The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954

John Richardson

Bringing Utopia Home

The early 1940s presented Greenwood with her ideal social model and the political climate allowed her to tell of it. The period also provided the practical means of rebuilding utopia on home shores. It seemed, for a time, as if the necessary conditions for the construction of Greenwood's vision had at last materialised. Paradoxically, it was her worst enemy - war - that brought Greenwood's elusive goal almost within her grasp. Like the figured inhospitability of Gruber's (raw) Arctic, the war-time conditions could be turned to the teaching of "new and strange ways". The drive for victory at arms had resulted in social cohesion on the grand scale. The reserves of labour and industry, previously oriented towards private profit, were now directed towards a single goal. The push had increased the numbers of women in the work force, and in military or para-military organisations. In the terms of the women's movement, women were at last making an impact on the public sphere. The war had also motivated a great acceleration of scientific discovery. By 1946 the atom bomb stood as the motif of a science whose power knew no bounds. The "War Effort" was practically the figure of Greenwood's socialism by another name. With the apparatus of transformation already in place all that was required was a re-orientation towards future peace time targets. Greenwood took the initiative, utopia was brought home.

Just imagine the colossal machine of war turned to peace time purposes. Bulldozers tearing out dams and reservoirs, cutting roads through and over mountains; blazing the tracks for railways and landing strips for air transports. Factories turning out pre-fabricated houses and all the motors turning to make homes. Mines excavating the earths minerals and metals and fuels needed by the dynamics and diesels of a power age. And, above all, the vast organisation of man-power diverted from the purposes of death and destruction to the tasks of life and construction. What a world it would be. It all sounds so utopian, and yet, why not? Why cannot mankind use the tools welded to meet the crisis of war to carve out a modern civilisation.1

For the first time the picture of a utopian future was supplemented by a logic of change. Science and industry were previously articulated in abstract forms, or, when they took on the material characteristics of inventions and tireless workers it was in a narrative set in some far off land. But in the mid-1940s, the accoutrements of the "war effort" were tangible, demonstrable instruments of change. They were already a part of Australia's here and now. The tool of transformation was real and at hand.

As yet the logic was incomplete. Greenwood's mise-en-scene of utopian plenitude was designed to instil a desire for change. The war effort would provide the practical means. But it had still to be appropriated and re-oriented to serve Post-war social ends. This required a directing agency. Greenwood looked to the State to fill this role. The State, however, could not be relied upon to take the necessary steps of its own accord. It would require people of the correct political persuasion in key policy making positions, and preferably within the Commonwealth Government itself.

An advocate of parliamentarianism, Greenwood's relationship with democracy was nevertheless complex. As an ideology, capitalism, as Roland Barthes remarks, has difficulty naming itself.2 Most frequently it takes on the pseudonym of "democracy". It will be remembered that the object of Ruth Gruber's quest in "Women of the Soviet Arctic" was a comparison of "the differing political systems of fascism, communism and democracy". But if Gruber's findings spoke loudly of the superiority of communism Greenwood held fast to parliamentary democracy as a means of accessing her utopian goal. As a member of the early women's movement, parliamentary democracy was the privileged means by which feminist objectives would be secured. As a radio broadcaster, alternative paths were difficult, if not impossible, to air in the Australian context. Yet Greenwood was well aware of the differences and contradictions between capitalism and democracy. In 1943 she told her listeners that citizenship rights were,

nullified by party politics, pre-selection of candidates, methods of voting, privileges, power of Trusts and Combines and Banks over Parliament itself; but in the last resort these can be overcome by an enlightened public consisting of both men and women voters.3

"Enlightening" the voting public was encompassed within Greenwood's project. She appears to have had little faith in the electorate to behave in a politically responsible manner of their own accord, In a letter to Hartley Grattan she pointed out that in Australia there was a "dislike of politicians as a class yet [a] disinclination to take an active part or an interest in politics".4 Greenwood mentioned as an example the need to legislate for compulsory voting.

In 1944, however, it must have seemed to Greenwood as if the final building block in her scheme was about to fall into place. In that year the Labor government announced plans to extend the wartime administration's centralised planning powers into the Post-war period. If ratified by referendum the Constitution Alteration (Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights) Act 1944 would provide the Commonwealth government with power to harness the war effort to the ends of Post-war reconstruction. It would curtail the monopoly activities of "Trusts Combines and Banks" as well as usher in a range of social reforms.5 The proposal went to referendum in August.6 Greenwood campaigned vigorously for the "yes" vote:

jobs must be made secure, and this can only come about if the Commonwealth can continue to direct industry and engage in large scale national undertakings. In this way the factories, the equipment, the labour power that have been utilised so efficiently for our war effort, will be diverted to the needs of our civilian population.7

The referendum was lost with only Western Australia and South Australia voting in favour.

Only during the late war and immediate Post-war years was Greenwood able to lay out an explicit programme for change within the Australian context. With the onset of the Cold War her plan faded into the system of metaphors from which it had briefly emerged. From here, the programme for construction, like the finished utopian product, struggled to materialise in the guise of fable or book review. By 1953 the surface of the text had changed dramatically. But the central theme of the (re)construction programme - the war effort and its appropriation for the social good - was still the framework on which her imagery hung. Among the Books of the Week in March 1953 was Lin Yutang's Widow Chuan:

a hero comes home from war in modern China, and brings an echo of new and strange ways to a small group of families who are in conflict between the Elder, with his customary adherence to tradition, and the Hero, who has flown in planes and seen a new mode of life . . . . The war hero muses to himself, "have I changed or has my home changed?" The villagers were ignorant and superstitious, they had no education, no knowledge of sanitation, and he came to one conclusion, the village needed a good water supply system. Thus progress comes to the minds of men torn away from homes by war, and thus we can sense, through millions of such individuals as Captain Chuan is China progressing today . . . .8


1 Untitled script 8 June 1945, Greenwood.

2 Roland Barthes, Mythologies, (London: Paladin, 1976), p. 138.

3 "The Power of Women in Politics", The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood and Isabel Johnson, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 20 July 1943.

4 Irene A. Greenwood, Letter to Charles Hartley Grattan, 21, Oct 1940. The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

5 John V.Barry, Wider Powers for Greater Freedom (Melbourne: Rawlson's Book Shop, 1944), pp. 27-32

6 Referendum on Post-war reconstruction and democratic rights, 19 August 1944.

7 "Talk for WA Citizens' 'Yes' League", writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 17 Aug 1944.

8 "Widow Chuan", Book of the Week, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, 6PM-AM, 4 March 1953.

New: 25 March, 1996 | Now: 1 May, 2015