Between class and gender: female activists in the Illawarra 1975-1980
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This thesis examines the historical relationships between two peak bodies at critical moments in the emergence of a new form of feminist activism in the Illawarra region of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The two organisations are the South Coast Labour Council (SCLC), the region's peak union body, and the Wollongong Women's Information Centre (WWIC), the region's peak feminist body. The Illawarra is one of the most significant historical examples of Australian regional peak unionism (Markey & Nixon, 2004) with a rich history of union-community relationships. The WWIC claims to be the earliest feminist organisation of its kind in non-metropolitan regional Australia. The WWIC was originally proposed by an SCLC standing committee of female and male activists and when formed maintained a close relationship with the SCLC and its feminist activists. Labour historians in Australia have ignored the relationships between trade unions and feminist organisations. The thesis argues that there are four trends in industrial relations and labour history literature that can benefit from this study: first, an ongoing concern by feminist labour historians about the invisibility of women activists and their agency in institutional studies (Brigden, 2003; Cooper, 2002); second, a renewed focus on the historically changing but creative tensions between class-based and gender-based theories in industrial relations (Cobble, 2007); third, a growing interest in relationships between peak union bodies and community organisations (Ellem, Markey & Shields, 2005); and fourth, increased attention to the role of spatial analysis in understanding the nature of institutional relationships in peak union literature (Ellem & Shields, 1999). Two in-depth case studies are developed that acknowledge and describe a large number of regional female activists. Subsequently, the impact of class-based and gender-based theories on the reconstruction of stories about women's activism are analysed. While a range of frameworks are utilised, two currently relevant theories are prioritised. First, a class-based theory, Ellem & Shields's (2004) dimensions of peak union bodies, is applied to a broad history of the SCLC. Second, a gender-based theory, Connell's (2002) gender regimes, is applied to explore the changes in women's activism in the region between 1975 and 1980. The major theoretical contribution of the thesis is to argue that underlying assumptions about power within peak body relationships constrain the range of explanatory narratives possible about feminist activists and their organisations. Implicit in the current discussion of union-community relationships are notions of 'power over' and 'power for'. Consequently, the organisational power of peak bodies is represented as agentic and instrumental. These underlying assumptions continue to reproduce homo-social patterns underlying theories about personal and organisational relationships and continue to reproduce celebratory or heroic histories. They fail to recognise the dynamic and reciprocal growth (or not) of all parties involved (Fletcher, 1999), they marginalise accounts of peak union relationships which feature women, and they reaffirm artificial divides between class and gender that are ideological, epistemological and material. What is missing is the crucial concept of 'power with'. In conclusion, I argue that future developments that combine a feminist standpoint epistemology with relational theory have the potential to constructively analyse the contributions of individual female trade union and feminist activists with the broader patterns of historical engagement of women in and with union organisations.