Though patriotic fervour ran high in Australia during World War One, that did not mean that all Australian women were pro-war. Women’s reasons for not supporting the war varied. Some were opposed to all wars and others just to this particular war; still others weren’t opposed to the war itself but were against conscription; and many were just plain terrified of losing the young men they loved. It was not easy to publicly question Australia’s involvement in the war, but from the beginning there were a number of women who openly and strongly spoke against the war.
Victorian-born Vida Jane Goldstein, a feminist suffragist and pacifist who ran for federal parliament unsuccessfully five times between 1903 and 1917, is probably the best known of the anti-war women in Australia.
Then there was the charismatic Adela Pankhurst, invited out from England (leaving her famous suffragette mother and sisters) by Goldstein in 1914 to support the women’s movement here. In contrast to her mother and the movement Emmeline Pankhurst founded in Britain, Adela Pankhurst became a leading anti-war campaigner in Australia.
Pankhurst was recalled as a ‘good, forceful open air speaker … When she got really worked up her long, fine hair used to work loose and tumble about her shoulders’ (Damousi 1994, 26). She was also a writer of sorts, publishing her radical feminist anti-war book Put Up the Sword! in 1915. But Pankhurst was best known for her singing – at public rallies, she and anti-war feminist Cecilia John from Tasmania (who founded the Women’s Peace Army with Goldstein) made a point of loudly singing an Australian version of the American anti-war song I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier, until they were banned from doing so by the government.
So successful was Pankhurst at raising a crowd that Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes (who urged Australians to vote for conscription) thought about deporting her, writing in 1917:
“Adela Pankhurst is making a d-d nuisance and I really don’t know what to do with the little devil. I hate punishing women.” (Quoted in Damousi 1994, 27)
While on remand from a gaol sentence for leading a demonstration in Melbourne against food prices during the war, Pankhurst married widower and unionist Tom Walsh in September 1917, forestalling deportation, although she went to gaol. On her release in January 1918, the couple moved to Sydney, got involved in the formation of the Communist Party of Australia, and raised a family. By the end of the 1920s their political allegiances had shifted to the far right, and ironically enough Pankhurst Walsh would be arrested and interned during WW2 for advocating peace with Japan.
Other lesser-known but intriguing anti-war women include English-born suffragette Jennie Baines who was gaoled after the war ended for flying the socialist red flag, and ‘Peace Angel’ Margaret Thorp nee Watts, who also came to Australia from England. Thorpe arrived with her parents in 1911, aged 19, as part of a Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) campaign to oppose the introduction, then, of compulsory military training legislation in Australia.
Another was former lunatic asylum nurse Mary Grant, who gave anti-conscription lectures to factory workers on their lunch break, and was fined for leading an anti-conscription deputation to Parliament House and causing a traffic obstruction (see Damousi 1994, 19-20).
But the anti-war woman who I find most compelling, I think, was another forgotten feminist, Jennie Scott Griffiths. A member of the Women’s Peace Army and of the Women’s Anti-Conscription Committee, as well as the Social Democratic Club and the Feminist Club, it was as a prolific writer and journalist that Scott Griffiths spoke out strongly against the war, exhorting her readers – most of whom were women – to take a stand against the war and particularly, against conscription.
(To be continued…)