A remarkable life in remarkable times

Life and times memoirs are often lives leavened with some tangential nods to times. In Iola Mathews’ book, Winning for Women: A Personal Story, a remarkable life is inextricably linked with the remarkable times which she did much to shape.

It is the story of a feminist, the Australian feminist movement and the hard slog involved in achieving political, legal, workplace and community change in an era in which transformational social and economic changes were driven by Iola and many other committed women.

The book combines detailed socio-economic analysis; generous credit to other workers in the field; insider insights into political and workplace change; frank and touching family and personal experiences; and, all underpinned by a capacity to communicate complex issues with clarity and narrative force.

The story starts in the 1960s with the admission that back then: reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex partly ‘defeated’ her; Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ‘passed her by’; and that The Female Eunuch put her off by ‘its angry-in-your-face tone’. Thirty years later Iola was on the same Dublin conference program as Betty Friedan and the inimitable Bella Abzug. (BTW The use of Iola’s given name is simply because the blog knows her and would feel uncomfortable using her surname.)

Her father hoped that she would go into the family patent/intellectual property profession but, taking after the father’s formidable Scottish aunts who were Australian pioneers in medicine, the law and academia, and following university, she headed off to the Parisian Left Bank living in a tiny apartment above the Café de Flore where de Beauvoir and Sartre – by then her heroes – had hung out.

Simone de Beauvoir was now Iola’s “idea of a liberated woman. I wanted to be like her, with a life dedicated to love, writing and idealistic causes.” Well Iola achieved that, as her book demonstrates, but the first stop on the way was as a cadet at The Age in the days when the few female reporters were expected to cover weddings and write for the women’s pages. Fortuitously she was building her career – well beyond the women’s pages – during the era of Graham Perkin.

Readers depressed by the current state of mainstream media and the decline of The Age ought to read the book’s sections on her career at – and resignation from – the paper and the contrast between the great things done and the initial struggles of female journalists. Interestingly, while we all bemoan the mainstream media’s obsession with political trivia, quoting talking points and gotcha moments Iola’s career was part of the push to cover stories about things which counted – schools, women’s issues, community activities – and which ought to count more today if newspapers want to avoid their seemingly inevitable death.

It was really politics which was the first major step in the long feminist career with her participation in the formation of the Women’s Electoral Lobby along with Beatrice Faust and others at a time when there was only one woman in all of Australia’s State Parliaments and the Federal one. After that was another 30 odd years in journalism, politics, the women’s movement and the ACTU which – along with others in the trade union movement (particularly ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty),politics, academia, education and community groups – drove most of the major changes bringing the legal and workplace equality to Australian women were achieved.

If you want to understand how we got to where we are now from the first (well not the first as Iola highlights with her reference to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) feminist campaigns to today there are many books which cover issues such as female representation in Parliament, affirmative action, discrimination in clubs and employment, equal pay, maternity leave, superannuation, equal opportunity, child care workers pay, as they unfolded in Australia. But there are probably very few which encompass so many of these issues in the one book as this one does.

Her recounting of her first major appearance as the ACTU advocate at the (then) Australian Industrial Relations Commission on parental leave combining maternal leave, adoption leave and unpaid leave for fathers was a personal ordeal but, while the outcome was the inevitable partial industrial relations compromise, it was still a huge win for parents.

The detail of cases she developed, research she undertook in a wide range of areas, the people she worked with, the interactions with public servants, governments and – especially other women leaders – demonstrate the far-reaching changes Iola and other members of the sisterhood achieved. Her generosity to the people she worked with – and only slightly acerbic views of those who were obstructive – is a welcome contrast to many other life and times memoirs.

Of course, many of the changes were achieved in the face of intense opposition from conservative political parties, some women’s groups, employers and old style blokey trade unionists. Significantly many of the changes were achieved when Labor governments were in power federally or at State Level.

In Iola’s case the personal is political and she writes movingly and warmly about her 46 years of marriage to former politician and Cabinet Minister, Race Mathews, and her family. She is frank about the demands on political wives with young children– especially when they are combining professional careers of their own – and the emotional ups and downs of her personal life and professional life.

She mentions in passing her other writing. Her sort of family history about her Quaker forebears in the early history of South Australia was described to the blog by an SA friend and keen student of SA history as telling a story he didn’t fully appreciate until he read the book. Her works on handling the media were cribbed by many a PR person – not only in community groups – but also in substantial consultancies and corporate and public sector PR departments. Her encouragement of other writers through the Glenfern program, now run by Writer’s Victoria, is another significant contribution.

The book ends with a program for the future – a chapter with a series of practical policies for gender equality at work and in the home. Interestingly some of the proposals have been condemned by Australian Liberal governments although already implemented by the UK Conservative Party.

Iola might have achieved even more had she been able to take up some of the Victorian Government jobs she was offered but they were blocked by then Premier, John Cain, as inappropriate for the wife of a Cabinet Minister. She did, however, get one job in the equal opportunity field when the then emerging eminence Terry Moran solved the problem by hiring her as a temporary consultant. One can’t help thinking that if the Cain Government had shown the same attention to detail about (and heeded warnings from the blog and others about the impending problems)  some of the financial disasters of the time – such as the Tricontinental and Pyramid Building Society which engulfed the Government – Labor might well have been in power for longer.

And it is also worth mentioning that the book is published by Monash University Publishing and Iola thanks that press’s Nathan Hollier. Hollier has recently been appointed CEO at Melbourne University Press. Hopefully that will lead to MUP publishing more books such as this rather than some of their other recent offerings.