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Five radical women

What made five women born in the early 20th century, from different walks of life, become lifelong activists?


Pearl Gibbs, 1955
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Pearl Gibbs

Arriving at Speakers’ Corner in Sydney’s Domain on a Sunday afternoon in 1937, Pearl Gibbs hadn’t thought she would make a speech herself. But after her two fellow Aboriginal activists had spoken, she decided to climb up and have her say. ‘I got up there and I shook and I shivered and the ladder was rocking and the reason was because of all this hatred and resentment I had,’ she would recall more than 40 years later. ‘I was so fighting mad.’

Born at La Perouse to an Aboriginal mother from Brewarrina (of either Ngemba or Muruwari people), Gibbs had suffered racial discrimination at school in far western New South Wales. Moving back to Sydney in 1917 to work, she took on the cause of Aboriginal girls who were taken from their families and forced to work as domestic servants.

By the 1930s she was a leader in rights organisations, helping to organise the Day of Mourning protest in 1938. Having become a persuasive speaker, she had her own radio show in the 1940s. She settled in Dubbo after the Second World War and maintained a strong network of activists. Campaigns she worked on included the fight to include Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution.

Gibbs’ grandchildren have spoken about the pain their grandmother experienced when her children were taken away by her ex-husband and placed in foster care. The papers of Pearl (Gambanyi) Gibbs (1901–1983) include photographs from her life in various parts of the state.

Bessie Guthrie, 1973, Tribune newspaper via Trove

Bessie Guthrie, 1973, Tribune newspaper via Trove

Bessie Guthrie

Living in the inner-Sydney suburb of Glebe, Bessie Guthrie met some of the area’s underprivileged children in the 1950s when they came to steal flowers from her garden. She decided to encourage them. ‘One day I came face to face with one little girl,’ she told the Tribune newspaper in 1973, ‘and I said: “If you come to my house I will give you a piece of everything I have growing.”’ From then on, the children came not only for flowers but for emergency housing, and Guthrie led the fight to reform the children’s welfare system.

After studying art and design in the 1920s, Guthrie had worked as a furniture designer and written articles on how design could improve women’s lives. ‘I didn’t like interior decorating,’ she said in the same interview, ‘because the women who could afford it were so uninteresting.’ In the late 1930s her love of writing and book design led her to found a publishing company that mainly published women’s poetry.

While working as a clerk in the public service from the early 1950s, she investigated the children’s courts, prisons and welfare homes, and organised major campaigns to address the system’s abuses and injustice. Among her successes were a campaign to end virginity-testing in girls charged by the children’s court, and the closure of the inhumane Hay children’s prison.

A mentor for younger feminists, in 1974 Bessie Guthrie (1905–1977) was one of the founders of Australia’s first women’s refuge, Elsie Women’s Refuge Night Shelter.

Betty Roland, c 1970s
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Betty Roland

As the young wife of a prosperous engineer, Betty Roland’s social conscience was raised by the widespread suffering she witnessed in the early 1930s. ‘I remember the hopeless men who sat in the Melbourne parks,’ she would recall in her memoir of the year she spent in the Soviet Union during that decade, ‘heads bowed in their hands, waiting for the next handout from the soup kitchens … the workless men – and women – who used to tramp along the highway from Melbourne to Sydney …’

Already a recognised playwright after her first play, The Touch of Silk, was acclaimed by critics, she turned her hand to writing agitational propaganda, or agit-prop, plays that were performed at the radical New Theatre, at factories and in the Domain.

Roland’s involvement with communism was short-lived, but after writing novels, radio plays, travel and children’s books, she fought for writers’ interests. Her plays continued to be performed and she found notoriety later in life for memoirs of her unconventional relationships. ‘I’ve dared to do what [other people] have secretly wanted to do,’ she said in an interview in the 1990s.

The papers of Betty Roland (1903–1996) include letters and diaries, photographs and manuscript drafts, and her political plays can be found in the Communist Review.

Marie Byles, c 1920
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Marie Byles

A bushwalker since she could walk, Sydney’s first female solicitor Marie Byles saved up for a walking trip in England, Scotland, Norway, Canada, California and New Zealand in 1928–29. Returning home to write her first book, By Cargo Boat and Mountain, Byles worried that travel writing might be thought of as trivial. ‘But after seeing the snow-capped mountains of the countries overseas,’ she told the Daily Telegraph, ‘I think there is no future for me not bound up with mountain climbing.’

Byles, who was also advocating in popular magazines for women’s legal rights, used her bushwalking network and writing skills to successfully campaign for the creation of Bouddi National Park, north of Sydney. In articles for the Sydney Morning Herald in the mid 1930s, she described the ‘silver sands’ and ‘sea-battered cliffs’ of this ‘last remaining strip of unalienated coastline’.

Byles had been raised a vegetarian by her English suffragette mother, and began a serious study of Buddhism in the 1940s. She opened her house, Ahimsa, in the northern-Sydney suburb of Cheltenham to others for meditation, and travelled to India to develop her knowledge of history and religion.

Through her books and media presence, Marie Byles (1900–1979) applied her understanding of Buddhism to environmental problems, changing roles of women, and methods of peaceful reform. She bequeathed Ahimsa to the National Trust of Australia.

Audrey Blake, 1942
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Audrey Blake

‘It was like the Russian revolution had happened yesterday,’ Audrey Blake said of learning about the Bolsheviks at high school as the Depression hit in 1929. ‘I believed in the Russian revolution,’ she told ABC radio, ‘and I believed that the workers could do marvels if they organised and got a lot of knowledge.’ So, when she left school at 14, she joined the Communist Party of Australia.

As a young worker in the catering industry, she was asked by her employer to choose between her job and her political activities. She chose politics, marrying fellow communist Jack Blake and becoming a full-time organiser for the Young Communist League, where she coordinated actions for peace activism and to support the young unemployed.

With Jack and their newborn daughter, Jan, Blake spent 1937 in Moscow where she and Jack were representatives of international communist organisations. Back in Melbourne, Blake was secretary from 1941 of the Eureka Youth League, she led campaigns, gave speeches and ran cultural activities for young communists during the following decade.

Disillusioned with the Soviet Union after Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin, she stepped back from key roles and formally left the party in 1966, but remained a socialist for the rest of her life. Blake’s autobiography, A Proletarian Life (1984) captured her life as an activist, and the papers of Audrey Blake (1906–1996) show the political commitment she shared with many friends who were writers, artists, scholars and filmmakers.

Cathy Perkins