Political action, feminism and writing personal memoir

Iola Mathews reflects on the process of writing her memoir of feminist awakening and activism, Winning for Women: A Personal Story.

From 1984 to 1994 I was fortunate to work at the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) during the heady days of the ‘Accord’ between the union movement and the Hawke-Keating Government. Working with leading feminists like Susan Ryan (the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women), and Anne Summers (head of the Office of the Status of Women), we tackled issues like child care, affirmative action, superannuation, equal pay, parental leave and work-family issues.

It was an exciting time, and we knew we were making history. The pace of reform was breathtaking and my boss, ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty, was like an extra member of Cabinet. ‘We don’t know how long the Labor Government will last,’ he told us, ‘so we must move as fast as we can.’

I was in charge of the Action Program for Women Workers, and as we ticked off each part of the program, I kept copious notes and files. Having been a journalist before going to the ACTU, I thought, ‘One day I will write about all this.’

When I was leaving the ACTU, I asked about the archives, and was told they were in Canberra. The officer responsible at the ACTU was not very interested in women’s issues, and I feared he might throw out my material. So one Sunday I collected my files and put them in our garage in four filing cabinets. There they sat for twenty years, making me feel overwhelmed every time I walked past. But eventually I found time to start.

At first, I drafted a few chapters of a book about the ACTU during that period (tentatively called Accord and Discord) and sent it off to a couple of publishers. They turned it down, on the grounds that nobody was interested in The Accord any more.

Then I had another idea. I would write it as a memoir.

WEL poster, courtesy of Mary Featherston.

It had to start a decade or more before I joined the ACTU, to show why the reforms in the Action Program were so important to me. Before I married, I was a journalist at The Age. I believed myself equal to a man. I did not join the emerging Women’s Liberation movement, as I thought I was liberated already. It was only when I was invited to become a founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) in 1972 that my life changed and I became a feminist overnight.

Later that year I married and acquired three children, because my husband’s first wife had died, tragically, two years earlier. I kept my career going, but when I had my first child fifteen months later, I had to resign from The Age. In those days, there was no maternity leave, no decent child care and a ban on part-time work. In addition, I lived in an outer suburb and my husband’s work took him away from home a great deal. I needed to write about those early years and my passion to tackle those issues.

I was not short of material for this book; in fact, I had too much. My first real job after university was as a secretary, where I learned to keep copies of everything and file it in alphabetical order. It’s a practice I’ve kept up. Later on I kept my news clippings as a journalist, and files on WEL. Once I started writing the book, I had a dilemma as to whether I’d write it chronologically or thematically. In the end I did a bit of both.

As I wrote each section, further research was needed, and my endnotes mounted up.  Whenever I mentioned a former colleague, I tracked them down and checked what I’d written.

I also drew on my diary, which I’ve kept on and off since my twenties. Sometimes I wrote it to record events that I wanted to remember, and sometimes I used it as therapy when things were going badly. Using the diaries, I was able to describe events and conversations that had taken place years earlier.

Another source was a little book I kept when my children were small, to record the funny things they said. I called it Turtle Fire Ban, because that’s what they heard when the radio announcer said Today is a day of Total Fire Ban.

In my final years at the ACTU, I became an industrial officer and advocate in test cases for parental leave and equal pay. I wrote about those in detail, to show how a case is prepared and argued. In the final chapters, I decided to bring the book up to date, with a chapter on issues like women and work and equal pay today, and suggestions for further reform.

When I finished the first draft, I showed it to a couple of close colleagues and my family. As a result of their feedback, I removed about 5,000 words, mostly about family matters that were better left private. It was important to have my family’s consent.

People ask me why I wrote this book. I wanted to record some of the reforms for women in that heady period from the 1970s to the 1990s, and I thought it would be more accessible if I blended the personal with the political. I wanted to make it come alive and describe some of the people involved. I also wanted to show young women today that a great deal has changed, despite what they think. As one writer has noted, Women’s Liberation was the only successful revolution of the twentieth century. 

Iola Mathews is an author, co-founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and a former journalist at The Age. Later she worked at the ACTU as an industrial officer and advocate, specialising in women’s employment, for which she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal. She was the advocate in the parental leave case and equal pay cases for child care workers and clerical workers. More recently, she established writers’ studios in the National Trust property ‘Glenfern’ in East St Kilda. Her book Winning for Women was published in 2019 by Monash University Publishing.

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