Yvonne Smith

In 1954 I made one of the most momentous decisions of my life by joining the communist party of Australia at the height of the cold war. This was sparked by the execution of The Rosenberg couple as spies, but was also the culmination of years of personal questioning of the values of our capitalist democratic society and my abhorrence of capital punishment.

My father once told me that when my mother was in labour with me he was sent to bring the doctor for the delivery, and in his nervous haste backed the car into the garden tap sending water gushing skyward as he sped off. I was born safely on that day the first of May 1928. Perhaps both events contained a hint of prophecy.

My father was a stern man-of-his-time but caring and diligent as a parent, growing vegetables and fruit trees in the large back yard of our modest home in North Brighton. He extended the house, made my sister, Moya and I, a walk-in play house, and used his skills to make inlaid cigar boxes which he sold to one of the big tobacconists in the city to extend the family income. This became even more necessary as the great depression hit after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Government policy was to cut workers’ wages and living was very hard, even if you were lucky enough to retain your job, as was my Dad, albeit with reduction of income.

The “Willys” car in Greville St, Prahran,
outside the barber shop where Aunt Jean & Uncle Bert lived in the upstairs flat

The firm which Dad worked for were importers of high class English woollen worsted material, and my father the salesman to the many bespoke tailors in and around Melbourne. Hence the provision of a car, which I remember as an odd and draughty little car with cellophane/mica windows and a ‘dicky’ seat, which Dad adapted for use as a passenger seat, so that my Mum’s younger sister and son Glynne, one year and a half my senior, could ride with us. Moya and I regarded Glynne more as our brother because we spent so much time together. This car was replaced later by what I knew as the ‘Willy’s’ which was an exceptional improvement in comfort, especially in our occasional trips to bushland which was quite close to the outskirts of Melbourne. We would boil a billy and come home with arms full of wattle, bluegum and pink and white heather or, depending on the season, field mushrooms or blackberries. My mother then seemed happy and playful, coaxing my father to join her in a song – she had a very sweet voice, and tending us lovingly in our childhood illnesses and accidents. Tragically, just a few short years later she died of cancer at the age of thirty five. I was seven. The shock and grief of her death hit hard for all of us. For me it had long term effects of loss of self-esteem and anxiety and was to take many years of struggle to overcome.

The outbreak of war in Europe meant that the firm which employed my father, which relied on importing, had to fold up, and the ‘Manpower’ as it was called, decreed that Dad was to be Government Inspector of woollen mills in Daylesford and Ballarat, which were in wartime production. Thus we were to be in the care of my Aunty May, one of Dad’s sisters, a war widow with two sons, one of whom was in the Airforce heading for England. Dad built a bungalow in the backyard for her teenage son so that we could have a room apart from the shared bedroom, and space for him when he could get down to Melbourne. This happened sooner than was expected when some of my adventures turned into near disasters. Forbidden to own a bicycle, I would borrow one or failing that I would be ‘dinked’ on the bar of one of the boys who were the mates of my best friend’s brother. This was totally forbidden. Unfortunately, we had a pile up turning the corner into Acland Street and I ended up in the Alfred Hospital with concussion. Another time by coming off a horse at full gallop (hired at Caulfield stables) and breaking my arm. There were other incidents which I am sure were a trial for my aunt and required my father’s intervention. However, we remained there until the end of the war when we moved to a house in McKinnon with my father at last.

In the intervening war years much had changed. The USSR was “our brave ally”. Sheepskins for Russia was a popular cause and sometimes at the pictures when the Anthem and the Stars and Stripes was played there would be a chorus of “what about Joe?” meaning of course Joseph Stalin. In Ripponlea, the Eureka Youth League opened a shopfront youth club which I visited a couple of times and enjoyed.

Capitol Theatre Ushers 1950s

By then I had a little more freedom and was able to visit my Aunt Freda, my mother’s older sister who “took me in hand”. This was the beginning of the healing of my fragile ego. Aunty had divorced her philandering husband and supported herself and young son by working, also helped by my grandma. She was a pianist and used to play the accompanying music for the silent movies. She was later one of what were known as the Capitol Girls, chosen pretty girls who were the ushers in the new Capitol theatre in Swanston Street, and sometimes took part in performances on stage. She smoked cigarettes in a holder, liked a drink and would talk casually of topics not spoken about at my Aunty May’s. I loved her, but my Aunty May thought she was not a ‘proper’ person which of course did not deter me in the least. Aunty Freda and Uncle Don (she married again) often discussed social justice issues and wartime topics such as opening the second front. I was introduced to many contemporary authors and some classics. She encouraged me to have my own view on life. These views were leading me to Marxism.

A most sad event was the death of my adored cousin Glynne. In 1946, at just twenty he contracted the most virulent form of Poliomyelitis and died within a very few days; the last to die in Victoria of Polio, as the Salk vaccine was released only months later. Paradoxically, as I was leaving his home in shock after hearing the terrible news, I literally bumped into Donald, a close pal of my cousin who had just come down on leave from Japan where he had been stationed, and had to break the awful news to him. He was greatly affected, and I invited him to come home to my family. We struck up a friendship, finding to our mutual glee, that we both wanted to change the world. We were married in December 1949.

During the first  year of our marriage we were apart, as Donald was in the Navy stationed in NSW. At the time he joined he was young and at a crossroads in life, having already lost his father and with his mother remarried. He took this step before we met. He was now desperate to be released from what would have been twenty years’ service. He was opposed to the Korean war, and on that basis he sought a discharge, which he won but which possibly put him on ASIO’s files for life!

Our first child, Roderick, was born November 1950 while Donald was still away, but on his return we were very lucky to have the Sunshine house, half of which he inherited from his mother who died not long after our marriage. Donald had studied art at RMIT and was a talented artist, he had also been a trained Radar operator in the Navy but finding a suitable job locally was not easy so he took a factory job nearby. Nevertheless, as an active communist his skill in producing silk screen posters was an asset, and we were hellbent on campaigning for political change. Many nights were spent sailing forth with a tub of homemade paste, a brush and an armful of posters to advertise our messages on suitable lamp posts and spaces.

We continued our interest and study of political economy, Marxism, etc, in study classes and discussions for local groups, central lectures when possible but also in cultural and entertainment groups such as New Theatre which brought to life Australian folk music and produced classic and significant plays and satires. But we were also, over time, subjected to inroads into our privacy by phone interceptions, ‘spooking’ in cars outside private homes, photographing at public demonstrations even though the CPA was a legal organisation and none of this was justified.

Drawing by Mary Leunig for ‘Taking Time’ – removal of Koorie children 

The Union of Australian Women, UAW, was an organisation allied to the Women’s International Democratic Federation, WIDF, set up in Europe at the end of the war. I was invited to a meeting to set up a local group. Alison Dickie, the President of the Victorian Branch, spoke of this group of radical women who wanted to be heard and valued as equals. I was so impressed by her quiet will to make the world a better and safer place, I joined immediately and agreed to be secretary. We set out to right a long overdue removal of a surcharge in gas prices which applied to a wide area of land between West Footscray and Sunshine, which previously had been open land and now was fully built up with public housing, for which the Gas company still charged the higher rate,  After much lobbying we succeeded in having this rectified. This spurred us on to campaign for many needed improvements, from bus shelters to public meetings on contraception and other health and child related issues, to factory gate meetings about equality and equal pay. We asked Koorie women, active in the land rights struggle to speak at our meetings.

In 1957 Donald’s health deteriorated and he was hospitalised and diagnosed as ‘Anxiety state’, which was bad enough but seemingly reassuring in terms of serious physical illness. But early the next year he died suddenly. We were later to be informed it was haemorrhage from a brain tumour. Needless to say this was the most catastrophic personal loss. I had taken a secretarial job at the Hospital just a few months earlier to shore up the family income. Our children, Rod and Jeff were seven and three respectively. My family, friends and comrades all supported me and the children but there seemed nothing for it but to continue on working. The pay was not great however, and when I was offered a job at the railways union (ARU) which paid equal pay (naturally) I took up the offer. Donald’s death was finally accepted as war caused (he had been stationed at an airfield close to Hiroshima) and I was paid the war widows pension. The back pay enabled me to buy a small car. I was then able to enrol Jeffrey at the Footscray Creche, and get to work and home on time.

1961 Equal Pay Demonstration – Yvonne centre front of picture

It was another five years before I went into full time work again. In that period there was a lot of activity collecting signatures to an ACTU petition (61,000 sigs) presented to the Commonwealth Government asking for Equal Pay, helping organise and take part in the marches. With the UAW, lobbying for the first Australian currency (other than the Queen) to feature a woman – Caroline Chisholm; “Boycott War Toys” committee resulting in at least one large toy distributor declaring they would not stock them.  I married a long time dear friend and fellow communist Bill Smith.

In 1966 I went to work for the A.M.I.E.U. – Meat Industry Union – better known as ‘the butchers’. This position gave me the opportunity to also work in an area giving special attention to the needs of women workers. I was later appointed by the Management Committee as Claims Officer in workers compensation and award disputes, as well as editor of the Victorian Union Journal’s Women’s section, where I achieved a small degree of fame by heading my article about Vasectomy “A Cut Above the Pill!” There was a gradually growing awareness within the union movement of the importance and value of working women. Some teachers got equal pay at this time.  Restrictions on married women in the public service were lifted. The  Union had been urging the ACTU to step up action for Equal Pay. The 1969 test case was for the women meatworkers, many of whom came to the buffet teas held by the union to keep them informed.  These were bright and carefree events where the women themselves expressed in no uncertain terms, belief in their right for equal pay.  At one of the meat works in Melbourne the shop committee decided that everyone was to heat or prepare their own lunch food instead of wives waiting on husbands! A small step for Equal Opportunity! But the ’69 case was a big disappointment, applying to only about 10% of women covered by the Federal Award. We had to wait another three years.

Action for Adequate Child Minding was sponsored by Unions and community organisations at Richmond Town Hall and was just one of the many meetings at which I and many other women were finding their voices. We crowded the Trams cheerfully refusing to pay full fare, to publicise women’s unequal pay rates. I made my debut on the ‘Stump’ at Yarra Bank. Women invaded the men only ‘Bars’ of pubs. The 1972  Equal Pay case was won thanks to the newly elected A.L.P. All prior Commonwealth Governments had opposed the claim.

Bourke St, Melbourne – Vietnam Moratorium 1970

1969 our family moved to Middle Park. The Vietnam war was still raging and coming closer to the age group of my boys, both of whom looked very unfavourably on this conflict. Both Bill and I were active in opposing the war and conscription. One of my first memories of this time was, with others, trying to stop the intake of conscripts at the barracks; lying on the damp ground to impede entry and being carried away by the police; the Moratorium marches, and we also had a draft resister hiding away in our house for a period. We did what we could and were overjoyed when the war eventually ended.

I had also been involved in the Victorian (U.N. Organisation) Status of Women’s Committee and was asked to take part on the national committee. We convened a large meeting of women’s groups and individuals to alert women and plan towards the coming U.N. Conference and ‘Tribuna’ in Mexico City the U.N. Year of Women, 1975. I remember the conference well, mainly because after all the work, I was unable to attend. This was because I was playing my Viola (not solo!) at a South Melbourne Orchestra Sunday concert. I had, at forty three years of age, started to learn the violin, as it was something I had wanted to do much earlier but events got in the way. Difficult as it was, I have no regrets and much pleasure in having been able to join in with musicians over the many years, and still with ‘Allsorts’ at U3A. However I was able to get to the ‘Tribuna’ together with 60 other women from Australia. It was a very exciting experience  and several unions back home published my report in their journals. Bill came with me as I had some time for a holiday and we were able to see some of the remarkable Inca constructions and relics.

The UN World Conference of International Women’s Year opened on 19 June 1975 in Mexico City with 110 delegations present at the opening session.

Often in the UAW office there were requests from students and others for information about the events which shaped the progress of women in society, and I felt the need for a concise book which would set this out. Thus “Taking  Time” A Women’s Historical Data Kit was born and in 1986, with grants from the Women’s Trust, the Reichstein Foundation, The Bicentennial Authority and the support of several unions, it was published.

After retirement Bill and I travelled in our combi van throughout much of Europe which is another story. When we came back, Save Albert Park was upon us and, yes we did join in, and our house was one of many homes which sported large signs on our rooftops opposing the Grand Prix. That battle is yet to be won. But we met wonderful people who enriched our lives immeasurably. I call myself a ‘cyber’ protester now, in my nineties with ongoing involvement in struggles for asylum seekers, conservation and anti climate change campaigns, and giving support to the brave and resilient young people and oldies too, who speak out about injustice and are working still to change the world.

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