hornsby to learn how to repel the enemy with
pea-rifles. They were lovely Sunday mornings. All I remember of my
paramilitary training is that to deal with invaders in hilly country
there must be no noise, no movement and especially no heads above the
This busy political activity was interrupted in August 1942 by
finding myself pregnant and very sick. I was given leave from the
library and returned to work at the end of 1943, having been helped to
find a place for my son in a day nursery. My husband had long since
joined the air force.
Severe petrol rationing made public transport abominably
The difficulty of fighting a way on to rush-hour trains with a young
child and the violence of the abuse from harassed fellow travellers
left me with no choice but to push my son in a pusher to and from the
nursery and then walk on to the library — five miles a day altogether.
At work I dreaded taking phone calls in case it was the voice
matron telling me to remove my child immediately because he had a cold
or had fallen over and hurt himself. In 1945 I went to the Ironworkers'
Union as the librarian in their newly established research department,
where I stayed for three years.
Most of the industries covered by the union were engaged
indirectly in production for the war and it was here that the party
policy of full support for the war effort was most severely tested.
Throughout the union, officials, and particularly communist officials,
pushed for maximum production and settlement of disputes without resort
A policy of class collaboration and abandonment of the use of
traditional working-class weapons on the whole suited the mood of
Australians in 1942, when we feared we would be invaded. But by 1945
workers' war weariness and frustration at long hours, pegged wages and
bad working conditions in some industries made them very ready to
However, the Ironworkers' policy was as strongly opposed to
as in 1942. In April 1945 the leadership was led into a disastrous
conflict with the rank and file of the Balmain branch of the union.
That struggle led ultimately to a successful challenge to the validity
of the ballot under which the national secretary was elected and to the
overturning of the communist-led executives nationally and in every
branch of the union.
The trouble in Balmain gnawed at our confidence the whole time
worked in the union. Officials struggled with the mulish support of the
branch members for their delegate, Origlass, suspended by the national
leadership. Reasons for the rejection of communist policy and officials
were sought in the subversive activities of "Trotskyite troublemakers"
and in the peculiar character of the waterfront workers, who in
addition to the crankily independent original workforce were believed
to include draft-dodging semi-criminal elements.
The inadequacies of the hard-pressed party members in the
branch were freely canvassed. They, with their supporters, managed to
command a majority at branch meetings but, with a few exceptions, were
rejected on the job. What we did not call into question was the
validity of the party's total support for the war effort, which for
party members was first of all support for the USSR's struggle.
Uncritical following of every turn in Soviet policy increased
Stalin gained ascendancy in the USSR. The Stalinist practice of never
arguing with opponents but merely insulting them, effectively silenced
any questioning of the role of the USSR or any attempts to reach a
revolutionary internationalist position.
Discredited as the party's drive for maximum production had
among large sections of workers, there was no re-examination of the
assumptions which underlay the policy. Another problem which was never
mentioned in the union or party branches was that of ballot rigging.
But we did discuss it in private.
Those who argued for "adjustment of union ballots, recognisng
an evil necessity, of course, said that beleaguered as we were in the
unions with the reactionaries constantly attacking, we could not allow
the enemy into policy-making bodies. Everyone knew that if their
returning officers presided over the ballot boxes, the vote would never
give victory to the left.
Above all, the long-term objectives of the socialist movement
not be jeopardised by the errors or failures of our short-term
policies, or halted because the rank and file were temporarily misled
by the overwhelming barrage of lies from the reactionaries.
Against this, teacher comrades pointed out in holier than thou
fashion that if you needed to set aside the verdict of the rank and
file, it was time to have a look at the policies being offered to the
members. The use of dishonest expedients to gain time brought its own
punishment — the time gained was never used to reassess policies. They
Adjustment of ballots continued with the hope that sooner or
the rank and file would catch up, would come to realise the correctness
of party policy. Needless to say the perspectives of party and masses,
far from converging, drew further apart. The messianism, the conviction
that party policy served the interests of the working class, the sense
of having history on our side even if historical development constantly
lagged behind, the elitism in short of a dynamic and, for the most
part, dedicated group of people as we were, presented a temptation too
strong to resist to substitute the party's experience for that of
backward and prejudiced workers.
It was difficult not to lapse into this substitutionism. It
many forms, the gross practice of ballot adjustment being merely an
extreme example. It tended to colour a great many of our campaigns. It
was during my time at the union that the existence of dual standards of
morality struck me forcibly.
The cold war followed the hot war, the alliance of convenience
up, friends became enemies. From time to time we blasted bourgeois
decadence. Against this we set something vaguely thought of as
proletarian morality. But what was this proletarian morality? We quite
ignored the implications of Marx's statement that the dominant idea of
an epoch is that of the ruling class. By and large the moral standards
of proletarians were those of the bourgeoisie.
In so far as proletarian morality was distinctive, this was
it reflected the needs and interests of the working class. The struggle
of the working class for emancipation both entailed the emancipation of
all humanity and evoked a morality superior to that of capitalism
because it looked forward to the classless, just society.
This superior morality was, of course, a class morality. Its
sprang from the class role of the proletariat. But in the domestic
sphere, the area of relations between men and women and children,
proletarian morality did not appear to offer anything different from
bourgeois values. The relations within a working-class family were
remarkably similar to those of the middle class.
The working-class family was held up as an institution to be
for its stability and enduring partnerships. But in spite of formal
recognition of equality within marriage we applied puritanical
standards to women in their domestic role. If, for an unattached
female, our attitude was more or less that her private life was her own
affair, the pressures on women in the family, particularly those with
children, were that they should be seen to be fulfilling their duties,
and certainly not seeking sexual diversions.
Such judgments were not, of course, applied to men. Every day
met men of the left whose wives appeared to be excluded from any share
in their husbands' political interests and relegated to separate lives
in the suburbs. Husbands sought and found companionship elsewhere, yet
regularly returned for rest and recreation to the family units of which
their wives were the indispensable core.
Proletarian morality in the private sphere, a repressive
bourgeois morality, was fully equipped with double standards. And
behind the prescriptions directed against women towered the shadow of
the Soviet exemplar, where under Stalin crushing emphasis was laid on
the role of a strong, united family in cementing socialist society. So
there it was in 1946, all the information was to hand, but not the
perception to interpret it.
Those of us who thought about such matters were half aware of
gigantic discrepancy between the pretensions of the self-proclaimed new
class morality and the actuality of unchanged repressive attitudes in
the domestic sphere. We fell back on the overworked idea of blaming
cultural backwardness for shortcomings.
It was not until 1970, when we in Canberra heard the message
women's liberation, that the beginnings of an explanation began to
emerge for me. The persistence of patriarchal attitudes within the
working class itself not only destroyed attempts in the public sphere
to build egalitarian structures but also ensured that oppression in the
private sphere went unquestioned.
Long before the development of class society basic relations
women and men were defined in terms of the confining, protection,
possession and use of women by men. The ancient prohibitions, although
severely dented in the course of women's struggle to break free,
nevertheless still ensure the social subordination of women.
Thirty years ago we saw the struggle for women's emancipation
minor part of a much larger struggle and equated their liberation with
their entry into the workforce, socialisation of housework and
provision of child-care services. The solution of women's problems lay
in lifting women, as far as their disabilities and biological role
allowed, to the level of men.
The worst thing about this approach was that it neglected the
simplest political lesson of all — that the winning of freedom cannot
be a by-product of someone else's struggle. Those who are oppressed
must liberate themselves.
The problem of politicising women, which we saw as the means
lifting them, was always a baffling one. This was clearly illustrated
in our ambivalent approach to women's organisations. I had to stop
working in the union at the end of 1947 when my son began to attend
school. An interlude of work among women followed.
The New Housewives Association, a raffish forerunner of the
Union of Australian Women, had recently been set up. We aimed to build
our membership among working-class women with a program calling for
price controls, public housing and child-care facilities. The viability
of the organisation rested on the strength of its local groups and
these in turn depended on the involvement of NHA women in local issues.
Much effort and enthusiasm went in trying to extend community
services to provide local markets, halls and child-minding centres. But
we could rarely resist the temptation to raise the work to a higher
level by putting on demonstrations against rising prices, milling about
in the gas company's offices, for example, waving our gas bills. We
were urged, all 30 of the most advanced of us, by a member of the
Central Committee, to storm Parliament House with our grievances.
We were reminded of the feats of the French miners' wives who,
the wave of post-war mass strikes, detrousered and publicly humiliated
a mine manager. What was wrong about all this was not the policy of
publicity-seeking in itself (a separate question), but the suggestion
that such stunts had anything in common with acts of mass indignation
coming out of class battles.
Work among women, as understood at that time, ended for me
followed my husband to England, where he was working on his PhD thesis.
There my second child was born. I also had the opportunity to visit
Eastern Europe, but not the USSR. Something of the reality of life in
those countries filtered through to me.
By the time I returned to Australia in 1952 the process of
enlightenment must have begun. I remember going to a cadres' meeting
early in 1953 at which there was an unusually large number of agitated
Jewish comrades present. We were to hear a report from a member of the
Central Committee on the reported discovery of a plot to kill Stalin
and other members of the government by a group of the leading (Jewish)
medical specialists in the USSR.
When the reporter called on us to rejoice at the uncovering of
crime, I suddenly thought, "I'm not going to rejoice". Dopey doctors, I
felt, were the same the world over, they supported the status quo and
usually did not kill their patients on purpose. Something was wrong.
But this was a momentary flash, although I imagine it would
to my being among those expelled in 1956 had we continued to live in
Sydney. For many of us the gaining of understanding is fractured and
spasmodic. It was interrupted in this instance by our removal to
Canberra, then a settlement of about 30,000 people. There I finally
came to terms with the USSR, almost with a sense of anti-climax.
I took up the study of Russian and began to read widely in
history and politics — all the books we had never read, merely
denounced, or had never heard of, including the works of Trotsky. A
much more protracted and painful experience was the shattering of the
long-held belief, mentioned earlier, that it was ignorance and
prejudice that accounted for the tension in the relations between men
and women, that the common struggle for emancipation would itself
demonstrate the socially conditioned origins of female inferiority.
Once they understood, men's attitudes would change. The
that we were part of in Canberra constituted a pub society, which
specialised in cultural pretensions and a monstrous reverence for the
male ethos. To this day I can recall the shock and disbelief with which
I listened to men, not culturally deprived proletarians, who consigned
women as a sex, all women, because they were women, to the periphery of
civilised life, to the grey area of the not quite human.
This has been a political account. Looking back, I can see
have moved from a highly authoritarian elitist form of Marxist
commitment to a libertarian socialism. This particular progression
would not have been possible without the insights of the women's
movement. It has come from a life's experience, which liberated me,
belatedly enough, from the spell of the November revolution and showed
the evil effects of the substitution of the will of a self-proclaimed
revolutionary vanguard for that of the ordinary mass of people.
The lessons of my own experience led to a socialist outlook
genuinely committed to the idea of self-management, but left
unexplained the greater part of women's oppression. For those of us, a
minority, in the women's movement who believe in the need for a
revolutionary change in society, the analysis provided by the new wave
of feminism of the role of the family and of the dichotomy between the
public and domestic spheres has uncovered much about the way in which
institutions of oppression work and about the hidden violence with
which society enforces its controls.
It is an analysis which transcends the crude version of the
theory of the state as an instrument of class coercion, which did duty
for us for so long in explaining the source of all oppression. One
pernicious effect of the exclusive concentration on struggle in the
public sphere which has characterised Marxist parties, has been the
neglect of the question, "How shall we live now?", in favour of the
question, "What sort of society do we envisage after the revolution"?
Recognising the implicit elitism of deciding for others in the
second question, it must also be said that by ignoring the problem of
what to do now we failed to see the oppression under our own eyes and
connived in its continuation. In no liberation movement is the
connection between the forms and the aims of struggle stronger than in
ours. Only so long as the formations we throw up act autonomously and
in an anti-authoritarian way can it be said that we are struggling
against patriarchal structures for universal liberation.