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

John Richardson


Throughout the period of early twentieth century feminism in Australia the dominant notion that women's primary role was that of home-maker, child bearer/rearer remained substantially unchallenged. The early suffragists' campaign for enfranchisement was predicated on the belief that women, as a voting bloc, could play their part in reforming the frontier society of 1890s Western Australia. This would be done by superimposing the traditional values of the home on those of "moral degeneracy".1 As late as the 1950s "the home" was projected as a blue print for the public sphere, as the WCTU put it in their programme for the Diamond Jubilee Convention: "it is not enough that women should be home makers, but they must make the world itself a larger home".2 In order to make the whole world homelike, women had to somehow infiltrate the public sphere of politics and the work place without relinquishing their primary responsibilities in the home itself. This, Greenwood attempted to do.

Unlike those of her peers in the women's movement Greenwood's family finances were seldom secure. In the previously quoted "Doris Blackburn" script is an apparently redundant signifier of prestige - "Mrs Blackburn tells how she was invited to address (and her fares and exs. paid) in several Scandinavian countries". At various times of her life "fares and expenses" were a critical factor for Greenwood. During the late 1930s Albert's speculative mining ventures were punctuated by spells of self-inflicted unemployment. Irene was often the sole family breadwinner, relying on her income from the ABC of two guineas per week to support the family home in suburban Nedlands. September 1939 marked the outbreak of war in Europe, it also saw Greenwood fighting for survival on the "home front". She recorded the events in her "War Diary":

[Oct. 1940]

Somehow life goes on. The rent is found, the bills mount but they are paid somehow. Some days I begin to write to earn the wherewithal to keep our home. My firmest determination is to keep this home I have bought at the cost of all most women hold dear in life. Pretty clothes, personal appearance, good times. Every cheque I get, every shilling I earn is just to me rent. I thank God each 30th of the month that the rent is paid. I who had hoped to change the world am now content to earn enough to pay the rent!

Meanwhile the Nazi war machine has rolled across Europe. "The new order" extends from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Greenwood's drive to keep the home intact was made at the expense of "pretty clothes, personal appearance and good times" - a construction of femininity which remained intact for even the most radical of feminists of the era:

True, a few women did succumb to the superficial attraction of the outward attributes of sex equality. A new fashion arose - that of wearing men's clothes, of using mannish gestures, intentionally rough manners. In the USSR such women were called "military-communism types" . . . . Even though this fashion was short-lived, was adopted by very few Soviet girls and women, and was finally denounced by Soviet opinion, for some reason or other there is a wide-spread and firmly rooted opinion in other countries that the ideal of the Soviet woman is represented in this exaggerated imitation of the male. This, of course, is not true.3

Greenwood was certainly no advocate of "military communist" feminism. For her, and for the rest of the Perth feminists, "femininity" was simply not on the reform agenda. After her move to the Whitford commercial network in 1948 she was obliged to broadcast lingerie advertisements on behalf of her sponsor Corot and Co. These she wrote and announced herself. There is no indication that she regarded this material as being in conflict with the political message of the rest of her programme:


The answer is Nylon underwear, the fabric of the future....Yesterday I gave some detailed descriptions of lovely nylon lingerie to be seen in Corots' Hay Street window....But come and see for yourselves the exquisitely sheer yet wonderfully durable nylon undies in many shades as well as white. The lingerie showing is simply breathtaking in its beauty. A magnolia satin and lace nightie and full length negligee is superbly designed. Square yoke on nightie is cut from all over guipure lace, satin bound, and a wide band edges the hem, coming up in a deep v, finished with small true lovers knot . . . . Travellers, housewives, business women and girls who are getting a trousseau together, all make Corot's lingerie department your Mecca before all this beautiful array of newest lingerie is snapped up by women who know lovely undies, allied with value [the first two ellipses are Greenwood's].4

"Femininity" was sacrificed in Greenwood's determination to secure her home. Her target was achieved at considerable personal cost. But for all this, by May of 1941, she was pressing Albert to "upgrade". GreenwoodÕs diary enteries continue:

[May 1941]

In April, feeling I could no longer endure the intolerable condition of living in a house falling to pieces, impossible to make attractive despite ceaseless toil, labour - care, I made a bold move - with April's help financially and with Albert's grudging consent I left the old home and moved to Stirling Court.

It was at Stirling Court that Greenwood the "breadwinner" (re)discovered her "housewife's soul".

Everything was beautiful, bright, colourful, clean and oh so delightful for the housewife's soul in me. At last I had a home which repaid loving care and attention. Gleaming paintwork, glowing floorboards, modern plumbing, necessary labour saving equipment. Gone the old feelings of futility. Life assumed a new promise.

The move aggravated the family's financial difficulties. Greenwood's appropriation of the role of provider was, in part, a consequence of Albert's own unconventionality within the terms of the traditional family structure. In his refusal to comply with the designated male role, he too was resisting the dominant ideology. This complemented rather than contradicted Irene's own notions of independence. Nevertheless, the price of independence was high in an economic system geared to the maintenance of the nuclear family and the prescribed gender roles within it.

Throughout the 1930s employment opportunities for women broadcasters at the ABC were confined to programmes deemed to be of specific interest to members of their own sex, such as the Women's or Children's Sessions. By the early 1940s the wartime depletion of manpower had forced the broadcasting authorities to consider using women in the prestigious "announcers" positions. The debate had raged across the pages Western Australia's radio magazine, The Broadcaster, since 1939. Public opinion did not favour the shift:

As a critical listener I have been forced to the conclusion that women announcers are not to be commended for their contributions to radio in this State . . . the tones and inflections are neither those of a cultured English woman nor of a hearty Australian . . . .

Yours etc. Mrs LSH of Guildford.5

As the manpower crisis intensified women secured a toe-hold in the areas of front line broadcasting traditionally reserved for men, but opportunities were still scarce and only given grudgingly:

The Broadcaster understands that nothing has yet been settled in regard to permanent women announcers for local ABC stations. Miss Fredrick's extended hours have been due to the necessity for providing further relief to the male staff depleted by the calls of military service.6

The war situation did provide Greenwood with the opportunity to augment her earnings. In August 1940 Colin Badger, a fellow member of the Perth LBC in the late 1930s, contacted Greenwood from the Department of Information, Melbourne. Badger asked her to prepare a script dealing with the position of women in the Nazi regime for broadcast on short-wave transmission. Greenwood sent him the propaganda he required and more work followed. In October Macmahon Ball, Badger's chief, wrote to her saying,

From time to time we use in our American transmissions general talks without any specific war reference, in which we try to describe in as picturesque way as possible some distinctive features of Australian life. Can you think of some features of our life which would specially interest American women?7

Greenwood prepared a series of scripts over the following years. But as one door opened another closed. In the same year the Government reduced the cost of Radio Licence fees. The ABC searched for areas where the least damaging economies could be introduced. The Women's Session was among those targeted for cuts. In October Greenwood wrote to John Curtin protesting the decision to discontinue local speakers on the regional Sessions.8 From then, until the Session was reinstated in 1944, she was confined to occasional broadcasts which she negotiated directly with B.H.Molesworth, the Federal Controller of Talks, and Macmahon Ball's propaganda broadcasts.9

By early 1941 Greenwood had applied for both an announcer's job with the ABC and an organisational position responsible for the women's session with the new commercial station 6LO.10 Both applications were unsuccessful. Irene's earnings were insufficient to support the modern home equipped with the "necessary labour saving equipment" demanded by Greenwood the "housewife" yet she applied no direct pressure on Albert to take a job. Nevertheless, the economics of independence finally provoked Irene to question her ideological stance and to rejoice as the family situation came closer to that of the social norm:

[June 1941]

Albert, amazingly, takes a job with the Fedl. Audit Dept attached to Hqrs. Francis St. I couldn't believe he would. I wept with relief when he finally accepted. Right to the last I thought he would find some excuse to evade it. At last I shall know regular money again.

Has Mother been right all along? Should I have forced Albert to shoulder responsibilities which I have taken upon myself. Does it help a husband or a family to assume too much? Or is it better to make them carry their share of the burden of the day. Can I relax now?

June 22nd. Nazi Germany attacks USSR - what next?

Greenwood's opportunities in the workplace were limited by the sexual division of labour. She knew only too well that without the social reforms for which the women's movement campaigned any sort of infiltration of the work force could never be a realistic proposition. She hovered on the brink of financial ruin, yet she could neither give up Stirling Court nor, as her mother advised her, force Albert to take a regular job. So Greenwood worked on alone to satisfy her "housewife's soul".

On the broader front, the war appeared to usher in the feminist goal of expanded participation in the workforce. As the drain of manpower to the armed forces began to take its toll the Federal government launched a propaganda campaign designed to recruit women into areas of industry traditionally reserved for men. For the time being the aims of the women's movement and those of the government broadly coincided. If the feminists regarded the wartime distribution of labour as desirable, the indications are that they did so more as a means to an end than as an end in itself. As a radio broadcaster Greenwood played her part in assisting the recruitment drive. In 1943 she interviewed Isabel Johnson, then President of the WSG:

Johnson: Don't you think that it is amazing that we have not fought for direct representation long ago? . . . Which only goes to prove that women of our generation have not been politically minded and have failed to realise the power they could wield for the good of the community if they could only be made to take up interests outside their home.11

But if Johnson called for a redirection of interests towards the public sphere it was women's housekeeping and caring skills which strongly defined their future areas of political involvement and employment. Women would be granted entry into these areas in recognition of their part in the war effort. Johnson continues:

In this war it has been proven that man-power alone is not enough; woman power is needed to win it. Eve has donned overalls, has shared dangers, difficulties, long hours of labour, shown courage - surely in post-war days she will have a contribution to make in such things as adequate housing, pure and well organised food supplies, child welfare, maternity homes, hospital administration, education and youth employment, proper care for the aged, of our invalid soldiers, re-absorption of men and women into our industry, etc.

If women have special talents, and they are not being used to the full - it is a loss to the whole nation. Unreasoning prejudice must be broken down. Enlightenment and progress should be the watchword.

Johnson's list of the administrative areas deemed suitable for women takes little account of the problems faced by those of the working class. For them, and in particular the single women of the era, work had always been a necessity; and "work" usually meant taking whatever was available. These were jobs within the garment industry, catering or other areas which were, like Johnson's projection of middle class occupations, defined by the domestic duties which women traditionally performed. Working class women had already achieved the type of public penetration advocated by Johnson. When she called for expanded opportunities based on women's "special talents" Johnson spoke essentially on behalf of the middle class.

In a study of West Australian women's paid work between 1942 and 1947 Gail Reekie found that the war had no permanent effect on the sexual division of labour. Although some working class women were transferred to higher paid "male tasks" during the war they offered no resistance to relinquishing these jobs in favour of returning ex-servicemen and moving back to "women's work" after the war.12 For middle class women, or married women of the working blue collar class, the end of the war meant a migration back to domestic duties. Reekie concludes that the administrative positions which may have appealed to these women were simply not available in sufficient numbers. Faced with a choice between the factory and the home, and with financial necessity not a factor, this social group overwhelmingly preferred the home:

So that was it. I never worked again. Married women didn't work, and your husbands didn't want you to work. I could think of nothing better than not having to go to work.13


1 Gail Reekie, "With Ready Hands and New Brooms: The Women Who Campaigned for Female Suffrage in Western Australia 1895-1899", in Hecate, vol. 7, (1981), pp. 24-35.

2 WCTU Programme of the Diamond Jubilee Convention 1952, as quoted by Reekie, "With Ready Hands", p. 29.

3 Xenia Beloussova, "Soviet Marriage and Divorce", Communist Review, February, (1946), p. 51.

4 "What's New in Today's Fashions", Advertisement, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod. Irene A. Greenwood, 6PM-AM n.d.

5 "L.S.H of Guilford", "What our Readers are Hearing and Thinking", The Broadcaster, 6, No. 282 (Sept 2-9, 1939), p. 26.

6 "Woman Morning Announcer: Moya Fredricks Relieving", The Broadcaster, 8, No. 375 (June 7-14, 1941), p. 13.

7 William Macmahon Ball, Letter to Irene A. Greenwood, 2 Oct 1940, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

8 Records of the correspondence between Irene Greenwood and John Curtin are in The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

9 Records of the correspondence between Irene Greenwood and B.H.Molesworth are in The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

10 Copies of both applications are in The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

11 "The Power of Women in Politics", Greenwood and Johnson.

12 Gail Reekie, "Women's Paid Work During World War II in Western Australia: Government Direction and Women's Response 1942-1947", Hons Thesis, Murdoch University, 1982 p. 136.

13 Olga Sturtridge, West Australian war worker, as quoted by Reekie, "Women's Paid Work", p. 144.

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