Collaborative women: industrial organising and the sex divide in Sydney’s inter-war years

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Webb, R 2007, 'Collaborative women: industrial organising and the sex divide in Sydney’s inter-war years', Australian Feminist Studies,vol. 22, no. 52, pp.107-126.

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‘I have never been ‘‘feministic’’ in my approach to working-class problems . . . There is no need to go outside our own movement for full expression of ideas and activity’.1 Writing in 1956, Muriel Heagney, a long-time labour and equal-pay activist, described an ideal of labour women’s activism as she remembered it being enacted throughout her career. From her, this approach is to be expected: several of her younger contemporaries (Ryan 1996; Searle 2000; Elliott 2003) have noted Heagney’s resistance to ‘compromise’ in labour and working women’s activism. To what extent does her remembered position represent the industrial strategies of her sisters in the labour movement? There is ample evidence that in contrast to that position, at least some of her fellow activists, like Jessie Street and Kate Dwyer, pragmatically negotiated with labour and non-labour stakeholders to lock-in piecemeal but materially effective advances for women. In her quoted remark (above) Heagney uses ‘feministic’ in the contemporary sense of its being a class-based ideology.2 Arguably, Heagney’s resistance to compromise and her mistrust of ‘feministic’ tactics has resulted in her being relatively unacknowledged in the modern-day union and women’s movements, beyond her recognition by labour and feminist scholars.3 Nonetheless, her comment raises important issues of women’s labour and political strategies as industrial operators, with later frustrations in her career also raising issues of women’s place and influence in the inter-war labour movement.4 This paper draws on my wider historical analysis of female trade union organisers, and of the strategic networks nurtured by female organisers and industrial officials.5 It thus takes into account the nature of collectives and mobilisation. Foundation arguments for this paper incorporate links between the labour historiography of women, recent perspectives in industrial geography, and theories of collective structures and relationships, including networks. I argue, firstly, that labour women created, maintained, and drew on networks of activist women as the social capital for their industrial activities; secondly, that they achieved this without jeopardising their labour affiliations; and thirdly, that they were prompted to seek out and to maintain these networks by unreliable or antagonistic gender politics within the labour movement.

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