2001 ASSLH conference – The making of a feminist union activist: Claire Kelly and the Victorian Secondary Teachers’ Association

Rosemary Francis
PhD student, University of Melbourne


Claire Kelly was an influential member of the central committee of the VSTA from 1975 until 1981, gaining the position of vice-president in that year at the age of twenty-nine years. In this paper I place Claire Kelly in the social and political context of the late 1960s and early 1970 and trace her development as a feminist union activist from the mid 1970s. Her story demonstrates the influence of the new social movements on a person receptive to notions of social justice. She was inspired to make a contribution to changing the society through union activism.


Claire Kelly was born in 1952 in suburban Melbourne, Victoria into a catholic family and was educated at both catholic and government schools. She attended catholic schools until form three in 1966 when she transferred to Frankston High School in 1967. She completed her matriculation year in 1969 at Kilbreda College, a girls catholic college in Mentone, after Frankston High School refused her permission to enrol in form six on the pretext that her French was not of acceptable standard.1 On her successful completion of her matriculation year, she enrolled in Arts at Monash University in 1970, majoring in History and Politics. Claire Kelly completed her Bachelor of Arts degree, travelled overseas in 1974, enrolled in a Diploma of Education course at La Trobe University in 1975, joined the VSTA and became a student representative on the VSTA Central Committee in the same year. She began her teaching career in 1976 at Glenroy High School and was elected to the Central Committee of the VSTA as a teacher member in 1977. She became convenor of the Open Sub-committee on Women in that year and ultimately reached the position of Vice-President in 1981 at the age of 29.

The story of Claire Kelly’s development as a feminist union activist shows how the social and political debates of the period impacted upon her in her impressionable years of adolescence and her early twenties. Through an analysis of her experience we can understand how the new social movements which developed in the late 1960s provided the impetus for action for politically aware people who attended universities during the late 1960s and early1970s. It shows in particular the influence of feminism on a young tertiary educated woman of the period, who gained the confidence to challenge the status quo and to attempt to do things differently. It demonstrates the effects of a particular moment in time and place on an individual’s political development together with her value system which was composed of a basic belief in natural justice, influenced no doubt by her Irish catholic background.

In this paper I want to show that Claire Kelly represented the young woman who understood the inequities of the society in which she lived and through her involvement in the new social movements found that she could take a stand to combat unfairness and injustice. She brought that understanding of the importance of the democratic process to her union activism. Although she chose to enter a profession which was traditionally regarded as one suitable for women, she was to challenge what was regarded as acceptable feminine behaviour. Her youthful enthusiasm and self- confidence enabled her to believe “we were young Andrew thought we could do anything”.2 Although she was inspired by revolutionary rhetoric which was difficult to apply in the Australian context, she understood that as an activist in a teachers’ union, she could have a profound influence on her own working conditions and employment opportunities, and on the way the next generation of children were educated. Through education, teachers could ultimately influence the way the community thought about women and their opportunities life, apart from other environmental and racial issues. I show, also, that although espousing a socialist ideology, Claire Kelly did not experience tension between her socialist and feminist principles. Some writers on women in trade unions have argued that women trade unionists were ambivalent about the women’s movement.3 Suzanne Franzway argues that Australian women largely defined members of the women’s movement as middle class and tertiary educated and anti-men and did not necessarily understand the problems union women had in pursuing their interests through existing institutional structures and at the same time retaining their loyalty to the union movement.4 Claire Kelly was tertiary educated and did not regard it as an impediment to her commitment to union activism.

Changing social context of the 1960s

Claire Kelly was a “baby boomer”, a term applied to the large numbers of babies born after the end of the Second World War and grew up listening to rock and roll music, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She suffered in her own schooling the large classes and the untrained teachers which were a feature of state and parochial catholic schools during the 1950s and 1960s. It was this generation which during the middle 1960s in Australia, as happened simultaneously in other parts of the industrialised Western world, began to question the actions of governments, particularly in relation to the Vietnam War and the use of conscripts to fight in that conflict.5 The civil rights movement in the United States of America, together with the resurgence of the feminist movement, caused other groups to consider more critically their situation in society. Aboriginal people began asserting their right to their land, and in 1967 a referendum put to the Australian electorate to include Aboriginal people in the census and to give the federal government the power to legislate on their behalf was passed.6 Women’s groups became more vocal in their fight for equal pay and the redress of other inequalities suffered by women in Australia. Feminist theorists and activists posed disruptive questions of female sexuality in terms of women’s freedom to control their fertility with the contraceptive pill and to explore their own sexuality.7

The mid 1960s witnessed in Australia a change of attitude to authority which was to reverberate through institutions including schools and universities. The action which generated the most controversy in Australia was the decision to introduce conscription, which Menzies announced on 10 November1964. The Commonwealth Government called up a number of young men of twenty years of age to serve for two years in the military. Part of that service could include a tour of duty in South Vietnam once the Government committed troops to that country in April1965. The Menzies Government decided to commit a battalion of troops to fight in South Vietnam alongside the Americans who were opposing the Vietcong, the Communist activists in South Vietnam. This military action was part of the cold war strategy to contain the advance of communism which threatened to engulf the world, as the supporters of the war explained the situation.8 Others saw the Vietnam action as a civil war to be resolved between the Vietnamese themselves; it was a nationalist struggle.9 Not all twenty year olds, only those whose birthdates were pulled out of a lottery machine were selected, to the war’s opponents, a somewhat ludicrous added pressure. Opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War triggered off a protest movement which was to change the general population’s attitude to authority.

Groups opposed to the Vietnam War challenged the authority of the Commonwealth Government by demonstrating intake streets. University students who could be called up combined with older members of the peace movement to oppose conscription and the Vietnam War. They held “teach-ins” in universities around Australia where speakers presented a range of views on the subject.10 Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett have argued that Vietnam became a symbol of dissent as much as a political problem.11 The historian Ian Turner understood that opposition to the Vietnam War implied a blanket rejection of almost everything associated with the world of their parents “the so-called Menzies Age” when elders still expected obedience and respect from the young.12 Student communities in Australia tried to articulate rejection of the “capitalism” and “imperialism” that seemed toe embodied in that war. The “hippie” generation exhorted people to “make love not war”.13 The large numbers present at the Vietnam moratoriums in Melbourne in 1970 and 1971 made it difficult for the more conservative members of society to dismiss all these people as radical ratbags.

The act of participating in the Vietnam moratoriums had a radicalising effect on many people, but particularly upon some of the politically aware university students who went on to become secondary teachers in the state system. Those people opposed to the Vietnam War adopted a left perspective to argue against attacking the Vietnamese people. The development of ideologies described as the New Left attempted to rethink Marxism in a rejection of Stalinism. Splinter groups who called themselves Maoists, Trotskyists or Anarchists, emerged. These ideologies appealed to restive and politicised students to discuss a revolution that would rid society of the twin evils, as they saw it, of capitalism and imperialism.

Claire Kelly and student activism

Claire Kelly arrived at Monash University in1970 acutely aware of the issues related to conscription and opposition to the Vietnam War. The seeds of her activist consciousness had already been sown as a result of her experience at Frankston High School and Kilbreda College. In 1968 she participated in the formation of the Students’ Representative Council and incurred the wrath of the French teacher who refused to have her in her matriculation class. Always prepared to challenge what she perceived to be injustice, she was considered a “disruptive” element and was prevented from completing her matriculation year at Frankston:

I had a terrible run in with the French teacher at Frankston High School. I was told I couldn’t do French [in form six]. I had to do French to get to university. I had been very active [in form five] in forming the SRC…Students in high schools were agitating about students’ rights. I was considered a very disruptive student and not an appropriate [form six] student.

Claire Kelly’s involvement in the SRC was an important element in the development of her political activism:

 That actually was a very important influence on my thinking. It was 1968 and everything was happening. It was the Vietnam War and Mum and Dad always bought the Sun every day and we used to talk about things around the kitchen table and it was those days when the Government and the newspapers were glorifying how many people were being killed in the name of democracy, so all those ideas were fomenting and women were starting to stand up and be counted.

At Kilbreda College in 1969 Claire Kelly developed her political consciousness further and confirmed her atheism in a subject called Current Affairs and Theology when she had the opportunity to discuss such issues as the Vietnam War:

It was a very interesting influence because it was current affairs and theology too. And we were just full of questions…it was 1969 by then and we were all being influenced by the same things and we all had questions to ask. Women weren’t treated very well in the church either practically or in theological terms.14

On arrival at Monash University in 1970 on a secondary studentship, Claire Kelly studied history and politics and honed her political skills by becoming involved in student politics particularly in action related to opposition to the Vietnam War:

I just loved history and politics. That obviously influenced me too and also student politics at Monash in the late sixties, early seventies was absolutely full-on. It was considered absolutely normal that you’d get up and speak in front of a meeting of 3000 people out on the lawn between the Union and the “Ming Wing”, express your point of view and expect the university to take notice of it. We were saying it from our perspective as women and there was this notion that we weren’t just supporting the men…but the men were changing too.

She participated in a walk from Monash to the city to express opposition to that war and participated in the moratoriums. She felt part of the general upswelling which was saying:

listen to us, we’re the people, we’ve got something to say. Twenty year olds didn’t have the vote and it was all completely wrong as far as we could see and we were going to do something about it.15

Claire Kelly described herself as “being on the fringes of the Monash Labor Club”, which had adopted an increasingly revolutionary style of politics.16 After the defeat of the anti-conscription and anti-Vietnam groups in the Federal election in 1966, students assumed a more militant stance in response to police brutality used to break up demonstrations. They understood that the violence that was used to break up demonstrations was the same violence that the West unleashed upon the Vietnamese people.17 The Monash Labor Club’s response to the electoral defeat was to embrace the Maoist ideology and an anti-imperialist analysis of the war itself. Members of the Monash Labor Club declared that the involvement in Vietnam and conscription were not merely policy mistakes, but policies predetermined by deeply ingrained value systems; racism, nationalism, chauvinism and fear of those to the north resulted in the tolerance of an inhuman set of social and economic priorities at home. The solution lay in a movement aimed at combating those social and ideological structures which could prevent wars of aggression against the liberation movements of the Third World. Such a movement would require the effective structural alliance of workers and students.18

Claire Kelly was committed to positive action rather than the manipulation of factions. Although her politics were communist and feminist, she refused to join any of the established parties. For Claire Kelly being a communist meant “that you shared a vision about all the people in the world being equal and all sharing in the resources and not overusing the resources and no-one dying of hunger and no-one being so rich as to be gross”.19 Her involvement in the group called LINK, which stood for the link between students and workers, was the way she envisaged they would change the world. They produced a monthly magazine for the Metal Workers’ Union Eastern Suburbs branch. “We were able to interview women shop stewards and get into that real life stuff about working with the people you lived around and [who] had similar politics”. By the time she arrived on the VSTA Central Committees she had developed, in her colleague, Ruth Fowler’s opinion, “a carefully thought through political ideology and strategy”.20

Claire Kelly and feminism

Claire Kelly’s feminism was shaped by her awareness of the double burden her mother bore when she was engaged in full-time work and in addition shouldered the domestic responsibilities of cooking and other household chores. Claire Kelly was aware also, of the educational opportunities denied her mother, who had excelled in her matriculation year, but could not afford to attend university. At the age of twelve or thirteen years Claire Kelly particularly remembered her mother, who was a practising catholic, railing against the Pope for forbidding catholic women who take the contraceptive pill: “how dare he tell us what to do, he’s never had babies…”

Young women of the late 1960s and early 1970s were exposed to the work of Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 in the United States of America and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch published in 1971 in England. Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex, (1949), had been published in English in the 1950s and many now came to it for the first time. These works alerted many Australian women to their oppressed state in society with limited options to participate with men equally in the public sphere and to realise their full potential as human beings because of their biological potential to bear children.21 Kate Millett in her 1970 work Sexual Politics, analysed the relations between men and women as “political” relations of power and dominance, for which she coined the term “sexism”.22 This new generation of feminists challenged the patriarchal structures which they saw as oppressing them in a new confrontationist style, placing women in the context of other oppressed groups in society. They engaged in political action to overturn the basic structures of society and the economy.23

The Melbourne women’s liberation movement had begun in 1970, Claire Kelly’s first year at university. It developed out of the New Left, when tertiary educated women, inspired by the rhetoric of freedom and equality, wanted to participate equally in the revolution with their male colleagues. Marilyn Lake has argued, as others have traced in the United States and the United Kingdom, that women’s liberation arose from and reacted against the masculine dynamics of the New Left. Marilyn Lake has shown that the men who controlled the groups had constructed a rigidly defined set of gender role expectations in which women were either idealised as “earth mothers” or encouraged to shed their sexual inhibitions.24 “Many women discovered”, she wrote, “that their male lovers, brothers and comrades treated them with the condescension and contempt reserved for inferiors. Men might call for the (socialist) revolution, but outspoken women were abused as ‘castrating bitches’.”25

Marian Simms described the women’s liberation movement in Melbourne as “small, cohesive and purposeful”.26 A small group of left wing women, discontented with he result of the equal pay decision in 1969 which benefited few women, were the catalysts for its creation. Three women, Zelda D’Aprano, a trade unionist and communist and two teachers, Thelma Solomon and Alva Giekie, formed the Women’s Action Committee in March 1970 and in May of that year made an influential appearance at a conference oganised by the Carlton women’s liberation group. 27  From 1970 to 1973, some women from trade unions and organised left politics were able to meet with those whose main political education had been in student politics. They rejected the masculine hierarchical way of organisation, concentrating on small, unstructured “action” groups directly involved in specific areas. The groups, which functioned collectively, by 1974 had the halfway house group; the women’s abortion action coalition; the women’s health collective; the rape crisis centre; and a teachers’ action group.28

Women’s liberationists wanted the overthrow of existing social and political structures. In Lake’s words, “they aimed at social and personal transformation, not the acquisition of political power”.29 They called for an end to the inequalities of capitalism and for the overthrow of patriarchy, but the transformations had to begin at the personal level with oneself. They attacked the family and sex roles as the site of women’s oppression. Consciousness raising groups sprang into existence in which women were able to share their problems with other women in a supportive environment.30 The women’s liberation movement aimed to be an egalitarian body, with no official membership records, no leaders and no bureaucracies, since they aimed to act collectively. It functioned through activist groups and consciousness raising groups.31

Claire Kelly participated actively in the women’s liberation movement by establishing a women’s consciousness raising group in her own shared household and attending meetings at the Women’s Centre in Little Bourke Street, Melbourne:

I can remember going to a meeting in the Women’s Centre about the time of the Whitlam election. Melbourne women’s liberationists were invited. You just put out flyers and leaflets and it just spread around. A couple of hundred women came to this meeting. The topic was whether to accept government funding for women’s liberation projects. It was incredible political debate about whether it would be a sell-out to accept government funding because that would determine the parameters of what you could do or not do.

Claire Kelly and union activism

It was clear that Claire Kelly accepted the New Left ideology and feminism. It was logical therefore, for her to translate her student political activism into union activism in light of the Left’s linking of the two. While on a teaching round at Fawkner High School in 1975, Phil Noyce and Sue Spartels, both members of the VSTA Left, encouraged Claire Kelly to stand as a student representative on the Central Committee of the VSTA. She arrived at the VSTA Central Committee with a political ideology, experience in student politics, a feminist perspective and a healthy disrespect for authority. The Central Committee at that time was dominated by the conservative faction, “the houndstooth and ties” as their young opponents called them, who had been in power for a long period, in some cases for more than ten years. The dominant group however, was under challenge from the younger “left” members, who wanted the VSTA to broaden its agenda to include social issues.

On commencing her teaching career in1976 at Glenroy High School, Claire Kelly indicated that she was ready to challenge the status quo, to adopt new methods of teaching and not to be intimidated by authority. New, young teachers were expected to accept their place at the bottom of the teaching hierarchy. Nevertheless, the education system was undergoing changes that had been implemented in 1967 by Ron Reed the Director of Secondary Education. The emphasis was on providing a universal secondary education to cater for all students between the ages of eleven and fifteen, to encourage independence in students and for learning to be thought of as a co-operative, not an authoritarian situation.32

The VSTA Central Committee fully endorsed this radical agenda in a curriculum statement in March 1968. It commended the Curriculum Advisory Board for its “broad and pragmatic” approach to the changing needs of a more diverse range of secondary students. The Victorian Government abolished the Leaving Certificate after 1972, thus providing further scope for curriculum innovation without the restriction of external examinations. By 1973, 89 of Victoria’s 260 secondary schools had introduced some major curriculum reform. As individual schools assumed responsibility for devising their courses within the new guidelines, the teachers with a left perspective had an opportunity to implement their ideas. Nevertheless, it was clear that some schools would be slow to adopt the recommended curriculum and organisational changes.

The students in the training institutions were being exposed to these new principles and forced change at the key site of the Melbourne State College where they agitated to construct a new teacher training course called the D Course in 1972. Eve Manarin, a mature age student, participated in it during the one year that it operated. Potential Diploma of Education students volunteered for the course which held no examinations; students could not fail the course and they decided its content. Eve Manarin saw most teacher training institutions as conservative places, with a clear conflict between the notion of elitist secondary education and that of the ideal of catering for the needs of all students.33 Claire Kelly completed the more innovative Diploma of Education stream at La Trobe university in 1975, coming under the influence of Doug White, lecturer in Education, who challenged his students to reflect upon the issues involved in being a teacher.

In her first year of teaching at Glenroy High School, Claire Kelly recognised quickly that “the girls weren’t getting a fair deal and we could see that we weren’t getting a fair deal and the two were absolutely intertwined”. In the school environment, she witnessed the conservative and hierarchical nature of school administration. An incident Claire Kelly described encapsulated the attitude of the principal to his junior female staff. Bill Brown, the principal of Glenroy High School came upon her Year 10 history class in which there were many boys:

who really didn’t want to be in a history class…and I had them sitting at tables. I had all the tables and chairs moved so that there were groups of tables with four people sitting around them. He threw open the door and walked into the room and ignored me and said to the students, “move those tables and chairs back the way they are supposed to be, and the boys sit on that side and the girls sit on that side”, and waited there with folded arms until they’d done it. I was standing there absolutely stunned and so were the kids. They looked at me, waiting to see what my reaction would be. I didn’t know how to react…At the end of the lesson I said, “next time we’ll put the chairs and tables back the way I want them because I’m the teacher”, and walked out of the room.

Claire Kelly, indignant at this erosion of her authority in the classroom, raised this issue at a staff meeting, arguing that the principal had not treated a professional teacher in an appropriate way. The staff supported her stand. Bill Brown retaliated at the end of the year, when he assessed the fifteen first year teachers at Glenroy. He was obliged to show the teachers their assessments before forwarding them to the Education Department. He had awarded Claire Kelly very low scores, which her colleagues knew clearly indicated bias, and demanded that he provide her with a fair assessment. She followed VSTA policy by not grading students and having continuous assessment rather than examinations. The older, more conservative teachers found her confronting, but still respected her ability as a teacher and supported her.34 Claire Kelly found the solidarity that the staff at Glenroy showed an important influence in her union activism. These people were prepared to support her right to be treated in a professional manner, even if they disagreed with her teaching and assessment methods.

On her election to the VSTA Central Committee in 1975 as a student member, she witnessed how the leadership group dismissed issues which Ruth Fowler raised when co-ordinator of the Open Sub-committee on Women which was established in 1974, although the all male union Executive had opposed its creation. She saw them dismiss policy proposals on technical grounds and to attempt to undermine Ruth Fowler’s credibility by spreading rumours about her sexuality. She operated in a hostile environment. Women were not expected to speak out at Committee meetings, much less attempt to set the agenda.

On her return to the Central Committee as a teacher member in 1977 and ultimately the OSCW co-ordinator, Claire Kelly was able to employ her oratorical skills in addition to her negotiating and organising skills to gain adoption of policies which were to change the way the union operated and to make it a much more representative union. The family leave policy, superannuation, permanent part-time work, child care had all been adopted by the VSTA by 1981, when Claire Kelly left to produce her first child and to benefit from the seven year family leave policy. Her partner at the time Brian Henderson, became president of the VSTA in 1982 and it was under his leadership that all those policies, with the exception of child care, were implemented.

Claire Kelly was 23 years of age when she was elected to the VSTA Central Committee as a student member and 25 when she returned as a teacher member. Perhaps some regarded her behaviour as brash and outrageous, but she displayed qualities which enabled her to use the democratic structures of the VSTA to ensure that the membership clearly informed the leadership of its policy priorities. Her belief in democratic structures and her feminist rejection of hierarchy enabled her to challenge the existence of those structures in the teaching service and the union and to work with others outside the VSTA to achieve their shared goals. Her involvement in the anti-Vietnam war movement had shown her clearly the conservative assumptions of the Australian society of that period and the inequities that women and girls experienced. Her innate belief in social justice led her to left politics. Although she did not lead the revolution, she worked energetically, strategically and fearlessly to broaden the VSTA’s agenda to the extent that it could claim to represent the interests of both its male and female members. She played a crucial role in dismantling the structures in the teaching service and in the union which perpetuated the privilege of the male breadwinner.

1 Interview with Claire Kelly, Eltham, 5 February 1998.
2 Interview with Claire Kelly, Eltham, 19 February 1998.
3 See Suzanne Franzway, “Sisters and Sisters? Labour Movements and Women’s Movements in (English) Canada and Australia”, Hecate, vol. 26, no. 2, 2000, p. 36.
4 ibid.
5 Robin Gerster and Jan Bassett, Seizures of Youth: the Sixties and Australia, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1991, p. 45; Verity Burgmann, Power and Protest: Movements for Change in Australian Society, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1993
6 Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus in collaboration with Dale Edwards and Kath Schilling, The 1967 Referendum, or, When Aborigines Didn’t Get the Vote, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, ACT, 1997, p. 31.
7 Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quarterly, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1994, pp. 300-1.
8 Greg Lockhart, “Fear and Dependence: Australia’s Vietnam Policy, 1965-1985”, in Keith Maddock and Barry Wright eds, War: Australia and Vietnam, Harper and Row, Sydney, 1987, p. 12.
9 Charlotte Clutterbuck, Protests and Peace Marches: From Vietnam to Palm Sunday”, in Keith Maddock and Barry Wright eds, War: Australia and Vietnam, Harper and Row, Sydney, 1987, p. 137.
10 Ann Mari Jordens, “Conscription and Dissent: the Genesis of Anti-War Protest”, in Gregory Pemberton ed., Vietnam Remembered, Lansdowne, Sydney, 1990, pp. 75-8.
11 Gerster and Bassett, Seizures of Youth, p. 54.
12 ibid., p. 38.
13 ibid., p. 54.
14 Interview with Claire Kelly, Eltham, 5 February 1998.
15 Interview with Claire Kelly, Eltham, 5 February 1998.
16 Ann Curthoys, “Mobilising Dissent: the Later Stages of Protest”, in Pemberton ed., Vietnam Remembered, p. 147.
17 Richard Gordon and Warren Osmond, “An Overview of the Australian New Left”, in Richard Gordon ed., The Australian New Left: Critical Essays and Strategy, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1970, p. 30.
18 ibid.
19 Interview with Claire Kelly, Eltham, 30 July 2000.
20 Interview with Ruth Fowler, Thornbury, 13 January 1998.
21 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, 1965; Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, Granada, London, 1971; Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Jonathon Cape, London, 1953.
22 Kate Millett, Sexual Politics, Virago, London, 1970.
23 Lake, Getting Equal, p. 10.
24 Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal, p. 220.
25 ibid.
26 Marian Simms, “The Australian Feminist Experience”, in Norma Grieve and Patricia Grimshaw eds, Australian Women: Feminist Perspectives, p. 233.
27 ibid.
28 ibid.
29 Lake, Getting Equal, p. 231.
30 ibid., p. 234.
31 Louise Asher, The Women’s Electoral Lobby: An Historical Inquiry, MA Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1980, p. 19.
32 Bill Hannan, “Three Years of Change”, Secondary Teacher, July 1970, p. 5.
33 Interview with Eve Manarin, Carlton, 21 March 2000.
34 Interview with Claire Kelly, Eltham, 5 February 1998.