Hear Our Voices – Women of the West Speak Out

Panel 2: Foreword by Olwen Ford

The call to ‘Hear our voices’ is a strong one, forcing us to recognise that women have something to say and urging us to listen. Over the centuries and across the world, women have spoken, but they have not always been heard or recorded.

On the plains west of Melbourne, as elsewhere in Australia, Aboriginal women were the main food gatherers, the makers of bags and baskets, the bearers of tools and implements, messages. When Europeans arrived, some Aboriginal women protested against rape. An early woman ‘freedom fighter’ was Tully Marine. It is good that this exhibition includes three women of Aboriginal descent.

In the rough and tumble of early colonial life, most women of this region were migrants. They bore children, brought up families, managed pubs, punts, post offices and farms, taught children in school, wrote letters and diaries. A few were gatekeepers. Some, like Margaret Fitzgerald, nee Dodd, were left widows at a young age. Margaret, like many other women at that time, could not read or write. But at times of crisis, women did speak out, in court cases, or on issues affecting their children’s welfare (for example, the conduct of a bullying or incom­petent teacher) or their property. Sometimes their voices come to us secondhand, via gossip recorded in official correspondence or via newspaper reporters. One woman spoke through her novels – Ada Cambridge, of Williamstown.

A number of women have got involved in social, environmental or political movements. Women such as Marge Tucker played a leading role in the Aboriginal rights movement, while working at the ammunition factory, Footscray. Pat Pettit and Natalie Gatt are prime examples of those who have demonstrated their leadership ability as environmental activists, with great success. In the political arena, some women have become local councillors. This exhibition features a few – Sika Kerry, Gwen Goedecke, Marion Martin, Mai Ho. Others have become politicians at State or Federal levels. Joan Kirner, of Williamstown, Minister for Conservation in the early 1980s, later became Victoria’s first woman premier. Lynne Kosky, once a councillor, is now a cabinet minister in the new Victorian government. Less well-known is the work of women who have been active in the trade union movement.

Countless women have worked hard to help people, to improve social conditions and to offer community support in our culturally diverse community. Amongst such women, appearing in this exhibition, are Lorna Cameron, St. Albans; Kathleen Douglass, Sunbury; Sadie Parsons, Sunshine; Amna Maleken, Kensington; Samira Farag, Maidstone; Kym Jowett, Werribee; Tan Le, Footscray. Some have worked amongst women with disabilities, notably Annette Sassano and Daisy Serong. Amongst those who have worked in women’s organisations in broader contexts are Gwen Goedecke and Joyce Apap, elected to the Victorian Women’s Council in 1993.

By the late 19th century, there were local women working in factories, especially at the ammunition factory in Footscray. The number of women factory workers grew in World War One, increasing to thousands in World War Two, when this region was Australia’s main centre of defence production. From the 1950s, huge numbers of migrant women were working in local industries.

Women also played a crucial role through their work at home, as home managers. In the famous Harvester Judgement case, which established the principle of a basic wage, Justice Higgins listened to Footscray housewives, as well as to leading manufacturer, H.VMcKay. Women were also active in the community, as the mainstay of cultural, religious, educational and community support organisations and networks. Some women served on committees, started new organisations, led campaigns. In several areas, women achieved high standards of excellence – for example, Betty Butcher in sport, Margaret Haggart, Jean Webb and Donna Jackson in the arts, Sadie Stevens, in further education.

Some women of Melbourne’s west have taken up the challenge of educational opportunities not available to previous generations. Tammy Capocchi, nee Hunter, was one of three young women in the Koorie Gardening Team to complete her apprenticeship in horticulture. Among the educators who have provided strong support to young people is Helen Rodd of the Victoria University of Technology.

The support given by women to other women is nearly always a crucial factor in helping us to step out, to take up new challenges, to speak up. Especially impressive are the voices of women who have come to a strange land and yet have become part of it, learning a new language, supporting others and speaking out on issues they feel are important. Equally impressive is the enormous compe­tence that women of Melbourne’s west have shown in community spheres.

This exhibition provides an opportunity to honour the commitment of local women in many areas of life. They inspire us and encourage us to take courage from their example. Listening to their voices also gives us a way of understanding our vibrant and diverse region.

Olwen Ford, 1999
former Museum Director
Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West, 1984 – 1997