Jacqui Baker interviews Carolyn Collins about her new book Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War.
Congratulations on the publication of your fascinating book, Carolyn!
You wrote that you came across Save Our Sons while researching a different topic and time period. What were you researching at the time and how did this lead you to Save Our Sons?
Thanks Jacqui. My honours thesis looked at the use of fear campaigns in the election of Thomas Jefferson (sound familiar?). I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a PhD so in the meantime, I started helping someone do some research on the Vietnam War. In the course of this, I came across a brief mention of Save Our Sons in the Australian War Memorial archives and immediately wanted to know more. Long story short, I ended up swapping 18th century America for 1960s Australia (but still ended up writing about fear campaigns!).
In your book, you point out that Save Our Sons has been sidelined in historical analysis and has been undervalued in accounts about the anti-conscription/anti-war movement. Why do you think there has been so little focus on Save Our Sons?
For a whole host of reasons. In general, there has been much less focus on the Vietnam War than other wars in which Australia has been involved (which is wrapped up in a whole other debate about commemoration and funding). The depiction of the home front during this period also tends to be dominated by images of the moratoriums, of student protests and, in parallel, the rise of the women’s movement. While some SOS women did later become involved with women’s liberation, the group’s conservative image and reliance on maternal rhetoric does not fit easily into these narratives. And of course, they were judged, mostly wrongly, by their appearance to be women d’uncertain âge – who tend to be largely invisible in society even today.
I enjoyed reading the first-hand experiences and oral history testimonies of women involved in Save Our Sons and their families. These experiences were drawn from interviews that you had conducted as well as transcripts of interviews conducted by Pauline Armstrong. What are the advantages, and challenges, of writing a narrative based on interviews?
While some of the women were high profile, or became high profile, the majority were just names on attendance records or signatures on letters. Many groups didn’t keep any formal records, so the archives were of limited use in these cases. I wanted to know who the SOS women were, what had motivated them to get involved and, importantly, what they did afterwards. As well as filling in these ‘gaps’, oral testimony helped me to understand the emotions of the period and the individual challenges some women had to overcome. Every woman had their own very personal backstory that contributed to their decision to take a public stand against conscription. And many of them, I was surprised to learn, didn’t even have sons in danger of being conscripted. To be honest, I was about ten years too late in starting this project as many of the key members had passed away but I was also able to talk to family members who were very generous in sharing their memories. Coming across Pauline’s original cassette tapes from the early 1990s was an exciting find as many of the interviewees she’d spoken to for her Masters’ research on the Victorian SOS were no longer around. The biggest challenge there was getting permission to access and transcribe them!
Save Our Sons was often accused of being a communist front. As your book makes clear, the Australian Security and Intelligence Agency (ASIO) took these accusations seriously and kept tabs on members. In addition to oral history testimonies, you also drew upon ASIO reports and documents to write your book. Did you come across anything surprising or unexpected in the ASIO files?
I was constantly amazed at the sheer level of resources devoted to checking up on these women –some of their files extended to multiple volumes and included reports on such benign activities as family picnics. The filing alone must have been a mammoth task! I found an entire set of handwritten minutes (and neatly typed copies) for the WA group in one Perth woman’s files. Who knows how they came to be there but given there was very little public information available on that group, they came in very handy.
An aspect of Save Our Sons that stands out is the scope. Your book takes us beyond the Sydney and Melbourne based groups and examines the motivations and activity of groups based in Brisbane, Townsville, Newcastle, Wollongong, South Australia and Western Australia. However, you acknowledge that Save Our Sons never became a nationwide movement. A group never formed in the Northern Territory and the Tasmanian group flopped. Why do you think Save Our Sons was unable to mobilise successfully in the Northern Territory and Tasmania?
The various groups that formed in response to the original Sydney group adopted its name and its set of aims but they remained autonomous. This was due to a number of factors, not least geography. Attending early joint protests in Canberra, for example, was simply out of the question for women in Perth, Townsville, and Adelaide. And with no internet or email in those days, communication was mostly by snail mail. Interstate phone calls were obscenely expensive, and not everyone had a home phone (the SA secretary had to have urgent calls put through to her neighbour!). The urgency of the campaign meant there was simply no time to set up a national umbrella organisation to help set up groups in other locations. Also, as is the case with volunteer groups generally, the same women were often involved in multiple groups and their capacity to get involved in new groups only stretched so far. Other women’s groups, including the Union of Australian Women and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, were also very active in the anti-war campaign so there were multiple options available to women who wanted to voice their dissent.
Save Our Sons had crafted a ‘respectable’ middle-class public image. Can you explain to readers why this public image was an important tactic of dissent?
SOS supporters stood out at a time when ‘respectable’ middle-class women were still largely tied to the domestic sphere. While their maternal rhetoric may have been regarded by some as past its use-by-date, motherhood was still a powerful image that resonated with a large section of Australian society. The very presence of these women at demonstrations served to broaden the appeal of the anti-war movement and made public dissent more acceptable to a broader audience, particularly women. Moreover, their public image was extremely potent, making it difficult for their opponents to easily dismiss them (despite ASIO’s best efforts!). As one draft resister noted: ‘SOS women gave things a sense of gravity and solidity … you always felt that their presence was a validation that you were on the side of decency.’
Not all members agreed with the ‘respectable’ middle-class image of Save Our Sons, which resulted in some groups taking on additional aims and adopting different tactics of protest. Can you explain to our readers what these differences between groups can tell us about Save Our Sons?
Early SOS forays were tentative, relying on peaceful, lawful and well established means of protest, including their signature ‘silent vigil’. Many naively thought that once the facts had been pointed out, Menzies would see ‘the light’ and end the scheme. In 1965, they never thought their campaign would last almost eight years (or that some of them would be arrested and jailed!) But as the war and conscription dragged on, frustration understandably set in. Some members became more radical: scandalising Melbourne Cup goers in their scanty anti-war fashions; hijacking an evangelical rally; holding and publicising parties to fill in false conscription papers; refusing to pay their taxes; threatening to go on hunger strikes; padlocking themselves to Canberra’s Parliament House; and actively assisting young men to break the law. Interestingly, the two groups that headed in this direction first were located in Brisbane and Melbourne where the anti-war campaign became part of a wider fight for civil liberties during this period. In Melbourne, for example, the efforts of SOS women played an important part in the eventual scrapping of a controversial and archaic by-law restricting public protests.
Do you think that Save Our Sons has had an enduring impact on politics and/or social activism in Australia?
It depends on what level you judge this. Some would argue that the anti-war movement in Australia was largely ineffective in changing government policy so it’s difficult to make the case that one small grassroots movement like SOS played a momentous role. On the other hand, conscription hasn’t been used since (though it could be at any time). I believe SOS women did play an important role in the political debate of this era and they certainly had an impact at key times. The jailing of five Melbourne SOS ‘mums’ in 1971, for example, became a potent symbol of middle-class dissent, focusing national media attention on these issues. They were dogged, they were sincere, they were savvy and they were, in a sense, acting as the country’s conscience. We also can’t underestimate the effect they had on the lives of the young men they counselled and supported; or the enduring impact on their own lives. Some women took their newfound skills and confidence to other groups, contributing to new grassroots movements fighting for the environment, indigenous and women’s rights, as well as peace. A few went into politics, helping form public policy in all these areas. While social media has irrevocably changed grass roots campaigning, and governments have become more distant from their constituents, SOS showed us how important it is for all of us to be vigilant, to hold our governments to account and to campaign for better public policy. I like to think the spirit of the SOS still lives on among those who turn up at protests with their handwritten placards whether they are campaigning for more humane treatment for refugees, safer workplaces for women or against sandmining on their local beaches.
If there was one insight (or lesson) that you would like readers of Save Our Sons to walk away with, what would it be?
Don’t jump to conclusions based on stereotypes, particularly about gender and age, but push deeper into people’s stories and you might find the subject is more complex than you thought.