Saving stories of women activists in the workplace
Many of the workplace conditions we enjoy today – such as maternity and carer’s leave – came about through the activism of women in the union movement, but the history of these hard-fought battles is in danger of being lost.
UTS Business School Associate Professor Sarah Kaine and RMIT Professor Cathy Brigden have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for an oral history project that will record these stories for posterity and inspire future generations.
“We realised there was an imbalance in the stories of people who battled to make things better in the workplace. The current recorded history focuses on men – there is a lack of stories about women who fought for their rights and the rights of those around them,” says Associate Professor Kaine.
The researchers plan to seek out 50 women who were activists between 1968 and the present, from a wide range of backgrounds, and record them in their own words via face-to-face interviews. The interviews will then be made available to the public via a web archive.
“There is something really powerful and inspiring about hearing people speak in their own words about their experiences – hearing them tell stories of everyday bravery that has often come at a personal cost in terms of pressure on them and their families,” says Associate Professor Kaine.
The project will include interviews with senior union figures involved in major campaigns, people like former ACTU president Jennie George, but it will also include lesser-known women, “everyday heroes” who have inspiring stories of challenging the status quo.
As well as asking for public support to fund the project, the researchers are looking for help in uncovering the women activists who helped shape their workplaces, whether in capital cities or regional areas, and from all cultures and backgrounds.
One of the women already interviewed is Chris Wagland, a union leader and activist for the rights of workers in the cleaning industry. Wagland has worked as a cleaner for more than 30 years, and became involved in activism when her workplace refused to pay long-service leave and other worker entitlements.
“The biggest barrier is always to get people to take that big leap into the unknown, to put their hands up… that’s the power that people don’t realise they have. No matter how much your voice wavers, or you get upset or your knees shake,” says Wagland.
Wagland’s story about how she stepped up and held her ground, despite threats and bullying, is the kind of story the researchers are looking for – one that will help others realise that change is possible.
The stories will include issues from the late 60s to current times – from harassment or underpayment, to the gender pay gap, maternity leave, issues with contract work, or continually being a casual or contingent worker.
“We chose 1968 because it was a pivotal time in terms of politics and the women’s movement, and it will enable us to investigate both broader social change, and change across the union movement. This is a living history project, so we will also include current stories,” says Associate Professor Kaine.
In 1968 workplace conditions for women were very different from today. Many workplaces only employed women if they were single and forced women to resign when they got married. Paying women less than men for the same role was normal and there was no maternity leave, paid or unpaid.
Sexual harassment was also not illegal until 1984 and even then, only if it led to disadvantage in the workplace. It was only included in the Sex Discrimination Bill because of pressure from activists.
“The website will be a place where personal memories can become collective memories, where they can be shared, and preserved for history,” says Associate Professor Kaine,
The Australian Services Union, National Tertiary Education Union and United Voice have provided Initial seed funding to develop the website. The project is supported by the UTS Centre for Business and Social Innovation, which aims to examine issues around social access, equity and fairness at work.
Visit the Save Women's Stories crowdfunding page to make a donation.
This article was first published in UTS Business School.