Jacquelyn Baker interviews Iola Mathews about her recent memoir- Winning for Women: A Personal Story.

Winning for Women CoverYour book provides a comprehensive insight into your important and highly influential work in the women’s and union movements, as well as your experience in balancing a career and family. What were your motivations in writing your book?

This is a memoir, which is to say it’s not my entire life, but one part of it – the period of about 20 years being active in the women’s movement. I wrote another memoir earlier, called My Mother, My Writing and Me, which was about returning to writing in my fifties, and getting caught up in the ‘sandwich generation’ – caring for my elderly mother and my new grandson.

My main motivation for writing this book was to record many of the changes for women, so they were not forgotten. When I was at the ACTU, in the period of the Accord with the Hawke-Keating Government, we were very aware that we were making history, and I kept records of what we were doing. When I left the ACTU, I was not sure my files would be sent to the archives in Canberra, so one Sunday I went into the office and brought them all home. They sat in our garage in filing cabinets for over 20 years until I was ready to write this story. 

Once I started writing about the ACTU, I realised it was necessary to go back ten or more years before that, to explain what I had experienced and why I was so motivated to change things. For example when I had children in the early 1970s, there was no maternity leave, no decent childcare near me, a ban on part-time work in many areas, no affirmative action and so on. I was also struggling to work at all, because my husband’s job took him away all the time and we had three stepchildren as well as two babies at home. So later on, when I got to the ACTU and found we were going to work on all those issues, plus equal pay, superannuation and more, it was incredibly exciting.

I knew the book would be more readable if I described my personal story and struggles, along with the broader issues of social change. 

What sources did you draw upon to help you write this book?

I drew on all the files I’d kept over the years from my time at The Age and the Women’s Electoral Lobby, through to the ACTU. I had also kept a diary from time to time, plus an exercise book in which I wrote some of the funny things my children said when they were small. I called it Turtle Fire Ban because that’s what they thought the radio announcer said when he announced, ‘today is a day of total fire ban’. I drew on all these things and some extra interviews and research as I went along.

While the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) was a crucial part of the Women’s Movement in Australia, not all those who participated in the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) agreed with WEL. As one of the founding members of WEL, what did you think the relationship between WEL and the radical feminist groups of WLM was like in the beginning, and did this relationship change overtime?

The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was established before WEL, which was founded in 1972. WLM was more radical in the sense that there was a lot of ‘conscious raising’ and setting up grass-roots projects like women’s refuges and rape counseling centres. WEL was more mainstream in that we were more ‘top down’, setting out to influence politicians and legislation. Some women were members of both groups. The issues we were fighting – discrimination against women – were fairly similar, but the two groups operated in different ways.

You had a close friendship with fellow WEL member Eve Mahlab, despite differences in political affiliations. How diverse were the political affiliations held by members of WEL, and did these differences ever have an affect on WEL?

Women’s Electoral Lobby (from @welaust)

WEL had members of all political parties, although we were mostly on the Left. Our motto was to support Candidates, not Parties, which is why we published the WEL questionnaire results for each candidate in 1972. The candidates on the Left, however, did much better than the others. Whitlam (then Leader of the Opposition) scored 33 out of a total of 40, while Billy McMahon (PM) scored only one point! 

During the period after leaving The Age, you write about doing voluntary work in women’s rights. What kind of voluntary work did you do, and did this work help you in your future employment at the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)?

After I left The Age I joined a number of committees working on women’s issues. One was an informal group with Joan Kirner to work out a program for women for the new Cain Labor government in Victoria. I also joined the ALP Status of Women’s policy committee, the Victorian Women’s Advisory Council to the Premier (VWAC), a group setting up a Women’s Information Referral Exchange (WIRE) and a group trying to establish a Women’s Centre for Victoria’s 150th anniversary.

On the ALP policy committee I wrote a paper on the need for Affirmative Action programs and this led to a job in the Victorian Public Service Board setting up the ‘Action Plan for Women in the Victorian Public Service’. This in turn led to Bill Kelty asking me to go to the ACTU and run their new women’s employment program. I discovered that if you are out of work, doing voluntary work in an area you are passionate about can help you develop skills and networks that can lead to another job.

You mention that one of the first tasks you undertook while at the ACTU was working with the federal government on affirmative action. Could you explain to our readers what affirmative action is and how it was used to further women’s rights in the workplace?

Affirmative Action, sometimes called Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), was an idea that came from the USA, where it was mainly to overcome discrimination against people of colour. In Australia, it was a way of encouraging women to get into senior positions or into non-traditional jobs, by removing barriers to their employment or advancement. In the USA they sometimes had quotas for the employment of women or minorities, whereas in Australia we did not have quotas, but asked large employers and government departments to adopt targets to work towards.

The Affirmative Action Agency was abolished by the Howard Government in 1996 and eventually replaced with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).

One of your tasks with the Working Women’s Centre was to take charge of the newsletter, Women at Work. How was your work with this newsletter similar, and different, to your work as a journalist with The Age?

Journalists use the same skills – researching, interviewing, writing, checking – whether on a big paper or a small one and whether print or any other sort of media. Women at Work was a newspaper published quarterly in eight languages and distributed by unions. I hired Anne-Marie Strickland, a professional journalist, to edit it and she did a great job, writing the articles and organising photos, cartoons, layout, translations and printing. I gave her some ideas for articles, but she did most of it alone. Some years later she left, and we turned it into a four-page newsletter, which I wrote myself.

Your book concludes that “we need men as well women to demand a better work-life balance” and you offer your own suggestions for reform that could help to achieve this. How do you think work-life balance has improved since the 1970s and 1980s, and what do you see as the barriers that affect people trying to achieve this balance today?

We have made many reforms that help work-life balance, but we still have a long way to go. Since the 1970s we have made huge gains in regard to the provision of good quality child care, we removed the ban on part-time jobs, and we introduced paid parental leave and partner leave, carer’s leave and leave for victims of domestic violence.

Women are now an integral part of the workforce, but most still carry the double burden of doing most of the work in the home and caring for children. Young men who want to take parental leave or work flexibly are finding it difficult to do so. Some women find it hard to get part-time or flexible work as well, especially in management positions. We need government policies that allow men as well as women to share the work-life balance. The Scandinavian countries are way ahead of us on these things, as I have explained in my book.

What significance do you think Winning for Women: A Personal story has for future feminist and union activists and for policy makers?

I hope my book shows that much has changed, but a lot more needs to be done. I have shown that change is incremental and does not happen overnight. It requires hard work, strategic thinking and compromise. It also requires collective action, and working with men and women in positions of power. My last chapter – suggestions for further reform – is a starting point.

Were there any final comments or thoughts that you would like to leave our readers with?

Please buy the book and tell others about it!!

Author, Iola Mathews
Iola Mathews’ latest book is Winning for Women: A Personal Story (Monash University Publishing). She is a co-founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, a former journalist at The Age, and a former Industrial Advocate with the ACTU. She has written previously for APH about Equal Pay.


Profile photo of Jacqui BakerJacquelyn Baker is a PhD candidate at Deakin University. Her research seeks to uncover the experiences of those who participated in the Women’s Liberation Movement in Melbourne. Jacquelyn also volunteers as a fills presenter on community radio and has a particular interest in talks and interview based radio.