The Militant Women’s Group (MWG) was formed in 1927 by women from the Communist Party of Australia. The women also set up a newspaper called ‘The Working Woman’ and encompassed in that title were also housewives and unemployed women.
Marxism had taught the women the importance of pointing out the economic basis of women’s oppression. ‘The Working Woman’ therefore argued against the ‘Populate or Perish’ campaign by explaining that it was useless to demand that women have more children unless they could afford to raise them.
For most working class people the late 1920s was a time of increasing poverty. There was no financial security and if you couldn’t pay the rent you had to keep moving and doing moonlight flits. If a woman was unemployed she wasn’t entitled to any ‘susso’ (dole) and therefore usually the last thing she needed was another child to support.
The MWG ran campaigns highlighting the need for women to fight for contraceptive information, abortion under skilled medical care and the right to have large or small families according to “our desires”. They pointed out that although abortion was illegal at the time, it was available to the rich or ‘capitalist class’ and that increasing or decreasing the size of a family was not the answer to capitalism’s economic problems.
They urged women to take practical action – to join the Unemployed Workers Movement, to organise at their workplace and to participate in deputations and protests demonstrations. MWG members went door knocking out in the Sydney suburbs of Glebe and Balmain knowing that the only way they could win support for their ideas for change was by meeting people face to face.
Women such as Edna Ryan were attracted to the MWG, and then to the Communist Party, by its activities and by the slogan they quoted from Lenin: “Every kitchen maid a politician”. The groups role models were Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollantai.
The leader of the MWG was Hettie Weitzel who helped found the organisation. She was involved in protests in her native New Zealand and had been arrested for selling ‘The Communist’ newspaper there.
She was a qualified teacher but was unable to get a licence in New Zealand due to her political activity. When she arrived in Australia she helped found the Communist Sunday Schools which were run for children whose parents did not want them indoctrinated in the ways of the church.
Their activities included volunteers taking children on educational and improvement outings, including to museums, galleries and the observatory. The meetings took place at Communist Hall on Sussex Street in Sydney and were very popular. Hettie was also involved in editing the Communist Party paper, the ‘Workers Weekly’.
One of the most bitter struggles that the MWG were involved in was the 1929 timber workers strike. The government had proposed changes to the Award known as the ‘Lukin’s Award Provisions’.
These provisions were designed to increase weekly working hours to forty-eight, reduce wage rates by the introduction of piecework, and allow employers to take on a higher percentage of juveniles on less than adult wages. Inexperienced workers in this dangerous industry posed a threat to the health and safety of others as well as themselves.
When the timber workers refused to work under these dangerous conditions, they got generous and prompt support from the rest of the labour movement. From the first days of the strike the MWG were on the streets with leaflets which proclaimed “Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay”.
There were regular women’s meetings at the Trades Hall in Sydney which encouraged striking timber workers’ wives and daughters to get involved in the dispute. The MWG organised a march from Trades Hall to the Town Hall where a government sponsored ‘Industrial Peace Conference’ was being held.
Edna Nelson, a leading activist, pointed out in ‘Workers Weekly’ that the idea of this conference was that workers should accept cuts to their pay and conditions in the interests of ‘peace’, with no suggestion that the provisions introduced by the government should be withdrawn.
To support the striking workers, six women marchers got into the government sponsored meeting and sang ‘Solidarity Forever’. They shouted messages of support for the strikers and managed to get away before the police arrived!
A contingent of timber workers wives led by MWG leaders, Joy Barrington and Edna Ryan, raided the offices of the Timber Combine to deliver a resolution of support for the strikers. A women’s committee was organised in Glebe, an area near the harbour side timber yards, where relief measures were planned for the striking families.
Donations of food were collected from local people and mass pickets of firms using scab timber put pressure on the government and employers. Again members of the MWG were at the forefront of these actions.
Despite the growing unemployment crisis and the beginning of the depression, thanks to financial and food donations, the strikers were able to hold out for nine months. While the strike was eventually broken when it collapsed in Victoria, and the NSW government introduced anti-picketing laws, it would not have lasted anywhere near as long of it wasn’t for the support it received from groups like the MWG.
The growing numbers of desperate unemployed meant that it was becoming increasingly difficult to stop scab labour being used to break the strike. The timber workers strike had shown the need for protection for striking workers against the police and company thugs and this led to the setting up of the Workers Defence Corps.
The relief work which the MWG had organised during the timber workers strike and other disputes was continued on by the Workers International Relief. The woman involved felt that this was better as it integrated the members into the main work of the Communist Party.
Despite suffering from splits and the impacts of the depression, many women members of the Communist Party remained very active in the class struggle. When in 1930 Communist Party candidates stood in the NSW state election, Mary Lamm, a member of the MWG, stood in Annandale at the same time as Jack Sylvester, the leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement, stood in Balmain. For a variety of reasons Lamm achieved the best results of all Communist Party candidates.
The MWG and its paper ‘The Working Woman’ succeeded in reaching fresh layers of women and educating them about the class struggle by way of practical action. The issues that the women faced then, and the battles they were involved in, helped pave the way for future reforms including contraception and decent welfare payments.
But the women involved in MWG didn’t just want to reform the capitalist system, they wanted the complete socialist transformation of society. They understood that as long as the capitalists controlled the economy they would control society in general and that any reforms won would come under attack time and again. The only way to secure reforms for the long term is to change the system and put the economy in the hands of the majority.
The ongoing attacks today on workers’ wages and conditions, the welfare state and women’s rights, as well as the growing gap between rich and poor, are further proof of the correctness of these ideas and show the need for these types of struggles to be renewed afresh.
The battle of the MWG then is still our’s today!
By Samantha Ashby