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

John Richardson


I have not mentioned that I . . . was educated at the Perth Modern School matriculating and doing one year's Arts at the University of WA. However, I entered the Public Service without taking my degree, and was for two years with the Dept. of Agriculture prior to my marriage. I have two grownup children. 1

Greenwood commenced her secondary education in 1913. At that time the prestigious Perth Modern School was a pioneer of co-education in the State. This first separation from her family gradually fostered a sense of independence, "horizons widened and with them a knowledge that the one person I could rely on was myself" [Greenwood's emphasis]. 2

In 1920 she married Albert Greenwood, an accountant and mining entrepreneur. Their two children were born in the remote North West pearling centre of Broome, under what Greenwood describes as "primitive conditions" 3 but the marriage did nothing to loosen Irene's drive for independence, on the contrary it strengthened it. Later, Albert's sojourns to one or another of his mining leases left her at home with the children for extended periods. In late 1925 the family returned to Perth "for a few years of child rearing and domesticity". 4 Here Greenwood became involved in the women's movement, following her mother into the WSG and becoming a member of the State Executive. This brought her into contact with the middle and upper class women of the Perth social scene. Prominent among these was Bessie Rischbieth, perhaps the single most powerful figure within the West Australian women's movement of the day.

The dominant public image of Rischbieth was that of her stepping on to a flight en-route to one or another international conference. 5 In addition to her commitment to "world peace" she was President of the AWFV and an executive member (later State President) of the WSG. Rischbieth was a widowed woman of considerable financial means, untrammelled by the responsibilities of a family and economically independent she was able to pursue her interstate and international ventures at will. The majority of the rank and file were less fortunately placed but still drawn almost exclusively from the financially secure upper and middle classes.

The local women's movement was divided into two streams. Organisations such as the National Council of Women and its affiliates concentrated on welfare and charity work which would improve the lot of working class women and children; others, such as the WSG, directed their efforts towards legalistic reforms intended to bring women's social, political and economic status more closely in line with men's. The activities of both streams introduced middle class values to the working class women who they sought to protect, educate or otherwise help. 6 The legalistic wing assumed that their demands could be won by acting as a pressure group within the context of liberal pluralism and, more particularly so far as the WSG was concerned, by the election of chosen women MPs who would run on an independent ticket. The AFWV was a national co-ordinating body for the organisations which supported such women parliamentarians. Both the AFWV and its West Australian affiliate, the WSG, stressed their party political "non-alignment".

In 1931 Albert's business ventures took him to Sydney where the family established a base. From here Albert commuted to his oil prospect at Lakes Entrance, Victoria, leaving Irene to her own devices during his long absences. Armed with a letter of introduction from Rischbieth she joined the United Associations of Women (UA), the Sydney affiliate of the AFWV:

There I discovered radical thinking of a different kind to my circles back home. I discovered the emergence of politics, where previously I moved in non-party circles of independent thinking, across party lines. To say it was all a cultural shock is to put it mildly. 7

Whilst in Perth Greenwood had been taught "voice production" by Lionel Logue whose techniques were designed to repair the damaged vocal chords of gassed war veterans. 8 In Sydney Greenwood put these lessons to good use. Initially her skills were developed within the UA debating team:

Debating against male teams for the United Associations brought contact with vastly diverse sections of the community too. The police fielded teams referred to by ours as "more brawn than brains" and usually issued invitations to inspect the cells below the courts (when on home ground) which we declined. 9

But debate was not the hallmark of Greenwood's style. Later, when her voice skills were put to use on radio, the production techniques of the day demanded the "lectern approach" and it was willingly supplied by Greenwood. This too was developed during her days with the UA. Public address was one of the means by which the organisation publicised women's issues. Greenwood became steeled to the rigours of public speaking, making frequent appearances on platforms at the Sydney Domain and later the Esplanade in Perth:

I was eventually to speak on a platform before thousands of protesters against the refusal of authorities to permit entry into Australia of Egon Kisch, a Czech anti-Fascist orator whose case was taken up by Jessie Street's member of the UA and friend, the lawyer Christian Jolie-Smith. Before a crowd of thousands, the old Pacifist Rev. Albert Rivett (Dr), making an appeal of a passionate nature, dropped dead at my feet while I sat holding his large watch to indicate when his time was up for speaking. 10

Egon Erwin Kisch was a Czech writer and international representative of the Movement Against War and Fascism (MAWF) en-route to the Movement's 1st International Congress in Melbourne. The MAWF was a communist inspired peace organisation and widely held to be a front for recruitment into the party proper. His ship arrived in Perth on the 6th of November 1934 and was met by a deputation from the local branch of the MAWF which had arranged for Kisch to deliver a lecture during his stop-over in the West. On their arrival at the docks the reception party was told that the authorities had refused permission for Kisch to disembark. The Movement promptly organised a nation-wide protest campaign.

The Sydney meeting at which Greenwood spoke was in response to MAWF agitation and is significant because it stands as the first indication that factions within the UA were prepared to co-operate with socialist organisations. Officially, however, the UA disassociated itself from the MAWF and worked within the conservative guideline's of Rischbieth's AFWV. 11 Its core objectives were practically identical to those of the legalistic wing of the West Australian movement and included; maternity allowances, equal pay, the right of married women to retain their nationality, and divorce law reform. During the depression the UA campaigned for the right of married women to work. 12

In addition to the usual speaking platforms the UA's objectives were publicised in the social pages of the press but, more significantly for Greenwood, the organisation was given air time on both national and commercial radio stations. It was in this environment that she began her broadcasting career:

I hold references from Mrs Linda Littlejohn of Sydney and Mrs Jessie Street of Sydney, both given to me in 1935 as to my experience there arranging talks on both A and B Class Stations for the United Associations' Broadcasting Committee. 13

In 1936 the Greenwoods returned to Perth. Here Irene successfully applied for work with the ABC. The wife of Conrad Charlton, the Commission's new West Australian Manager, was a member of the UA and according to Greenwood this helped. 14 Greenwood's weekly series, "Women in the International News", was broadcast from within the ABC Women's Session, it quickly became a platform for her interpretation of the politics of feminism. In the meantime, her activities within the women's movement took on a new dimension - in addition to her continuing affiliation to the WSG she joined and spoke on behalf of the MAWF. In Sydney, meanwhile, the radical factions of the UA had become more vocal in their support of socialism - or of strategic aspects of it. What appeared to be a leftward drift was illustrated by Jessie Street's visit to Moscow in 1938, and in 1939 she joined the Labor Party. This precipitated a rift within the UA which mirrored the supposed split between the left and right wings of the larger women's movement.

Divisions within the Perth women's movement were apparent at the turn of the century and continued on throughout the 1920s. By the inter-war period lines were drawn between the "non-aligned" organisations which were politically conservative (AFWV, WSG, WCTU, National Council of Women, Country Women's Association) and those affiliated, either officially or otherwise, to the Labor and Communist parties (notably the Labor Women's Organisation and the Modern Women's Club). 15 The situation was further complicated by the division between the left and right peace organisations which the respective women's groups officially supported.

The broad political commitment of the leadership of the women's organisations, and perhaps their core membership, cannot be questioned. But the extent to which Street's socialism, Katharine Susannah Prichard's communism, or Bessie Rischbieth's conservatism accurately reflected rank and file views of the organisations which these women founded or led is debatable. These political allegiances were mediated by a commitment to feminism and its own ideologies and objectives. In this context a major draw card of communism was Article 122 of the 1936 Soviet Constitution which asserted that:

Women in the USSR are accorded equal rights with men in all fields of economic, state, cultural, social and political life. The possibility of realising these rights of women is ensured by affording women equally with men the right to work, rest, social insurance and education, state protection of the interests of mother and child, granting pregnancy-leave with pay, and provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens. 16

The other major legitimation of communism for the feminists of the 1930s was the CPA's pursuit of world peace, an aim presented in the context of a solid anti-fascist stance.


1 Irene A. Greenwood, Letter to H.S.Crofts, Department of Supply, 28 Dec 1944, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

2 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

3 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

4 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

5 Row, p. 201.

6 Reekie, "War Sexuality and Feminism", p. 576.

7 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

8 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

9 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

10 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

11 Pat Ranald, "Women's Organisations and the Question of Communism", in Better Dead Than Red, eds., Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1986), p. 43.

12 Ranald, p. 42.

13 Irene A. Greenwood, Letter to L. Wilkinson, Station Manager of 6KY, 30 July 1941, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

14 Greenwood, "Go Proudly", n. pag.

15 Reekie, "War Sexuality and Feminism". pp. 577- 578.

16 Article 122, discussed in "W.K.", "Women for Canberra", in Communist Review, Feb (1943), p. 5.

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