A film by MEGAN McMURCHY, MARGOT NASH, MARGOT OLIVER and JENI THORNLEY.
PART ONE: HARD LABOUR
Rare glimpses of Aboriginal women’s traditional work introduce this archival compilation history of women’s work in Australia. The story of convict women’s enforced labour in the early years of the colonies is followed by an examination of the role of women through the decades of frontier conflict, pastoral settlement, gold rushes and industrialisation. Women’s labour – as wives and mothers, maids and governesses, cooks and farmworkers, nurses and seamstresses – is essential work but always underpaid and unacknowledged. Class and race sharply define and limit women’s roles. The growing trade union movement excludes female workers, so women form their own unions. By the beginning of the new century, women are campaigning for access to higher education, the vote, and equal pay.
PART TWO: DAUGHTERS OF TOIL
World War I calls men to the front, leaving thousands of jobs in offices and factories to be filled by women. At war’s end, the minimum wage for a female worker is set for the first time - at 54% of the male rate. Returning soldiers reclaim their jobs and alarm at the declining birth-rate focuses official attention on motherhood. During the 1920s, middle-class women replace domestic servants with domestic appliances and working-class girls are increasingly employed on factory assembly lines, often under appalling conditions. Male and female jobs are strictly segregated, and women are kept in low-paid work. When the Great Depression puts thousands out of work, women are accused of stealing men’s jobs. As another war looms, women activists continue their struggle for equal pay.
PART THREE: WORKING FOR THE DURATION
World War II brings women into war work again. They enter the defence forces and are allowed into skilled technical ‘male’ trades for the first time. Some are even granted equal pay. Most remain on the old female rate, fuelling an outbreak of strikes. At war’s end, the female basic wage is raised to 75%, but women are pushed back into the home, idealised as housewives and mothers and encouraged to become consumers in the post-war boom. As manufacturing industry expands in the 1950s and ‘60s, a huge migration program provides labour for the factories. In commerce and retail, women are concentrated in low-paid, routine jobs. But now a new generation of young women, advantaged by access to higher education (and the pill), is about to challenge traditional female roles.
PART FOUR: WORK OF VALUE
The long campaign for equal pay achieves partial success in 1969, but it’s not until the Labor Party wins government in 1972 that equal pay is finally won. The new government answers feminists’ demands for maternity leave and childcare, and enacts equal opportunity laws. Despite these reforms, most women workers remain in low-paid ‘female’ jobs and are barred from higher-paid ‘men’s’ work. Inspired by the women’s movement, successful campaigns are organised all over Australia to break down these barriers. But as the economic climate worsens during the 1970s, women are first to get the sack, and married women workers are accused of stealing teenagers’ jobs. The repeating patterns of women’s labour history from colonisation to the mid-‘80s reveal clear links between women’s lowly paid work in the workforce and their undervalued unpaid ‘work of loving’ in the home.