The memoirs of Cleopatra Sweatfigure


Daphne Gollan

Partly because the contemporary women’s movement arose in the advanced Western countries and most of those who first wrote and spoke for it were articulate middle-class women, it has not taken long for the movement to begin to write and rewrite the history of women. The probes are now directed not only at the generations of the grandmothers but also at that of the mothers. I have been asked, with other women, to write of my experiences as a woman of the left — I was a member of the Australian Communist Party — from the 1930s onward.

Just as the rediscovery of the lives of women who fought for the vote has radically altered the old view of them as brave but batty, half-ludicrous, half-heroic figures, it may be that the story of the mothers will correct the common picture of us as earnest toilers in the field kitchens of the army of labour, devoid either of broad visions of the future, or of any intimation of the specific problems of women’s oppression.

My background was that of an English family, middle-class in origin, but of the respectable poor in income, which came to Sydney in the 1920s. I grew up during the Depression. At the end of 1929 the first of the three wage-earners in the family of five, my brother, lost his job, followed by my father and my sister. I remember my sister coming home one Friday night, standing in the hall, saying to my mother, pleadingly, half-smiling, “I have lost my job.” And my mother who was deaf, replying, “I didn’t hear you. What did you say?” but she had heard.

Then they went into the kitchen and shut the door. It was not a family where anything to do with money, sex, alcohol or private problems was discussed in front of a child. But politics were. My father had worked his way from High Church of England through Protestant fundamentalism and Lloyd George liberalism to a humanist socialism, pulling my conservative mother and the family after him.

They had all become firm Labor voters, possibly for the sake of peace. My father was an irrepressible sharer of his thought processes. He was never employed again after the Depression. But he tried hard. He would walk into town to read the jobs vacant pages in the Sydney Morning Herald posted up outside the Herald building in Hunter Street.

We lived in a small cottage, which we were buying. That was saved from foreclosure by Lang’s Moratorium Act of 1930, but we lost what was left of the family savings when the Government Savings Bank closed in 1931. My father and brother went to the country trying to make some sort of living — my brother worked as a milk carter and my father grew tomatoes on the Richmond River, which were the best in the district until floods engulfed them. We were on the dole; I remember my sister’s humiliation when she and I collected dole groceries. My mother died of cancer on Christmas Day 1931 in a church hospital on the other side of Sydney. None of her family was with her when she died, although she was asking for us.

By the middle of 1932 the four of us were together again. We fervently supported Lang and cheered him at the huge rally in Moore Park just before he was defeated in the state elections. My brother found a job in a Botany spinning mill. He worked on afternoon and night shifts. There was no direct transport from Botany to our suburb so he rode a bicycle.

I remember his coming home in the mornings, after the night shift, before I left for school. His clothes were covered with pieces of raw wool, like cotton-wool, but creamy in colour and with a nasty smell. He would sit, unable to speak. This was the first time I ever saw anyone with a grey face.

For our family the Depression began to lift in 1934 when my brother returned to his skilled job as a printer. Although he and I were found to have tuberculosis in that year, we survived that crisis. My brother was treated without having to leave work. The family was afloat again.

The Depression, which temporarily aroused my brother and sister to an interest in politics, radicalised me for life. It gave me an instinctive class consciousness, which recognised not only an unbridgeable gap between rich and poor, but also the utter powerlessness of the oppressed to control their own lives. I had seen the respectable hard-working members of my family caught and tossed about in the catastrophe of the Depression, unable to influence in the slightest degree events concerning themselves.

The improvement in the family fortunes happened equally independently of their will. The economy had simply begun to pick up. From my father’s political ramblings I gathered that solidarity and struggle were the only weapons the oppressed could use to free themselves.

I have dwelt on the Depression only to show that that experience, together with my father’s preaching, inclined me to socialism. Considering myself a socialist from the age of 12, the only question was whether this socialist bent would remain an attitude of mind or whether life’s experience would force a deeper understanding and commitment.

As for female conditioning in my childhood and adolescence, it was a curious mixture of repression and freedom. I rarely went out and never met boys socially but was allowed to read what I liked from the modest collection of books at home and from libraries. The foundations of painful and farcical socio-sexual relations were well laid in the form of bumptiousness arising from precocious reading, social shyness, and an insatiable interest in the mysterious other sex.

During the late 1930s the Spanish Civil War and the advance of German fascism dominated the international arena. Some understanding of the implications of fascism came to me at school through a Jewish friend whose family worked with anti-fascist refugees.

In 1937 I went to see Clifford Odets’ play, Till the Day I Die, at the New Theatre and haunted the theatre thereafter. A stream of powerfully written plays were staged there, on war, fascism, Spain, unionism, and working-class life. Perhaps the charged atmosphere of 1938, the year of Munich, may have given urgency to the propaganda, but I found the message compelling.

In August, removing myself from the New Theatre, I applied to join the Communist Party. I was employed at the Mitchell Library and staggering through a degree course as a part-time student. I wished to join the Communist Party because it seemed to me to be the only political organisation which actively stood for socialism and opposed fascism. But it must also be admitted that part of the attraction of the Communist Party was that I found it shocking and conspiratorial.

I had been greatly impressed at the theatre by one party member whose pockets were always stuffed with circular letters from the Sydney Committee addressed “Dear Comrade”. It was only after I joined the Communist Party that I found that with Spain, China, and the people’s front against fascism I had also inherited the USSR.

I was placed in the University Branch (Unit 31), which had about a dozen members. From time to time functionaries from the State Committee came to the fortnightly meetings. They were grave but not unfriendly, knew the answers to all the political questions, and were regarded by us with much respect.

The authority exercised by functionaries over the rank and file rested in part on their being interpreters of the policy laid down by the higher committees, and in fact on our recognition that these men lived isolated lives of unremitting work, much of it routine, for which they were paid a pittance.

For them an obvious danger of corruption lay in the growth of a sense of power, which flowed from the deference with which we listened to them. Not that such considerations entered my head. My problem on joining the party was that of all women in organisations in which they are greatly outnumbered: that of overshadowed development.

The limits of women’s experience in the public domain are much narrower than those of men and, for young women in particular, much of their experience is mediated through men. The way to the wider reaches of the outside world is in the protective custody of men friends. I had managed to find my way independently into the Communist Party, but once there was speedily headed off, cornered and captured.

At the very beginning of a new intellectual venture one fell silent before learning to open one’s mouth to make the essential blundering attempts to arrive at a position for oneself. Others would expound everything so much better.

Throughout 1938 and into 1939 the main international campaigns of the party were in support of collective security against fascism. The abrupt conclusion of the German-Soviet pact threw the anti-fascist movement into confusion, and when war broke out in September 1939 our branch met to consider our attitude to it: was it anti-fascist? in which case we supported it, or was it imperialist? in which case we condemned it.

The party leaders supported the war to begin with, but our branch tutor, Guido Baracchi, argued and convinced a number of us that it was imperialist war. There was a tense meeting at which Baracchi’s arguments were set against those of the party leaders.

We were subject to heavy pressure to desert Guido’s position, and on the vote only two of us supported him, one with eloquent argument, and the other, myself, in silence. Within a month the line changed and we were all opposing the war. Because of its antiwar stand the party was declared illegal in June 1940.

We were instructed in elementary conspiratorial procedures, such as how to make a party meeting look like a literature discussion group and how to meet and follow someone you had never seen before to an unknown destination. That was exciting. We also had to practise using false names. Pseudonyms present problems — it is difficult enough to remember one’s own, let alone anyone else’s. So before the branch meeting at which we were to present our names and use them, I worked out one which would be hard to forget.

When my turn came I put forward Cleopatra Sweatfigure as my revolutionary pseudonym. There was a pause, then the comrade from the Central Committee said, “That’s enough, comrade. We are not joking. This is a serious matter,” and so on. In fact, I was not joking. The colours of life were very bright then.

One had a clarity of vision that in later years returns only with the help of alcohol. It was true that it was not amusing to be opposed to the war. There was the intense isolation we felt from the people we met and worked with. Refusal to make professions of patriotism, no matter how shallow, was regarded as subversive.

Dissenting views, which a week before the war had simply been differences of opinion became, a week later, treasonable. We were harassed by the forces of the law. In 1940 I had become secretary of the New South Wales Youth Parliament, a delegate body to which trade unions and organisations with young people sent representatives to debate youth problems.

The Youth Parliament put forward reformist demands on education, apprenticeship, employment and housing, and a peace program, which reflected some aspects of party policy on the war. One day two plain-clothes policemen came to see me at work and told me to supply them with the names and addresses of all the people who attended the sessions. They said they would be returning. This filled me with gloom. I assumed that when I refused I would be charged with something.

The possibility of imprisonment did not bother me, but the thought of breaking the news to my family did. I could hardly expect them to be satisfied if I simply came home one day and remarked, like Captain Oates, that I would be gone for some time. One lived two lives, one in the party and one in dubious respectability at home and at work.

The theoretical basis of our opposition to the war was the Leninist analysis of the 1914-18 war as being between predatory imperialist powers and that the revolutionary workers’ struggle had to be directed against their own governments. Although looking back it seems to me that the Communist Party was so faithful a mouthpiece of the USSR’s foreign policy that we were not adopting a stand of genuine revolutionary internationalism, nevertheless at the time I found the Leninist analysis a sufficient argument for opposing the war.

The question I ask myself today is what position might we expect the women’s movement to adopt in the case of war. Obviously the broad movement, reflecting as it does so many different tendencies, would be divided. Perhaps the most weight we could hope the simple concept of sisterhood to bear would be that of a pacifist position, regarding support for war as a contradiction of women’s universal role as life-givers. But if our country were engaged in a war which, from a socialist viewpoint was unjust and had to be opposed, is there any other argument that feminist socialists might use against it?

During the Vietnam War I heard a position outlined, which was based on rejection of imperialism as a manifestation of patriarchy, but it was not fully worked out. Returning to my story, the plain-clothes policemen did not come back. I believe their intention was to leave me for a time to worry and wonder.

Yet another change in the party line followed the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941. From opposition we went to support, although not overnight. There were a few of us who thought the character of the war had not changed, but for the great majority the entry of the USSR guaranteed that it became a genuinely anti-fascist struggle.

Once the Labor Government took office in October 1941, and still more after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the fighting much closer to Australian shores, the Communist Party committed itself wholeheartedly to the war.

I resolved the problem of my split private and political life by marrying in May 1941. It could also have been resolved by moving into a place of my own, but wages were still very low and personal perspectives correspondingly modest. As for men and women living together without marrying, even in radical circles this normally occurred only if there were impediments to marriage.

In the Youth Parliament we marked the change of line by dropping our peace policy and turning to propaganda on behalf of the war effort with meetings, conferences and even a crowded town hall rally, all designed to encourage young workers to work harder. Our about-face was much to the discomfiture of those Christian pacifist youth organistions, which had found enough in common with our peace policy to stick with the Youth Parliament in its difficult days.

At another level we responded to the rapid advance of the Japanese towards Australia by calling for a people’s army. Some of us trained briefly in the hills near Hornsby to learn how to repel the enemy with pea-rifles. They were lovely Sunday mornings. All I remember of my paramilitary training is that to deal with invaders in hilly country there must be no noise, no movement and especially no heads above the skyline.

This busy political activity was interrupted in August 1942 by finding myself pregnant and very sick. I was given leave from the library and returned to work at the end of 1943, having been helped to find a place for my son in a day nursery. My husband had long since joined the air force.

Severe petrol rationing made public transport abominably crowded. The difficulty of fighting a way on to rush-hour trains with a young child and the violence of the abuse from harassed fellow travellers left me with no choice but to push my son in a pusher to and from the nursery and then walk on to the library — five miles a day altogether.

At work I dreaded taking phone calls in case it was the voice of the matron telling me to remove my child immediately because he had a cold or had fallen over and hurt himself. In 1945 I went to the Ironworkers’ Union as the librarian in their newly established research department, where I stayed for three years.

Most of the industries covered by the union were engaged directly or indirectly in production for the war and it was here that the party policy of full support for the war effort was most severely tested. Throughout the union, officials, and particularly communist officials, pushed for maximum production and settlement of disputes without resort to strikes.

A policy of class collaboration and abandonment of the use of traditional working-class weapons on the whole suited the mood of Australians in 1942, when we feared we would be invaded. But by 1945 workers’ war weariness and frustration at long hours, pegged wages and bad working conditions in some industries made them very ready to strike.

However, the Ironworkers’ policy was as strongly opposed to strikes as in 1942. In April 1945 the leadership was led into a disastrous conflict with the rank and file of the Balmain branch of the union. That struggle led ultimately to a successful challenge to the validity of the ballot under which the national secretary was elected and to the overturning of the communist-led executives nationally and in every branch of the union.

The trouble in Balmain gnawed at our confidence the whole time I worked in the union. Officials struggled with the mulish support of the branch members for their delegate, Origlass, suspended by the national leadership. Reasons for the rejection of communist policy and officials were sought in the subversive activities of “Trotskyite troublemakers” and in the peculiar character of the waterfront workers, who in addition to the crankily independent original workforce were believed to include draft-dodging semi-criminal elements.

The inadequacies of the hard-pressed party members in the union branch were freely canvassed. They, with their supporters, managed to command a majority at branch meetings but, with a few exceptions, were rejected on the job. What we did not call into question was the validity of the party’s total support for the war effort, which for party members was first of all support for the USSR’s struggle.

Uncritical following of every turn in Soviet policy increased as Stalin gained ascendancy in the USSR. The Stalinist practice of never arguing with opponents but merely insulting them, effectively silenced any questioning of the role of the USSR or any attempts to reach a revolutionary internationalist position.

Discredited as the party’s drive for maximum production had become among large sections of workers, there was no re-examination of the assumptions which underlay the policy. Another problem which was never mentioned in the union or party branches was that of ballot rigging. But we did discuss it in private.

Those who argued for “adjustment of union ballots, recognisng it as an evil necessity, of course, said that beleaguered as we were in the unions with the reactionaries constantly attacking, we could not allow the enemy into policy-making bodies. Everyone knew that if their returning officers presided over the ballot boxes, the vote would never give victory to the left.

Above all, the long-term objectives of the socialist movement could not be jeopardised by the errors or failures of our short-term policies, or halted because the rank and file were temporarily misled by the overwhelming barrage of lies from the reactionaries.

Against this, teacher comrades pointed out in holier than thou fashion that if you needed to set aside the verdict of the rank and file, it was time to have a look at the policies being offered to the members. The use of dishonest expedients to gain time brought its own punishment — the time gained was never used to reassess policies. They were right.

Adjustment of ballots continued with the hope that sooner or later the rank and file would catch up, would come to realise the correctness of party policy. Needless to say the perspectives of party and masses, far from converging, drew further apart. The messianism, the conviction that party policy served the interests of the working class, the sense of having history on our side even if historical development constantly lagged behind, the elitism in short of a dynamic and, for the most part, dedicated group of people as we were, presented a temptation too strong to resist to substitute the party’s experience for that of backward and prejudiced workers.

It was difficult not to lapse into this substitutionism. It took many forms, the gross practice of ballot adjustment being merely an extreme example. It tended to colour a great many of our campaigns. It was during my time at the union that the existence of dual standards of morality struck me forcibly.

The cold war followed the hot war, the alliance of convenience broke up, friends became enemies. From time to time we blasted bourgeois decadence. Against this we set something vaguely thought of as proletarian morality. But what was this proletarian morality? We quite ignored the implications of Marx’s statement that the dominant idea of an epoch is that of the ruling class. By and large the moral standards of proletarians were those of the bourgeoisie.

In so far as proletarian morality was distinctive, this was because it reflected the needs and interests of the working class. The struggle of the working class for emancipation both entailed the emancipation of all humanity and evoked a morality superior to that of capitalism because it looked forward to the classless, just society.

This superior morality was, of course, a class morality. Its virtues sprang from the class role of the proletariat. But in the domestic sphere, the area of relations between men and women and children, proletarian morality did not appear to offer anything different from bourgeois values. The relations within a working-class family were remarkably similar to those of the middle class.

The working-class family was held up as an institution to be admired for its stability and enduring partnerships. But in spite of formal recognition of equality within marriage we applied puritanical standards to women in their domestic role. If, for an unattached female, our attitude was more or less that her private life was her own affair, the pressures on women in the family, particularly those with children, were that they should be seen to be fulfilling their duties, and certainly not seeking sexual diversions.

Such judgments were not, of course, applied to men. Every day one met men of the left whose wives appeared to be excluded from any share in their husbands’ political interests and relegated to separate lives in the suburbs. Husbands sought and found companionship elsewhere, yet regularly returned for rest and recreation to the family units of which their wives were the indispensable core.

Proletarian morality in the private sphere, a repressive version of bourgeois morality, was fully equipped with double standards. And behind the prescriptions directed against women towered the shadow of the Soviet exemplar, where under Stalin crushing emphasis was laid on the role of a strong, united family in cementing socialist society. So there it was in 1946, all the information was to hand, but not the perception to interpret it.

Those of us who thought about such matters were half aware of the gigantic discrepancy between the pretensions of the self-proclaimed new class morality and the actuality of unchanged repressive attitudes in the domestic sphere. We fell back on the overworked idea of blaming cultural backwardness for shortcomings.

It was not until 1970, when we in Canberra heard the message of women’s liberation, that the beginnings of an explanation began to emerge for me. The persistence of patriarchal attitudes within the working class itself not only destroyed attempts in the public sphere to build egalitarian structures but also ensured that oppression in the private sphere went unquestioned.

Long before the development of class society basic relations between women and men were defined in terms of the confining, protection, possession and use of women by men. The ancient prohibitions, although severely dented in the course of women’s struggle to break free, nevertheless still ensure the social subordination of women.

Thirty years ago we saw the struggle for women’s emancipation as a minor part of a much larger struggle and equated their liberation with their entry into the workforce, socialisation of housework and provision of child-care services. The solution of women’s problems lay in lifting women, as far as their disabilities and biological role allowed, to the level of men.

The worst thing about this approach was that it neglected the simplest political lesson of all — that the winning of freedom cannot be a by-product of someone else’s struggle. Those who are oppressed must liberate themselves.

The problem of politicising women, which we saw as the means of lifting them, was always a baffling one. This was clearly illustrated in our ambivalent approach to women’s organisations. I had to stop working in the union at the end of 1947 when my son began to attend school. An interlude of work among women followed.

The New Housewives Association, a raffish forerunner of the sedate Union of Australian Women, had recently been set up. We aimed to build our membership among working-class women with a program calling for price controls, public housing and child-care facilities. The viability of the organisation rested on the strength of its local groups and these in turn depended on the involvement of NHA women in local issues.

Much effort and enthusiasm went in trying to extend community services to provide local markets, halls and child-minding centres. But we could rarely resist the temptation to raise the work to a higher level by putting on demonstrations against rising prices, milling about in the gas company’s offices, for example, waving our gas bills. We were urged, all 30 of the most advanced of us, by a member of the Central Committee, to storm Parliament House with our grievances.

We were reminded of the feats of the French miners’ wives who, in the wave of post-war mass strikes, detrousered and publicly humiliated a mine manager. What was wrong about all this was not the policy of publicity-seeking in itself (a separate question), but the suggestion that such stunts had anything in common with acts of mass indignation coming out of class battles.

Work among women, as understood at that time, ended for me when I followed my husband to England, where he was working on his PhD thesis. There my second child was born. I also had the opportunity to visit Eastern Europe, but not the USSR. Something of the reality of life in those countries filtered through to me.

By the time I returned to Australia in 1952 the process of enlightenment must have begun. I remember going to a cadres’ meeting early in 1953 at which there was an unusually large number of agitated Jewish comrades present. We were to hear a report from a member of the Central Committee on the reported discovery of a plot to kill Stalin and other members of the government by a group of the leading (Jewish) medical specialists in the USSR.

When the reporter called on us to rejoice at the uncovering of the crime, I suddenly thought, “I’m not going to rejoice”. Dopey doctors, I felt, were the same the world over, they supported the status quo and usually did not kill their patients on purpose. Something was wrong.

But this was a momentary flash, although I imagine it would have led to my being among those expelled in 1956 had we continued to live in Sydney. For many of us the gaining of understanding is fractured and spasmodic. It was interrupted in this instance by our removal to Canberra, then a settlement of about 30,000 people. There I finally came to terms with the USSR, almost with a sense of anti-climax.

I took up the study of Russian and began to read widely in Soviet history and politics — all the books we had never read, merely denounced, or had never heard of, including the works of Trotsky. A much more protracted and painful experience was the shattering of the long-held belief, mentioned earlier, that it was ignorance and prejudice that accounted for the tension in the relations between men and women, that the common struggle for emancipation would itself demonstrate the socially conditioned origins of female inferiority.

Once they understood, men’s attitudes would change. The community that we were part of in Canberra constituted a pub society, which specialised in cultural pretensions and a monstrous reverence for the male ethos. To this day I can recall the shock and disbelief with which I listened to men, not culturally deprived proletarians, who consigned women as a sex, all women, because they were women, to the periphery of civilised life, to the grey area of the not quite human.

This has been a political account. Looking back, I can see that I have moved from a highly authoritarian elitist form of Marxist commitment to a libertarian socialism. This particular progression would not have been possible without the insights of the women’s movement. It has come from a life’s experience, which liberated me, belatedly enough, from the spell of the November revolution and showed the evil effects of the substitution of the will of a self-proclaimed revolutionary vanguard for that of the ordinary mass of people.

The lessons of my own experience led to a socialist outlook genuinely committed to the idea of self-management, but left unexplained the greater part of women’s oppression. For those of us, a minority, in the women’s movement who believe in the need for a revolutionary change in society, the analysis provided by the new wave of feminism of the role of the family and of the dichotomy between the public and domestic spheres has uncovered much about the way in which institutions of oppression work and about the hidden violence with which society enforces its controls.

It is an analysis which transcends the crude version of the Marxist theory of the state as an instrument of class coercion, which did duty for us for so long in explaining the source of all oppression. One pernicious effect of the exclusive concentration on struggle in the public sphere which has characterised Marxist parties, has been the neglect of the question, “How shall we live now?”, in favour of the question, “What sort of society do we envisage after the revolution”?

Recognising the implicit elitism of deciding for others in the second question, it must also be said that by ignoring the problem of what to do now we failed to see the oppression under our own eyes and connived in its continuation. In no liberation movement is the connection between the forms and the aims of struggle stronger than in ours. Only so long as the formations we throw up act autonomously and in an anti-authoritarian way can it be said that we are struggling against patriarchal structures for universal liberation.



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