‘Old Sisters’, and a New Future By Lee Rhiannon

A chapter in “Taking a Stand – Women in Politics and Society” edited by Jocelyn Scutt

Lee Rhiannon grew up in a communist family where the driving concern was working, for a more equitable and peaceful world rather than achieving a higher rung in the career ladder and a fatter paycheque. An active life in the women’s, peace and environment movements has deepened her commitment to social change. A science (honours) degree has helped her find paid work as a tutor, journalist and research worker. In 1993 Lee Rhiannon, a 42-year-old single mother with three children, became co-director of AID/WATCH, an organisation monitoring the Australian government’s overseas aid program.


   My parents were communists. But they were not just members. For the 18 years of my life that I lived at home, my father, Bill Brown, worked full-time for the Communist Party of Australia and my mother, Freda Brown, worked for various women’s organisations. In those days my parents were called functionaries. Today,, they would be known as activists. Dad was paid £20 a week and Mum now and then might have had expenses covered. So we were poor in a monetary sense but there was no hardship.

   Friends assisted us, particularly with home maintenance. Helping each other out seemed the norm to me, and in our household political debate and discussion with friends and family accompanied any domestic duties. Planning actions and election campaigns, analysis of local and international political events, and debates on philosophy pervaded my life.

   From my parents and other adults with whom I grew up life struggle- not in the sense of difficulties, but in the sense how can we make this a better, fairer and more ,peaceful world. It was not a life dominated by career moves and making money.

  When I look back on my early life I realise how different my upbringing was from that of most children growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. But at the time nothing seemed unusual. I felt secure in a world where it was the natural thing to cooperate and work to change the injustice that surrounds us. Both my parents had considerable influence on the development of my overall political consciousness and my feminism in particular.

  Their commitment to the principle that all people had the right to a freer, happier life where they had the choice to pursue their interests was reflected in their parenting. I was encouraged to obtain as many skills as possible. My parents often spoke to me of the importance of economic independence for women. And like so many working-class parents they were proud to see to see their daughter attend university.

   But this attitude did not stop at education. My parents’ political outlook went far beyond meetings and actions. It was also about having fun, with the beach and the bush popular venues. Their belief that there should not be barriers limiting anyone’s participation and enjoyment of life was reflected in our recreational time together. 

   Not long after I learnt to swim my father taught me to body surf. This was the late 1950s and it was uncommon for girls or women to surf. As money was so scarce I didn’t have the opportunity to own a surfboard and in those days, the last thing the boys would do was to share their board with a girl. But at the time I was not aware that I was missing out on surfboard riding, what I loved and still do was the thrill of the ride, feeling the power of the surf surging under me arms wave and body in harmony head for the beach.

   The bonding this brought between my parents and me (my father had also taught my mother to surf) was considerable. As we arrived at the beach we would scan the waves rolling in, and decide together where the surf was best.

    Whatever I took on, my parents encouraged me and believed I would succeed. There were many things for which I thank them, but this strength of belief that I can do it, no matter what ‘it’ is, has laid the basis of my commitment to work for social change.

   My father also taught me self-defence. Having knocked around in inner city gangs in his youth Dad strongly believed young women should be able to defend themselves physically.

   My mother has been a very strong influence on me, as she worked in women’s organisations virtually all her adult life, and she so clearly articulates her own beliefs. But also in my early years, adult men had a considerable impact. As well as my father, the work and life of my two uncles, I now realise, was an influence.

   My uncles, Leon and Rae Lewis, were wharfies. This was at a time when the Waterside Workers Federation has more than 20,000 members. Trade unionists, and wharfies in particular, were constantly vilified as the purveyors of evil by the then prime minister, Menzies,  the daily newspapers and every other bastion of the establishment. There were cartoons in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph depicting fat wharfies up to no good. Although I could not articulate it at the time, this was one of my first lessons in how groups of people are discriminated against, and the way in lies are told about them as they struggle to improve their conditions and support other peoples in their own campaigns.

   My two wharfie uncles were lovely, kind people. But as well as the personal connection I was aware of the political side of their lives. I could never see anything bad about what they were doing. I remember them going off to work with their hooks,  talking about workgangs, worrying about whether there would be enough jobs, and also campaigning on political issues far wider than just working conditions and pay. They were truly concerned about people other than themselves and this was how they they lived their lives. But from the media I was left with the impression that wharfies and their union were trying to destroy Australia. At school, fellow pupils and even teachers often echoed this rhetoric.  But for me, my uncles and the many other wharfies who were our friends were generous both personally and politically.

A commitment to work for social change is an essential part of my life. For me the change required in our society is fundamental. As long as one human being can exploit another for monetary gain, we are all lesser people. And to achieve change we need a world at peace. So my feminism has developed within a global context.

   My first political was in the mid 1960s against the Viet Nam war. These were the years before the Viet Nam moratoriums brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets across Australia. I was part of this anti-war struggle from those early days, and saw the movement grow from being made up mainly of communists, trade unionists and left wing students to encompass middle Australia.

   In 1968 with a ver other high school students I initiated a protest to Canberra against the Viet Nam war and conscription. Although it was still unpopular to oppose Australia’s involvement in the Viet Nam war, hundreds of school students joined this action. We converged on the national capital in a convoy of buses, taking our protest to towns en route. In Wollongong we were  welcomed by trade unionists with breakfast and reasonable media coverage. In Goulburn we barely had time to unfurl our banners before bing told by local police to get back on the buses and leave town. The Canberra meeting with politicians and United States if America embassy representatives stood out at the time only for their uselessness.

   Although I recognise the importance of working through the parliamentary process, these early protest ,experiences were reinforcing my desire to be where the action was- campaigning with people, not sitting down politely with the enemy. It is an important part of any campaign to have dialogue with all sides, but I was beginning to see where my heart lay.

   Former prime minister Gough Whitlam is often given credit for ending conscription and bringing the troops home from Viet Nam, but it was the sit-ins on the streets and campuses, the blockades of ships taking material to Viet Nam, the petitions and the vast array of people’s actions that ended Australia’s involvement in that horrific war. Those days provided a rich lesson for me in how to run a campaign, incorporating a range of tactics, from the radical to the respectable.

   I was in England in 1970 when I participated in my first women’s only. Action, a march if tens of thousands of women through London streets for International Women’s Day   (IWD ). IWD was not new to me as it was one of our family celebrations. But to see this day, that for years had been kept alive in Australia by a handful of women from trade unions and left-wing groups, now virtually a mass phenomenon, was inspiring.

   They were exciting days. However, at times I felt a slight sense  of conflict, as so many of the young women I marched and campaigned with believed they were the first to take such militant feminist action. The 1970s will go down as a high point in the fight for women’s rightsut women have always struggled. That we could be  on the streets in such numbers, feeling the strength of our solidarity, was in part due to previous generations of women.

   Throughout the decades of deadly conformity characterising Australian life in the 1950s and 1960s, there were women who regularly protested. Many of the campaigns taken up by women prior to women’s liberation in the 1970s had concentrated on living standards issues. I remember a photo of one action when the women, banned from carrying placards proclaiming their demand for lower prices, walked the streets with slogans painted on their aprons. Many still wore the hats and gloves that were almost mandatory in those days, but many were protesting with not only ingenuity, but with great courage. The image of those women is burnt into my mind, reminding me of the different forms our struggle take and that we would not have been on the streets in such numbers and with so much strength in the 1970s if women of many generations past had not shown consistency and dedication in their own struggles.

   In 1982, while working for the Union of Australian Women (UAW) I helped to organise a seminar, ‘Women in Struggle, Women in History’, where women spoke about their involvement in campaigns, many just as militant and innovative as any thrown up in recent decades. Hearing women speak about the Women’s Peace Army, which was active during the First World War, early childcare campaigns, life as a union official and in non-traditional occupations was fascinating and reminded me of where my roots lie.

   The diversity of women’s struggles around the world is something that has been a personal source of inspiration. Images of a Vietnamese woman soldier dwarfed by a a United States airforce pilot that she had just captured, black women in the United States being mauled by police dogs, and participating in the Great Women’s Peace March across Europe reminds me of how strong and diverse our Women’s Movement is.

   I have been fortunate to participate first hand in international Women’s Movement events. In 1985 at the end of the United Nations Decade for Women I was one of 13,000 women who participated in Forum’85 in Nairobi, Kenya. Two years later I was in Moscow with 5000 women from all continents for the World Congress of Women. I often hear considerable criticism of international conferences, and I am sure some of it is justified. But such gatherings can have great significance.

   To live and work with so many women and to hear first hand of their campaigns and hopes was fantastic. In Nairobi, where more than 60% of participants were from Third world countries, I shared rooms with women from Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran and Viet Nam. Everyone, except for me, had lost more than one family member in political conflict.

   The Moscow conference provided many opportunities to speak about Australian women’s struggles and to hear of campaigns in other countries. It also had greater personal significance for me. The conference was opened by the then president of the So jet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and my mother, Freda Brown, who was the president of the conference organising committee. For over two decades, my mother had worked with the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), an organisation with members in capitalist, socialist and Third World countries. For 15 years she was president of WIDF. Freda has visited dozens of countries as part of her work, publicising and supporting women I struggle, from the Polasario Front in the Sahara to women’s schools in Cuba. To see the political and personal skills of my mother at such an event and witness the deep appreciation and love she received from the many women with whom she worked was very moving.

   In the two to three decades I have been politically active I have worked on many campaigns. What has attracted me most are issues where there is a global perspective. In the early 1980s the women’s movement articulated many of my concerns. The threat of nuclear war was very real, then, and across the world this madness was being challenged by a growing peace movement, with women only actions an increasingly significant part of this development. The women’s peace movement was also attractive to me as it was action based and there was an openness and flexibility in implementing campaigns. With time, however, we saw that lack of structure provided no process to nurture us through the leaner times that any movement inevitably experiences.

   In 1983 I was part of a small number of women who formed Women’s Action Against Global Violence (WAAGV), a Sydney-based organisation that was part of the national Women for Survival network. We were a diverse group. Even in the early days WAAGV brought together women with little political or feminist experience with those who had a clearly defined ideological position including separatists, marxists and ananda margins. While the differences were considerable, there was overriding agreement on the issues that united us.

   Our main objective was to actively oppose the nuclear arms race. This was very much within the context of the slogan, famous in those days, ‘think globally, act locally’. So we clearly made the links between global nuclear madness and the discrimination and indignities suffered by women.

The relevance to women of the issues we took up was reflected in the rapid growth of WAAGV.

   Resources came to us numerous and varied sources-unions, churches and members of parliaments assisted in often surprising ways. The energy was bountiful, with a wide array of actions being planned and carried out. The lifetime of WAAGV was relatively short. The achievements were considerable.

   It was not only an exciting time but also very satisfying. Integral to my political involvement is working with people to build a collective so members are not just observers but active participants. In those early WAAGV days the many women who joined us quickly felt empowered, initiating and organising a range of protests and workshops. 

Our particular style of street theatre was in strong demand. One action, a ‘die-in’, used a grey parachute to symbolise a nuclear explosion. WAAGV women dressed in black could act out a contorted death, beneath the billowing ‘nuclear explosion’, before coming back to life with flowers and music. These people in no way do justice to this action, which on the many occasions it was staged in suburban shopping centres frequently observers to tears. 

Drawing inspiration from the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common in England, Comison in Sicily and Seneca in the United States of America , WAAGV and otherWomen for Survival groups decided to organise a peace camp at Pine Gap, United States communication and spy base, recognised as vital to any United States nuclear war involvement. This base is in the centre of the Northern Territory, thousands of kilometres from where most Australians live.

Detractors made dire predictions that we would not be able to mobilise sufficient numbers of Women to Central Australia to make an effective protest. But they were completely out of touch with the depth of feeling amongst women on this issue. In early November 1983 over 700 omen- Aboriginal and white Australian women- marched on the Pine Gap base. The objective of the action, to highlight the Australian government’s complicity in United States nuclear war preparations, was quickly achieved as day after day we dominated the nightly television news programs and newspaper front page stories. People were being informed not only of our actions but of the purpose of this United States war base, to which not even Australian government leaders were allowed complete access.

The full story of these years is yet to be written. Many rave and daring women participated in actions and solidarity at the two week Pine Gap protest. While the Women for Survival movement was strongly committed to direct action we made every effort to ensure that women did not feel obliged or coerced into participating in what could result in arrest or some form of conflict with authorities. At the women’s camp at Pine Gap, affinity groups, which are the basis of many extended protests these days, consisted of between eight and 12 women, who supported each other in day-to-day living at the camp and also in organising and implementing actions.

Through the affinity groups’ play acting at planned actions and by generally creating a supportive atmosphere, large numbers of women, many of whom had never been in any form of protest, were willing to put themselves in an arrestable situation, an action for which they could have been gaoled for up to seven years under the federal government’s Defence (Special Undertakings) Act.

On Sunday 13 November 1983 with the temperature edging up towards 40 degrees centigrade, police helicopters whipping up the dust and the federal and territory police in disarray, hundreds of women penetrated the Pine Gap base, officially described as a high se unity communications centre. When the police finally gained control of the base they had arrested 111 women. But the action was in no way over. Once the logistics of finding buses to transport all those arrested back to the Alice Springs courthouse had been solved, the police were again at a loss as they found they had to deal with 111 Karen Silkwoods.  Erroneously arrested had agreed to give this name in memory of Silkwood, a technician at a United States nuclear power plant, who died in a suspicious accident while driving to meet a New York Times journalist to discuss safety infringements at the plant.

My third child was only a few months old at the time of the Pine Gap women’s peace camp, so I was not involved in any arrestable actions. But it was still such a pleasurable time. Although the ominous nature of the base was pervasive, the strength and enjoyment that came from living and working under such amazing conditions with so many women makes this a significant period in my life.

The protests were not confined to Pine Gap. We had planned that there would be support camps around the country for the many women who could not make it to the Northern Territory. The drive and enthusiasm generated by the protest ensured this happen. In Sydney the innovative energy continued and within weeks of the Pine Gap Women’s Peace Camp more actions were again capturing the headlines.

Thousands of women formed a human chain from the British to the United States consulate in Sydney in solidarity with the Greenham Common Peace Camp, and in opposition to the cruise missiles that were menacing  Europe. Then two days before Christmas 1983 the pride of the British Navy, HMS Invincible, fresh from the Malvinas/Falklands war, was ‘wounded’ by WAAGV women, as ‘No death ships’ and ‘No war’ were painted along its bow. Media coverage was extensive, with newspaper reports dubbing us ‘invincible women’.

Our work was much wider than just actions. Education activities in the form of workshops, public meetings, newsletters and resource kits were a major part of our program. But within less than two years of its formation WAAGV was gone. A number of Women for Survival groups lasted a little longer but by 1985 as a movement we were a spent force. However, this loss for me was not so surprising. Any movement for social change throws up forms and processes appropriate to the time. Since the resurgence of the Women’s Movement in the early 1970s. Probably hundreds of women’s group have come and gone as different campaigns have been taken up.

The achievements of the women’s peace movement has been considerable and many of the women who came together for a few weeks or months remain active, particularly in women’s and environment organisations. For me, however, there was a loss, and as the decades of my life move on it is a loss that I see in so many campaigns. People are inspired, join a movement, so so much and then too frequently are gone. To some extent this is inevitable, but I would hope that as we move into our older years more of us will remain politically active.

To achieve this we need to be constantly looking at the processes and structures we adopt. One of the en during lessons from my women’s peace actions days is that while our loose structures allowed an innovative style to bring to reality many wonderful ideas, it did not provide a means to handle the various political and personal conflicts that inevitably developed.

As the years of my personal activity have rolled by I have given more thought to the issues of process and structure. While the history of progressive struggle in Australia reveals a diversity of movements that have notched up enormous achievements, a close look at the internal workings of many of the organisations fighting for fine ideals reveals a contradictory story. Sometimes the issue, the campaign, the cause becomes paramount and people, particularly the individuals working for those organisations are forgotten.

There will always be contradictions between the urgency of the campaign and the need to develop appropriate methods of work and democratic participation. There is no clear cut answer to these contradictions, but an awareness of the issues and a striving to find solutions I now see as an essential part of my political work, whatever the nature of the campaign.

These issues are viral both in terms of the viability of the campaigns on which we fight and on our own continued participation as activists. For all the changes there have been methods of struggle, the one item that I suspect has barely changed is the life expectancy of an activist. I do not mean that our political campaigners are being killed off, but too often their political involvement is very short.

As I move into my forties I find myself more and more often urging young activists to measure themselves : ‘We still want to be campaigning, lobbying, blockading when we are in our older years…our work for social change isn’t something just for playing with when we are young.’

As I wrote those words my thoughts were with older women like Edith and Lorna Gilmour, 92 and 95 years, who remain politically active. Edith told me how she was politically aware from her school days when she went to the Domain in Sydney, then a venue where thousands of people listened to and participated in political, philosophical and religious debate.

Both Edith and Lorna worked as teachers and participated in campaigns of the New South Wales Teachers’Federation. The issues of world peace is very dear to them and still today they are regular participants in many activities. They were on the wharves protesting when Australian Navy ships left for the Gulf war in 1991. And I saw them at a protest March in 1992 in commemoration of the first anniversary of the Dili massacre. I hope that in the next century there will be a lot more ‘old sisters’ fighting on issues vital to women and society in general.

There was a period, at the beginning of 1989, when I doubted I could continue with my own political involvement. On my own after 12 years of marriage, I contemplated my changed circumstances, wondering how I could manage with three young children. I knew my lifestyle changes were inevitable. My head reeled with the thought of coping financially and emotionally. In those early days I could not see how I could find time to work on the many campaigns that mean so much to me. I was quickly realising that, as well as money, the commodity in short supply for single parents is time for oneself.

I think the fact that I am just as active as ever is in part due to political action being in my blood. While my life is much wider than just politics, I have come to realise that involvement in social change movements is integral to my being. I suspect it was inevitable, despite my changed circumstances, that I would find some way to continue to work on campaigns about which I feel deeply. I also came to realise that the very flexible nature of many progressive movements today allows me to fit in how and when I can.

So although evening meetings are virtually out of the question today, I am not in the thick of the action as in the past and I do not hold any ‘official’ positions, I have been able to keep my hand in. The rewards and wonders of networking, plus the technical delights of fax and electronic mail, have allowed me not only to remain active but to be part of today’s global style of campaigning.

I am writing this on my laptop computer, a tool facilitating the technical wizardry that has brought a new dimension to the nature of political campaigning. A sticker popular now with some activists-‘ have laptop, will change world’- to many might seem to be overstating the case, but it reflects the potential of this new form of communicating if it can be made widely accessible. 

Life as a single parent has brought changes in most aspects of my life. More than anything in my 42 years it has shown me the entrenched discrimination women continue to suffer. Although I had naturally seen and read about the inequality women are subjected to in virtually every aspect of their lives, being a single parent was my first direct experience with something that for years I had spoken, written and protested about. That old saying, ‘experience is the best teacher’ is so true. These years have given me some appreciation of how hard so many women’s lives still are.

At the same time, my years as a single parent have been wonderful. Friendships have grown, particularly amongst a vast network of single  mothers. More than anything it has been the support and encouragement from my single mother friends that has enabled me practically, and empowered me emotionally, to remain politically active. 

For the past few years much of my political activity has been in the environment movement, working on campaigns to protect rainforests and safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples, whose homes are these forests. This work involves lobbying the Australian government on its own overseas aid programs, particularly its association with the World Bank and other multi-lateral development agencies. Our demands are that the Australian government support only those development projects that are socially and ecologically beneficial.

This work gives expression to my belief in the necessity to fundamentally challenge and change the exploitative basis of capitalist economic relations.

As we near the end of this century, there appears to be a greater political awareness that the gross inequality between men and women, peoples  of different countries, and nations themselves, is immoral and must change. At the same time, the gap between these groups is forever widening with women always at the bottom.

But the struggle will endure and I feel fortunate to have been involved as I have been. I care deeply that the world should be a safer, cleaner, healthier and freer place for all life.