"June 22nd 1941, Nazi Germany attacks USSR - what next?"
Russia's involvement in the war allowed an immediate rapprochement between the left and right strands of the women's movement. In December 1941 Greenwood was able to win both ideological and financial support for the USSR from the conservative Country Women's Association.
Dear Mrs Greenwood,
Herewith I enclose your paper on "Women of the USSR" for which we thank you. I kept it longer than I intended but some of the women enjoyed it so much they asked for it again so as others could hear it. What pleased me most was the interest and discussion afterwards and our afternoon for Russia was most successful both financially and in knowledge gleaned from your script.1
The new political climate promoted the birth of several Russian aid organisations. By 1942 Greenwood was the Organising Secretary of the Perth branch of the Russian Medical Aid Society for which she claimed to have raised over ten thousand pounds.2 She was also a member of the Australian-Russian Society. Jessie Street was on the National Executive of both organisations.3
With their faith in socialism now publicly vindicated, Street and the UA launched the Australian Women's Charter (AWC). The Charter was the most coherent attempt yet seen to formally unite the various factions of the women's movement. A programme was drafted with a core of universally acceptable objectives. These included equal citizenship rights, equal pay, anti sex-discrimination legislation, divorce law reform, equal access to education, a government organised child care system, and a motherhood or home-maker allowance of 30 shillings per week.4 The Charter aims were not the exclusive property of the so-called radical left, nor were they pursued outside legitimate democratic channels. The fundamental advantage of the Charter was that it recruited a united front and hence was a more effective pressure group within the context of liberal pluralism. In its role as sponsor of the AWC the UA had effectively supplanted the AFWV as the main national co-ordinating body of the women's organisations. This it did with only minimal opposition. With Bessie Rischbieth marooned in the UK for the duration of the war the AFWV had, for the time being, lost its power-house.
The Charter steadily gathered momentum during the war years and branches were organised throughout the country. In 1946 a Charter conference was organised in Sydney, the developments here were a portent of things to come. The coup of the conference was to be the arrival of several overseas speakers, prominent amongst which was a delegation from the USSR. Greenwood flew East to cover the event for the ABC Women's Session:
On the second day Mrs Street read the news that six Russian Women had left Moscow on Sunday and could be expected within a few days, the Press headlined it. An engineer, chairman of a collective farm, professor member of the Supreme Soviet and leader of the main women's organisation, gave a promise for the other disappointments. Each morning the question went around "have the Russians arrived yet . . . are they here?" Each evening they seemed further away than ever. The International night was postponed and postponed so that they could speak. But as you know they too turned back.5
The Russians were not the only international delegates missing from the conference but their absence is significant because the circumstances surrounding it developed into an argument which eventually escalated into one of the first incidents of the Cold War. The Russians had got as far as London and here their request for air travel priority was allegedly refused. Moscow announced that the Australian government had deliberately blocked the arrival of the Soviet delegation.
The Cold War seriously undermined the official accord within the women's movement which had made the AWC a working possibility. In 1949 Street was on the Perth leg of a tour aimed at canvassing support for the ailing Charter. Street had faithfully served the ALP throughout the 1940s, twice contesting parliamentary seats. In 1945 she was appointed as a government delegate to the San-Fransisco peace conference at which the UN was founded. But in 1948 when Street, along with other ALP members, was given the ultimatum to jettison her affiliation with "communistic" organisations such as the Australian-Russian Society she chose instead to leave the ALP. In Perth she was asked for, and gave, assurances to the Lord Mayor that the Australian-Russian Society was not connected with the Communist Party.6 But for all this Street's address to the Charter meeting was not well attended. At this point Rischbieth, now back from the UK, mounted an attack in the pages of the West Australian:
As the programme of the conference was practically identical with a well established women's organisation (State federal and international in scope) with which I am closely connected it might be wondered why Mrs Street's conference was not better supported.
It seems wise, therefore, to explain that Press notices of the annual report of the Communist Party reveal that it has supported the Women's Charter Movement in several States . . . and helped the Women's Independent (international) Democratic Federation . . . . Mrs Street represented the Women's Charter Conference at Paris in late 1945, when this world federation of women was inaugurated, and I know for a fact that she was then and there elected to the International Executive Council. This federation is considered by the pre-war international organisations of women to be Communist directed, and is today dividing the world wide women's movement into two distinct camps with rival ideologies.7
On the day before Rischbieth's press statement Greenwood interviewed Street for her 6PM-AM women's session. The interview was recorded on May 2 and broadcast the following day - the same day that Rischbieth's letter appeared in the morning paper. Street may not have been aware of the forthcoming letter but she was well aware of the general criticisms which were being levelled at the Charter and herself. She took the opportunity to systematically counter the thrust of Rischbieth's attack, and Greenwood obligingly provided the questions which led up to this:
Would you clarify the impression that seems to be held by many groups here, that the Charter is a rival organisation which might be duplicating action already being taken by them? I think what you have said indicates that it is not, but it is rather a co-ordinating consultative.
That is right, a channel through which co-operation may come . . . .There is a little misunderstanding I think some of it is misrepresentation, the Charter is purely an Australian Organisation, it is an accredited society of the United Nations . . . but it has no other National affiliation at all, no Overseas affiliation. If we wanted to have Overseas affiliation we would have to alter our constitution and when I came back in 1946 after having attended the Women's International Democratic Federation . . . I advised against affiliation with this body because . . . it would destroy the nature of our body to being merely a consultative organ and the channel for co-operation.8
Street was not without support in Perth. For some of the WSG rank and file Rischbieth's opinion was precisely an opinion. Complaints were tabled because her views were expressed as those of the WSG State President rather than those of a private individual.9 And conservative though she was, Rischbieth's opposition to the Charter may have been partly provoked by a personal antagonism towards Jessie Street, the woman who in Rischbieth's enforced absence had usurped her position as Federal co-ordinator and international peace representative. In May 1949 Mary Driver wrote to Greenwood from Darwin:
I noticed the report of Bessie's counter to Jessie's visit, and guessed what had happened. Bess would think that clever, but really she should know it will react on herself. Those two women are as far apart as the poles. One thing Bess cannot do is take from Jessie the fact that she was appointed by the government to UNA for Equal Status work.10
The severe political circumstances of the Cold War may well have been a factor of the Charter's eventual failure. In the end the official discourse prevailed. But behind the official discourse, which divided the women's movement into Rischbieth's "two distinct camps", was an unofficial discourse - a discourse which, in its recognition of women as an oppressed collective, struggled against and attempted to bridge the division. Parallel with Street's defence of the Charter is an attempt to rationalise the lack of formal support at the Perth Conference:
What about co-operation from organisations?
Well the Conference was attended by people who were members of 14 different organisations, but some of them came as observers and joined as personal members of the Constitution, I am not saying that they all came as delegates.
It was along this line of mediation that Greenwood's broadcasts - one day extolling the virtues of the USSR and the next those of Westminster democracy - could be read and understood by her listeners.
1 Faith Symonds of the Country Women's Association (Moora Branch), Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 28 Dec 1941, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.
2 Irene A. Greenwood, Letter to H.S.Crofts of the Dept of Supply, 28 Dec 1944, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.
3 Meredith Burgmann, "Hot and Cold", in Australia's First Cold War, 1945-1953: Vol 1. Society, Communism and Culture, ed., Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1984), p. 82.
4 Ranald, p. 46.
5 "Personalities at the Australian Women's Charter Conference", The Women's Session, writ. and prod. Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 19 Sept 1946.
6 The West Australian, 28 April 1949, p. 4.
7 Bessie Rischbieth, Letter to The West Australian, 3 May 1949, p. 15.
8 "Copy of Wire Recorded Interview of Mrs Jessie M G Street By Mrs Irene Greenwood on Tuesday May 3rd at 2P.M.", Woman to Woman, Irene A. Greenwood and Jessie M.G. Street, 6PM-6AM, 3 May 1949.
9 Kate White, "Bessie Rischbieth", in Westralian Portraits, ed., John Lyall Hunt (Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 1979), p. 220.
10 Mary A. Driver, Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, May 1949, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.
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