Put out to work aged 15 in the height of the Great Depression, she began as a sales assistant in a Victorian chain of shoes stores, When World War 2 began, she found herself managing their stores at two thirds of the male rate of pay, yet doing the same work, loaded with the same responsibilities.
As the daughter of one of Australia's earliest women fashion designers, designing for the then prestigous "Forges of Footscray's own label, and beyond, my mum was both into fashion and had a nose for upcoming trends in design and colour for the rest of her life. She became the top fashion buyer for the chain, as well as managing their city store. However, like most women of her day, when she married my father, who also worked for the shoe store chain, an end to her professional life was certain. By law women were dismissed upon marriage from full time employment, tough they could gain casual and part time work, it was expected that their husband be the bread winner. She was expected to live on his army earnings and stay at home to raise her two sons.
When my dad returned from serving as a Field Ambulance Officer, in New Guinea, including the Kokoda Track and Salamoa Campaigns, followed by an arduos stint in the Solomons and returning suffering from major post traumatic stress disorder, that would demand much of her as a carer as well as partner for the rest of their married lives, my dad found it difficult to get a job. He applied for many and was knocked back.
Though both wanted to continue their lives in Melbourne, my dad, with his former managerial status with the same firm as my mum, gained employment at a local shoe store in Ballarat. My dad shifted jobs a couple of times, always working within the shoe sections of department stores. Sick of working for others and my mothers desire to return to business and with their combined knowledge of shoe retail and its many dimensions they took the brave decision to open their own shoe store. My mother could of course work as many hours as she chose in their own store, as well as occupying equal managerial status with my dad. She was the fashion buyer and brains behind that arm of their business, whilst my dad specialised in school shoes, work boots and then, fairly staid men's fashion and day footwear. Then came agencies for Blocs ballet slippers, sports footwear and more.
Meanwhile, my mum had the same family responsibilies and domestic duites expected of her as any other woman of her time. Doing it all she believed was an unfair and unrealistic expectation. My mother chose to outsource many of those traditional areas of her labour. A full time, live in house keeper was employed to do the domestic duties and look after the boys in my parents absence, allowing her to work the hours she chose, as well as serving on various local charitable commitees. It was my mum who also attended for canteen duties at school and was active in parents and friends groups at the schools my siblings and I attended.
My mother had always been quite politically active, though not a member of a political party, she would nonetheless lobby the appropriate level of government and network widely to form pressure groups on issues that she believed were unjust, environmentally or historically inappropriate. She fought for equal pay, safe pregnancy terminations performed by a doctor and to save many a local building from innapropriate development. She campaigned against extensions to trading hours knowing how adversly longer working hours affected my parents working and social lives in their younger years and the costs that would have to be passed on to consumers to cover increased wages bills and on costs.
Not one to get up on a soap box or even attend rallies, my mum's campaigning strategies included setting up stalls at shopping centres and door knocking to collect signatures for petitions, networking broadly and discussing issues at hand and forming single issue pressure groups. Finding councillors and politicians to take up the cause and even sitting in on long boring council meetings to see how members of the council voted on key issues, to determine whether they would maintain her vote in future elections. She was also a wizz at organising charity events and fundraising, using business and community networks she was involved with. She also fought against intolerance, biggotary and discrimination using every means at hand. To her, "the personal was political" and she led by example
My mum was something of a perfectionist in all areas of her life. She was a highly skilled cook and baker, pretty much the perfect, if working, wife and mother and my dad always maintained she was at least if not more skilled in her managerial skills in relation to their business as he was. He was great at marketting and store front displays having been nurtured along by the big retailing chain, when they recognised his artistic and creative bent. My mum expected him to help with domestic duties and parenting, assigning him cooking responsibilities for the Sunday Roast and a meal or two through the week. Whoever didn't cook took charge of washing up. If my dad didn't cook he was free to take the family out for dinner or buy a take away, though choices were pretty limted. Her expectations of a clean and tidy home, were second to none and she would often work with our house keeper or undertake jobs herself. House keepers, or anyone employed on a regular basis in the home became part of the family and were never to be treated as social inferiors. Quite deliberately she would ensure that our house keeper's knowledge was demonstrated, if she sensed a whiff of classism, ensuring our house keeper would be called upon to check who was the current minister of such and such, or resolve disputes about international borders and forms of government.
Shopping, reading a book, or attending the races or latest movies and theatre were always a source of pleasure to her. She enjoyed wonderful gardens and hosing plants in summer, though I can never remember her doing any physical weeding, digging or planting, Then again, she struggled with a major back injury and nueroma from early in her life, had survived tuberculosis and had a heart weakened by rheumatic fever. My mother loved the beach and swimming, relished beach holidays and trips to her beloved St Kilda and Elwood, where she had grown up.
My mum loved all of her three children and her grandchildren immensley, though always saw herself as more than just a mother or grandmother. All she ever wanted for any of us, was to be happy, be "ourselves" and ensure we were giving back to the community. She found it infuriating when other women would talk of nothing broader than their children or grandchildren. Sometimes my mother would feel an extreme sense of burden and anguish from ordeals her children faced. She took on the raising of my niece and nephew in her late 50s. They were babies. Given I had come along when my middle brother was 15 and my oldest brother 17, this meant she had essentially ended up raising three families.
Children are a life long commitment. Parenting doesn't end when your child is financially independant and left home. My mum was all to well aware of this fact. All the more so when child raising for her extended into the next generation by life circumstances. I was plagued by several brushes with death and considrable ill health early in life and precarious health at various intervals for the rest of her life. She witnessed the sadness and despair as my brothers marriages failed and she lived with the anguish of supporting her life partner through his burden of post traumatic stress disorder, including three major nervous breakdowns. Despite their love for each other, it was not an easy marriage, wonderful and gentle a man as my dad was.
Maybe it came as no surprise when my mum advised me in my teens,"never marry and never have children". She felt, increasingly as she got older, that the happiest people were either single, or couples without children. They had the time to pursue so much that was valuable or pleasurable in life and a whole lot less worry than any parent usually has delivered to them by the bucket load. My mum reiterated this advice, over the years and also offered it to at least one of my nieces, so it did not come in response to any one event in particular. Rather, it was her lived experience and missed opportunities to be able to fulfill her own dreams and ambitions beyond the life she had lived. Certainly, she had sacrificed her much loved beach block and plans to build a beach house, for my dad to purchase a hobby farm to help relax and ease his anxieties on a regular basis. I guess she didn't want us to sacrifice any of our own "small chunks of happiness and success" in the process of compromise within a relationship or pay "the price of love"?
Don't get me wrong; my mother celebrated at the weddings of my brothers and all but one of her grandchildren who too, has remained single. She celebrated at the birth of her grandkids and great grandchildren. She was happy for anyone that found supportive and loving partners and there for them if the relationship collapsed. Having encountered grief face on in her teens with the deaths of two brothers, closest in age to her, one from a hit and run accident, the other, an industrial accident, my mother was an amazing counsel in times of gigantic loss, but at the same time highly practical. Life is for the living. Being forced to track to the cemetery, every Sunday to visit the graves of relaives lost in the first world war as a young child with her grandmother, gave her a life long sense of the importance of living in the now. Memories are precious and valuable forever, but extended, life consuming mourning is not.
One thing my mother did not enjoy, was staying home alone. She ideally would have a house full of family and friends. She loved to entertain and parties and dinner guests were the norm rather tha the exception. Huge events would be organised, from annual New Year' Eve dos, to birthdays, anniversaries, leaving home or going away parties, or sit down Christmas dinners with all the trimmings for up to twenty or more, as well as a party for our staff, or big teen dos for my brothers and I, my mum would be making plans and lists and getting all the necessary things in place for whatever the occasion to be truly special. My childhood birthday parties still get mentioned, with amazing prizes she would collect througout the year for pass the parcel and other games. Pony rides would be set up, for a cowgirl theme, leas and hula skirts would be purchased for all the guests for a Hawiian theme. My favourite rainbow, or dolly varden ice cream cake would be baked or ordered in and home made pies and pasties and miniture savoloy sausages would be laid on. One year, we found plastic begging poodles containing brightly coloured sugary drinks in Gundaggai as we travelled home from our annual pilgrimmage to the beaches of Surfers Paradise. These were purchased to grace the table at my forthcoming birthday. My dad's second cousin tells the tale of coming to visit my parents for a short stay and how they didn't leave our lounge all day, in the sheer pleasure of the company of my parents and the spread my mum put on to keep them fed. They extended their stay for another couple of days because of the fun and the laughs they were all having. My aunts, uncles, grandparents and all their families would regularly arrive, sometimes for a day, but just as often for extended stays and very often great aunts and uncles would temporarily join our extended family as honoured guests, Our dining room was constantly being converted to an extra bedroom if space or beds ran out. Long standing family friends and those more recenty acquanted would always be made welcome and accomodated for meals and celebrations. Later in my mother's life, this hospitality was extended to my own friendship networks. My mother was excellent company and utterly loved by my friends!
As much as my mum loved entertaining at home, she also loved to dine out. By the time I could sit at a table and hold cutlery in my hands I was expected to dine out with my parents at least once or twice a week. More often than not, it would be a meal at either Craig's Royal Hotel or The Park Bistro if we were in Ballarat, with occasional take away Chinese food for a special treat. This was about as far as fine dining stretched in my early years in Ballarat. But if we were in Melbourne, or interstate, foods more exotic were the order of the day. Italian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Indian and more Chinese. I think by the time I was 10, I had accompanied my parents to indulge in truly fine dining at all of the 5 star restaurants between Melbourne and Brisbane. They had developed my palate way beyond the scope of the very limited Children's Menus available in most restaurants and I was always allowed to order a grasshopper alcoholic drink, or in my teens, a glass of wine and liquer. Fine food and good wines are an indulgence I enjoy to this day, along with an adventurous palate and willingness to try and often embrace new cuisines. Meal rituals and sheer pleasure from the most basic of meals ensured that as a single woman I have retained the pleasure of "living well" and cooking to ensure I eat regular, home cooked, healthy and well presented meals.
My mother's top tips for independant women:
- Never marry or have children. Unless you really want to!
- Don't try and be superwoman, If you are working hard in paid employment, get help with domestic duties and child raising.
- Dine out regulary
- Network broadly
- Lobby hard for change
- Contribute to causes and charities you support.
- Pursue education to at least tertiary level.
- Dare to be different, in dress or other conventions.
- No one is better than you, by virtue of class, gender, sexual preference, race, religion, or wealth, or inherited privilege.
- Life is for the living.
- Celebrate life, success and special occasions, but everyday privilleges you take for granted too.
- Stand up and speak out for causes you believe in.
- Keep breaking down barriers to human rights: gender equity across work and domestic realms, a woman's freedom to choose throughout her reproductive life, the right to euthanasia should anyone choose it at end of life stage.
- Don't put up with "less than the best", return shoddy goods, complain if you booked a suite and you have views of dustbins, explain to the neglectful waitress or waiter why you didn't leave them a generous tip. Shop in stores with good service and value those staff that go out of their way to assist.
- Expect and train your partner to do their share of domestic duties and child-raising.
- Use agencies like ombudsmen and politicians to agitate for change and rights or support you in endeavours to "get things fixed".
- Make time for things you enjoy, including and beyond your family.
- Be organised and be willing to organise.
- Now matter how poor you are you can afford to be clean and have a clean and tidy home.
- Keep a stock of items to whip up a storm on short notice if company arrives
- Buy gifts during sales, or when you find something really special for a person and put them away until their birthday or Christmas,
- Every child deserves a childhood, free of work or abuse and full of enjoyment and rich experience as well as quality education.
- Women should always have control and take responsibility for their own finances.
- Time to yourself and breaks away from each other are vital ingredients in a healthy relationship.
- Balance work and family life.
- Tolerance, compassion and empathy. The alternatives of ignorance and biggotry, ruthlessness and myopathy are pretty dismal foundations upon which to build human relationships and endeavours.