Listening to homeless women: History and the role of the media in the campaign for better policy

An exploration of the media positioning of homeless women across Australian history by Anne O’Brien. This piece was originally published by the ABC on 12 December 2018.

One of the less remarked upon by-products of the neoliberal ascendancy is the pressure it puts on advocates to compete for funding. This involves keeping a range of vulnerable groups in the eye of the media while trying to ensure they are neither demonised nor their suffering exploited.

The ambiguities arising from media engagement are acute in relation to people experiencing homelessness, with those sleeping rough particularly vulnerable to stereotyping. Indeed, a whole panel was dedicated to “the media” at the National Homelessness Conference in Melbourne in August this year, suggesting the sector’s concerns about media representation, but also its determination to improve it.

Homeless women have had a particularly volatile relationship with the media. Historically, they have tended to be cast as either utterly deserving or beyond contempt ― when not completely overlooked. But occasionally, their voices made it into print and these rare appearances are suggestive of a disparity between how they were represented and what they thought.

Two moments in the past offer the opportunity to consider the significance of this disparity. During the Depression of the 1930s, considerable press coverage was given to a couple of women advocates ― one in Newcastle and the other in Brisbane ―who were trying to raise money for hostels for women forced to “tramp the road.” Unlike today’s advocates, they were not professionally trained, nor was advocacy their paid work ― indeed, they were struggling financially ― and in taking up the cause of homeless women they were unusual. One of the striking things their campaigns shared was a sense of urgent indignation. Both elaborated individual cases of bodily suffering and both argued that the lack of shelter for women was grossly unjust: the system was “savage” ― it “starves, brutalises and prostitutes” (Newcastle Morning Herald, 26 February 1935).

Their practical achievements were mixed. It seems that no new hostel was established in Newcastle, but by 1940 a new women’s hostel had opened in Brisbane, the building donated by a wealthy philanthropist.

Daily Standard, 29 April 1930.

But their campaign speaks of deeper currents and slower change. One of its assumptions was that homeless women felt deeply the shame of their position and wanted it kept hidden. They insisted that the women on whose behalf they were speaking did “not desire any publicity” (Daily Standard, 29 April 1930).  On the contrary, they “shrink from voicing their sad plight” (Newcastle Morning Herald, 9 April 1932) and “hide their want from the majority of the community” (Newcastle Morning Herald, 10 April 1935). Such sensitivity may well have been appreciated by the women under discussion, though it’s hard to know because there was no correspondence from them.

But for advocates who needed the mainstream media to tap public support, utilising the familiar tropes of female deservedness was an instinctive political choice. There is no doubting their commitment and compassion, and yet in commending the homeless woman’s discretion they also silenced her, and in the process affirmed righteous anger as their preserve.

The significance of this becomes clear when we compare these reports with an earlier ― and even more rare ― set of articles and letters that did include the voices of women who identified as “homeless” (though they were not “on the road”). Appearing in 1918 in the “Women’s Page” of the Australian Worker, edited by Mary Gilmour, they focussed on the precarity of the lives of single self-supporting women who experienced low-end lodgings, exploitation wages and dangerous work conditions. They lived with “constant fear and anxiety” (Australian Worker, 13 June 1918) that they might end up “scrapped” and on the road (Australian Worker, 2 May 1918).

Newcastle Morning Herald, 10 April 1935.

Most of the letters were contributed by sympathetic well-wishers, but three were penned by two women experiencing these conditions. And far from wanting to hide, they demanded to be heard. More angry than ashamed, they decried factories herding hundreds of women into “large, bleak, draughty room[s]” with “the endless whirr of machinery” (Australian Worker, 13 June 1918) “undoing the nerves” (Australian Worker, 20 June 1918). One called on the “smug comfortable other woman to help us break our chains” (Australian Worker, 13 June 1918). The other resented “friends of the masculine persuasion” on “the Labour Platform” who “refer to us as old maids” (Australian Worker, 2 May 1918). They focussed on structural change not amelioration: women wanted “the absolute return” for their work (Australian Worker, 20 June 1918); not “tinpot reform, nor patchwork, nor tinkering” (Australian Worker, 20 June 1918).

Their analysis of domestic ideology and the gendered labour market went to the heart of women’s homelessness: “if we worked for use and not for profit, we should command houses of our own” (Australian Worker, 20 June 1918).

Both of these moments were fleeting, and specific to time and place. But they are reflective of broader patterns. The voices from “below” were contributing to a small stream of female activism whose clarity of vision foreshadowed later structural reform. The advocates were acting squarely within the philanthropic mode of relieving immediate suffering, but, in trying to get a readership onside, inadvertently perpetuated dominant prejudices.

These have proven difficult to shift. Angry women are still turned into exemplars of unacceptable homelessness, as the Herald Sun‘s photographers well know. The image of a woman apparently shouting at police during a protest at Flinders Street Station, Melbourne, in February 2017 ― its caption “Rabid without a Cause” – is one of many used by that paper to sell copy. But the clarity and vision of the early activists also finds resonance in the plea made at this year’s Homelessness Conference by Christine Thirkell to “just listen.” She had been without a home for some time and had shared her experience with the media on a number of occasions. For her, listening was pre-eminent; and for audiences to make sense of what they heard, they also needed contextualised, structural explanation.

History has a role in enlarging context. It reveals the deep layers of assumption standing in the way of change and offers a comparative vantage point for working out the costs of amelioration, the benefits of structural change, and how best to negotiate the relationship between them. As the Homeless Persons Union Victoria put it on their Facebook page, we know how to get “people out of homelessness.” What is needed is political will ― and in nurturing this, a long lens helps.


Anne O’Brien is Professor of History in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. She is the author of Philanthropy and Settler ColonialismGod’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia and Poverty’s Prison: The Poor in New South Wales, 1880-1918. With Dr Heather Holst she is currently working on an ARC funded research project on the history of homelessness in Australia.

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