Within the labour movement, there were widespread fears that women’s paid employment meant the lowering of men’s wages. Indeed women were paid at a much lower rate than men, and this often meant that they undercut them. Lower rates for non-white people heightened race fears. Such was the rhetoric and the reality. With conscription being mooted by the Hughes government, sections of the trade union movement were concerned about the implications for hard-fought wages and rights.
To assist the war effort, the National Council of Women [NCW] appointed a committee for ‘Voluntary Registration’ of women. The NCW, an umbrella group of women’s organisations, had formed a Queensland branch: they hosted a meeting for NCW delegates from the affiliated societies at the Concordia Hall, to support the recruitment of women into the workforce and promote a form of national service for women. The chair, Mrs Brigadier Harris said the movement had ‘no political significance’, and that it was not ‘the intention’ of women to compete with men, but to ‘help’ them.
Fortunately for us, a Truth journalist was at the meeting. Mrs Harris’ timing was ‘unfortunate’, the journalist wrote: ‘for the power of her words to convince keen students of persons, parties, and events’, was diminished when she was immediately followed by Colonel A Thynne, MLC, one of Queensland’s bitterest and outspoken opponents of ‘both manhood and adult suffrage, and chair of the rapacious Queensland Recruiting Committee, who averred he was not associated with the Labor Party but would support Mr Hughes. The following speaker announced a further 30,000 men were needed from Queensland to add to the 40,000 already at the front and unless women stepped up there would be an economic ‘smash’. Freda Bage added 7,000,000 women were working in Britain who had never worked before. The following woman speaker, Mrs Brydon, agreed it was indeed plausible that women could fill in as industrial workers, ‘all that mattered was that men should go, and women should take their places’. The meeting until that time was normal, orderly and calm. And then, Margaret Thorp, ‘that rosy-cheeked Quaker lass, stood to speak’.
‘Feminine fury began to flame’. Remember nothing sells newspapers better than drama and spice. ‘Agitated Tory women rose and talked angrily all at the same time’. The gist of Margaret’s message was that women should not try to oust men out of their positions, indeed men were doing ‘national service’ when they worked ‘conscientiously’ on the home-front. And she pointed out conscription was not yet the law. ‘The Tory women, like sheep, follow the lead of subtle, self-seeking Tory men’, reported the Truth journalist. ‘Men have practically been forced to enlist’ said Margaret, ‘(Cries of “Quite right’ and uproar)’. They drowned Margaret out, so she sat down. ‘Miss Thorp Gagged’, ‘Freedom of Speech Prevented’, were the headlines in the Daily Standard.
In the audience, the skilled and mature Helen Huxham bided her time; she could draw on decades of expertise. When the need for a government guarantee that women leave the jobs on the men’s return was raised, she stood to first congratulate the women on the organisation of the meeting, then to tell them she represented the working class. She advocated equal pay for equal work. She was applauded loudly. She had accepted a position on the subcommittee in order to help protect the working class. ‘A much keener student of social conditions than any of the women who had previously spoken’, recorded the Truth journalist, Helen used the example of expensive millinery (presumably well represented on the audience) in her arguments that demand for luxury goods would decrease, hence demand for labour in some less essential areas would not be so high as forecast. ‘To many of the ultra-patriotic persons present the sight and sound of Mrs. Huxham, wife of a Labor Cabinet Minister, and speaker from many a Labor platform, was a burden too great for PROUD FLESH and blood to stand’. A ‘haughty, high-toned Toowongite’ harangued the audience in response, apparently misunderstanding Helen’s point entirely, and when she finished her rant, Helen responded, to some applause (the denunciation had received none), that, ‘though only a Labor person, she also possessed a heart and feelings, as well as a depleted family circle as the result of the military spirit of her male relatives’. The unnamed Truth journalist awarded ‘the belt of conquest’ to Helen. Neither were the journalists from the Courier and the Telegraph sympathetic to Mrs Hope Morgan, the ‘haughty Toowongite’.
Mrs Scott Fletcher took the position as president, and an office was opened in the Town Hall. It was not inevitable that the NCW would openly support the war; the Sydney branch of the NCW advocated the links between feminism and pacifism instead of calling on imperialism.