Gail Shelston

About this interview

Gail Shelston reflects on her time as a union activist and officer in the NSW Teachers' Federation, her ongoing work to support women and further equality, and her hope for the future of unions in Australia.


Facilitator: I think we can sort of start our conversation right back to the early days of when you were a union activist and an officer as well in the NSW Teachers’ Federation, and what inspired you or motivated you to want to be an officer of the Teachers’ Federation?


Interviewee: Oh, good question. I didn’t aim at being an officer of the Federation as such. It was more I was inspired to take action because I’d encountered what I saw as very discriminatory attitudes…attitude in my own life and I got involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement. I got along to a group called ‘Women in Education’ to focus on doing something about, you know, the new word that had been coined, ‘sexism in education’, and it was out of that, There were some members in that collective that were in the Teachers’ Federation.

And it was put to me that, you know, we were going to apply for a grant, a federal government grant under, the Whitlam Government to get a position for Women’s Coordinator, a Women’s Coordinator position at the Federation. And it was suggested to me that I stand for the position. And, at first, I thought ‘oh I don’t think I could do that’, you know, although I was passionate about the issues. I saw the need to do something about the destructive effects of sex-role stereotyping, especially on student development.

And, so, I stood and I got elected. And so that’s where it came from. So, then I was a union officer, the Women’s Coordinator. I was still in that Women’s Liberation collective – Women in Education – and, you know, we worked in parallel really.


Facilitator: So, do you have any family background in unionism, or…?


Interviewee: Yes, I do. My father raised me with the attitude of ‘oh yes, make sure you join your union’. I started off being an English and History teacher, high school teacher, and in that first year I was very fortunate, I think that I started teaching at Corrimal High School, and the English faculty there had some very strong Federation activists in it for the Illawarra region. And I’d liked those people very much and they were, you know, great colleagues and so they encouraged me and said ‘come along to the area meeting with us’, and I got started that way. Then I, you know, got really devoted to the Federation from then on.


Facilitator: So, I suppose your activism started at that local level with the union?


Interviewee: Yes, yeah, very much so. And my father’s background, I mean, his story is really a kind of rags to riches story. He was born in Brixton in London in 1906 in pretty poor circumstances, came to Australia, lived through the Great Depression, and so on. So, his ideas got very much shaped from those experiences and he was very pro-union. Had that perspective that I absorbed, you know, from birth really.


Facilitator: And in terms of the Women’s Coordinator position, can you tell me a bit more Gail about what, what really inspired you to take on that particular role, and kind of how it came about as well?


Interviewee: Well, I could see the potential to do something if I had that job, I had that role. So that was part of it. And, also, when I was a child I was fascinated by a book my nephew’s had called ‘Boys and Girls Who Became Famous’. And I used to read that book over and over again, I loved reading, and I still love reading about people’s childhoods and how it shaped the adult that they became. And it inspired me a lot. And I remember thinking, you know, wow, I want to be famous one day, as a child. I wanna do something to be able to make a difference in the world. I could see from that book, you know, it had the lives of all kinds of famous people, Marie Curie, Joan of Arc, Mozart.

Reading that I think just gave me this deep-down feeling that you can achieve things in the world even though you might have to go through hard times. So, that inspired me from a very early age. I loved that book from about the age of 10. And I still do. My husband gave me a copy. I’d lost it over the years, and a couple of years ago he tracked down on the internet an old copy, an original copy of that book. And it was wonderful to read it again, and I thought ‘this is where I get my Joan of Arc passion from,’ you know, that I’m conscious of in myself, it was partly from reading books like that, reading her story for example, you know, with all the trials and tribulations.

So, yeah, I was kind of thinking oh, well if I do this, I’ll be famous. And that was – I have to say – that was part of the motivation. I remember when it was first put to me, I thought oh ‘I dunno, I’ll think about it’. And I rang up my mother, my late mother now, and I said ‘Mum, they’re saying I could stand and be Women’s Coordinator. What do you think?’ and she said ‘Well love, you know, whatever you think’. And I said, naively, I think back, I mean fame, what is it really? I said ‘if I do this, I could be famous’ and then she said ‘Well, yes, maybe’. You know, so it goes.

So, I stood for it. And I’m so glad I did. I mean it’s given me a wonderful career in the Federation. I’m still active, I love that saying ‘activists don’t ever retire’, as our wonderful Vice-President Joan Lemaire said about a year ago at her farewell retirement dinner. Activists never retire. And that’s how I feel. I’m still just as passionate about all the issues, you know.


Facilitator: Absolutely. And the Women’s Coordinator role, that was first time that role was created in the Teachers’ Federation wasn’t it?


Interviewee: Yeah.


Facilitator: Yeah. And what was kind of the scope or the remit of that role during your time?


Interviewee: It was pretty much shape it as I wanted to shape it, you know. I had a lot of latitude, a lot of freedom. Basically, as I saw it, was we have to do things to raise awareness of sexism in schools, you know, what it is, how it affects children, how it’s reinforced in a myriad subtle and unconscious, often, ways, and what we can do about it, what are the suggested solutions?

So, that was a large part. And there was also, running along with that, the industrial side to it. Like the motions that came out of the Women’s Program to get permanent part-time work, for example, for women. I personally didn’t focus on those as much, I focused more on the curriculum in the schools and students. And other officers, I mean, I didn’t do this alone by any means, there were wonderful activists at the Federation at the time in roles.

We worked together and got those other issues addressed as well. Maternity leave issues, permanent part-time, superannuation, awareness raising, awareness of the importance of superannuation for women, you know, a lot of women not understanding the significance of that. I mean we’re seeing that rolling out now, you know. I was watching a program the other night, Q&A on ABC, I don’t know if you watch that? I love that program. Jane Caro making the point that 400,000 older women now are facing poverty and homelessness and it’s all connected as I see it.

So back then we were…especially one of our President’s Barbara Murphy did a lot of that, travelling all around talking about superannuation and how important it is especially for women who have broken service because of maternity and so on. Does that answer your question?


Facilitator: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m wondering if you can expand upon that and tell me a bit more about…I know you’ve mentioned some of the issues that you were involved in, but were there key campaigns that you were involved in or key issues that really defined your time with the Teachers’ Federation?


Interviewee: Oh dear…No, not as such. Like I was there for 2 years. The first of those years international, was ’75, International Women’s Day, or Year, so that kind of defined the agenda for me personally. That set an agenda within New South Wales in schools, like virtually every school was having things like International Women’s Day day and, you know, International Women’s Day lunch and in towns across [the state]. And so, I was kind of flat out really. I remember travelling to Griffith, for example, they had a civic ceremony, International Women’s Day dinner kind of thing. My agenda, it wasn’t really campaigning as such. It was just being visible; these are the issues that we’re looking at; raising people’s consciousness was more the basis of it; and getting out newsletters and resource booklets and all of that kind of thing.

That was the thing. It really amazed me how much freedom I was given, like I was able to say well I want to do a booklet about this, or I want this resource list printed. And I didn’t need to run it by anyone, I would just go to the print room and tell the woman in charge I want 50,000 copies of this done, thanks, and it was done. It was just extraordinary.

It was like I could shape my own campaign on some level, that’s how it felt to me. And I would link in with other campaigns to some extent, where organisers would be going out to an area to talk about issues and I would go with them, you know, they might be going to a school around some particular issue, and they’d say well I’m going to be travelling all around northern NSW, how about we tee-up together and you come and travel with me and you talk…I’ll talk about the issues of the campaign and you can talk about the Women’s Program. And, so, in that sense I linked in with other campaigns.


Facilitator: And you mentioned Gail that the role came about through a grant from the Whitlam Government? Is that right?


Interviewee: Yes. Yes. Yeah…a woman called Cathy Bloch, I imagine you might’ve heard of her and talked with her. She was very strong in the Federation and in Women in Education. And, so, she would come to Federation and say, well come to Women in Ed, for example, and say ‘let’s do a submission, I’ll put it up through the Federation to get a women’s position, we’ll ask for a grant’. And we did that. And we did get a grant, we got $12,000, and that was to pay for a program for one year. And it didn’t pay for my salary as I remember, I think I was seconded to the role. So, it paid for anything else to do with the program.


Facilitator: And how did that role come about within the Federation? Was there a vote to have it? Or what was the reception to having that sort of role within the union?


Interviewee: Very interesting as I remember. Cathy had to really fight pretty hard I think initially to even get approval. You know, you put something up to Council, you put something up to Federation Annual Conference for final approval on things, and to Federation Executive first. And as I remember very early on, she had to fight pretty hard to, to get people to even think that there was enough reason to put up a grant, a submission to the federal government. She managed to though, so there was resistance….attitudinal resistance back then at that level of ‘oh, well what about men?’ and all of that kind of way of thinking, which I completely understand, and, as we know there are certain disadvantages historically, so there’s reason for affirmative action, if you like, for women and girls, for a given and finite period of time.

So, Cathy managed to break through…so that. So, it was agreed, okay put up a submission and then once we had it then it was okay. Annual Conference had approved the getting of it, and we got it, and we could proceed. And then the next stage of that struggle was at the end of 1975, and this was the really hard part from my perspective, and some of the material I’ve left there with you I go into that more.

Annual Conference at the end of ‘75, the challenge was to convince enough delegates that we needed to continue the program, whether or not federal funding was achieved. And that was very, very hard. It was, as I say in that article, it was like, it felt like I’d climbed Mount Everest and put a flag on top. At the end of that Conference when we finally got it passed, okay, okay, we’ll continue it, whether or not we get funding i.e. on our own money.

And it was voted through. And also, to make the women’s position a permanent one in the union. That was my ultimate goal, to get it established as a permanent and ongoing position funded by the Federation. And we managed to get that through at the end of ‘76. I thought ‘oh thank heavens, okay I can go now, I’ve achieved what I set out to do’, and I moved on to a school.


Facilitator: And can you describe for me as well, Gail, the nature of that resistance. What were the main issues kind of being argued over…


Interviewee: Oh my gosh


Facilitator: …at that time?


Interviewee: I’m so glad you asked. Every Council I would report to Council and I brought one of the reports that I found in my files for you. I’ve put into categories the kinds of responses. I worked out really early on the responses fell into about 5 or 6 different categories and I worked out I would hear the same kind of questions, usually about the basic 10 questions: When are you going to do something about men? Why don’t you just give them all a sex change? That kind of way, you know, that kind of response - ‘I don’t know why we’re having this, I’ve never had any discrimination against me’.

All completely understandable for the times. Yeah, and I had the answers worked out, you know. And that report…I’ve put that report there that goes into what the kinds of questions people would ask and the kinds of response I would be able to give to them to kind of hopefully bring them around over time.


Facilitator: And did you see anything I suppose just in your short period of time the two years of some change of attitude to that role?


Interviewee: Oh, very much. Very much. I mean, yes. In that it just became, you know that, I don’t know who said it, someone said, oh Gandhi! I think said ‘first they laugh at you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then they’re with you’, or something like that, the process… And I understood that process of change. So, by the end of ’76, I would say, well the women’s position was firmly established, and I’ve left a list there of some of the Women’s Coordinators that came after me. It was just no question. Yes, well of course we have a Women’s Coordinator, just like we have an Aboriginal Education Officer, or we have an Environmental Education Officer, you know, other…or our organisers, it’s another organiser. So, after that the kind of questioning and challenging about the very existence of the position kind of stopped and people came to an acceptance.


Facilitator: And you talked about as well the Women’s Action Program, and what was involvement within that?


Interviewee: Well, that was, that was it. I mean when I was elected the submission put up, we want a position for someone to work on women’s activities, was called the Women’s Activity Program. And when I got it, I thought I think that sounds a bit soppy or something. So, I just changed the name. I said from now on let’s call it the Women’s Action Program, I think that’s more appropriate. And more dynamic, you know. So, that’s, that’s what it was basically.

And now over the years, the action words been dropped out, that’s alright, it’s now just called the Women’s Program. I thought when it was called Women’s Activities there was danger it would be like…well we’re doing more than knitting and crochet, you know, here.

Which is not to deride those things, I think they’re wonderful art forms. Activities…do you know what I mean?


Facilitator: Yeah, it gives that kind of connotation to it.


Interviewee: Yeah. Yeah.


Facilitator: Is it right as well that the role of Women’s Coordinator role was then sort of adopted by other trade unions as well?


Interviewee: Yes, it was. Yeah. We had the first one, and then I think after us came South Australia, then Victoria as I remember, then the Northern Territory. And I was in touch with all of those women. There was a wonderful woman in the Northern Territory [Queensland Teachers’ Union], the Women’s Coordinator there was…oh gosh, I’ve forgotten her name now, Sylvia someone…Sylvia Innes. I-N-N-E-S. They would be people worth, that would be helpful for you to talk with as well you know what I’m saying ‘cause they were active over the same few years as Women’s Coordinators in their unions. SAIT is the South Australian one, the South Australian Institute of Teachers it was called. And the initiatives that we were starting here, women there were starting too.

So, our women…not long after ’75, our Women in Education group took up an initiative to get a resource centre going for non-sexist and counter-sexist educational resources. South Australia did the same thing almost around the same time with great, great women there doing the same kind of work. Sylvia Kinder is one of the people involved in that. She’s involved in the Teachers’ Federation in NSW still today. And the people in Victoria, the women there got the women’s…I think it was the women trade union centre going.

It was an extraordinary time really, you know, all that kind of action really took off in the mid-70s.


Facilitator: And with that as well, I’m wondering if you can tell me Gail about what was some of the main barriers or perhaps the main challenges that you really experienced? I know you talked a bit about the sort of resistance to the position even kind of coming about. But what would you say were some of the main challenges you really found within that role?


Interviewee: Oh gosh, it was being taken seriously, I think. Yeh, being taken seriously. That people thought it was a non-issue, you know really haven’t we got more things to worry about than this? That kind of attitude. Not from everyone. There were a lot of people, men and women in the schools that really saw the importance of it, and took to it very strongly, you know, they could see, they knew what the harmful effects were of rigid sex role stereotyping, for example. And I suppose for me, not knowing as much as I probably needed to have known about union structures.

That was hard for me. Like I wasn’t coming out of, you know…my only experience of the union really was as a beginning teacher, and as a member on that level, not being aware of a lot of the ways…I learnt how it operated, and what Executive did, but I was on a pretty rapid learning curve myself about broader union structures.


Facilitator: And that’s in terms of how sort of decisions get made and policies get made?


Interviewee: Yes, yeah. And the cut and thrust of meeting procedure and conference procedure. Sometimes I was really guided by Cathy in a lot of the ways of, you know, we’ll get someone to back this up, and we’ll move it at this point. And sometimes I would just be wow, I’d hardly know what’s going on here, you know, I’m really being guided by the more experienced people who understand the cut and thrust of conference, you know.

For me I was pretty much a babe in the woods in a lot of ways in relation to that. And I got through it. I mean people were very supportive and I managed to do it. And as I say it was just really wrung out by the end of ‘76 and thought…I remember when I announced to people I’m going to finish up, people were really shocked and said ‘oh, but you’re doing such a good job! Why would you leave? Why are you leaving?’ And I thought ‘you have no idea, you know, really what this has taken out of me. I’ve gotta go, sorry gotta go’.


Facilitator: Yeah, I wanna come back to that point as well. But I also just wanted to…


Interviewee: And I don’t want to sound self pitying when I say that


Facilitator: No, no.


Interviewee: ‘Cause I had nothing against the Federation, I love the Federation dearly. I’d defend it with my life. I hear teachers complaining about it and I think ‘oh my God’, you know, do you have any idea what it would be like if we didn’t have the Federation and the unions? You know, people criticise the unions, but what do you want, no unions? We’ll go back to the 19th century.


Facilitator: And in terms of the kind of the external environment that that you were working in as well in the mid-1970s, things like, you know, different Ministers kind of coming and going. Were there kind of key things in the external environment that were shaping how you carried out your work, or influenced the types of activities that you were doing?


Interviewee: Oh, good question. Yes, there were. There were initiatives…we were making inroads into the Department, so the Department set up a committee about sexism and the Federation linked into that. I was the Federation rep on that committee. And brought out a whole policy, there’s a huge…I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it would be in the Federation Library, a policy document for non-sexist education, or to address the issues, by the Department, and a whole policy came out.

And after us the next…I think actually the first union that did that was the Northern Territory, and then the NSW Department of Education brought out a policy statement too. So, there were, you know, things like that happening outside the Federation, yeah. They’re the main things I can think of.

There was still a lot of resistance. You know, the departments often had…the Department often had responses along the lines of, oh you know, you can’t have mixed sport or you know girls can’t play football because it’ll damage them internally too much. And there was resistance, attitudinally, about the changes that we were saying we’d like to start to see being made. I remember around the issue of caning at that time, boys were still being caned, and part of our policy was no, stop that. That was very open to, you know, misunderstanding, and there was a lot resistance.

I remember being interviewed by someone who worked for a magazine, I don’t think it exists anymore, called The Bulletin, about the caning issue. I learned very early on how guarded I needed to be with the media because I remember this person interviewing me and they were saying we’ll we’re saying ‘no, don’t cane the boys’, and he kept on backing me into a hypothetical corner, saying well ‘if though, if we say’… what was it…‘if we’re going to keep caning, would you say then cane the girls?’ And I said ‘we’ll it’s totally hypothetical, however, of course, yes’. ‘If, you were saying, in the interests of equality, wouldn’t you then say it would be fair to cane the girls too?’

And, you can imagine, and I got so backed into a corner….I said ‘okay, hypothetically, yes I would, however, what we’re saying is that’s the problem, people tend to think of equality as well it means what we do with the boys, we now do with the girls’. And I said ‘we’re thinking of a third alternative which is if we don’t have caning for girls, let’s not have it for anyone’. And that was like a new way of thinking in a lot of ways for a lot of people.

And I remember out of that interview, I opened the magazine and the heading, this blaring heading, and I think it even went into the newspaper I think of the day, it went to the Telegraph or something, ‘she says “cane the girls”’. I thought, oh my god, know you.


Facilitator: Just spinning the, spinning the story.


Interviewee: Absolutely. I felt so misrepresented in that and I thought, I’m gonna sound like some punitive harridan, ‘cane the girls’, and it wasn’t what I meant at all. And, so, there was that kind of level of resistance and difficulty.


Facilitator: In terms of working with the Department as well, do you…could you sort of make particular inroads or, you know, change the Department’s policies on things through your union work?


Interviewee: Well, yes, I think we did. I think the establishment of that committee for sexism in education was an example of that. And there was an amazing woman, I don’t know if you’ve come across her name, a woman called Eula Guthrie, who was a school inspector at the time. And she was given the task of chairing that committee and overseeing it. And I have to say, she did a really good job. She took it really seriously, ‘cause she’d encountered extraordinary discrimination as a woman moving through the inspectoral ranks, you know, back… she was a lot older than me at that time, I was in my mid-20s and I think she, I dunno, was probably about 50, maybe.

So, you can imagine what kind of discrimination she’d encountered. You know she told me, I remember someone told me that when she took up the position as inspector, when she opened her filing cabinet someone had put a whole lot of pictures, like pornographic pictures with I think her face on them, you know...God… what a horrible thing to encounter.

So, there was that kind of systemic patriarchal resistance, what else can I call it really? So, we did make inroads, as to answer your question. That committee getting going, our own other Federation officers in delegations, raising the issues. A lot of Federation men really got the issues and would raise them. Especially say the issues of permanent part-time work as a necessity for women teachers, especially women, not only women. Inroads gradually were made like that where the women’s committee… the Federation had a women’s committee that it set up at that time too. That committee would raise issues, you know, with the other officers and then they would, they would be able to take them on deputations to the Department and gradually break down resistance and get more equity.

Things about funding for sport, you know, cause all that research that showed how much school assemblies would devote 80% of the announcements about sport to boys’ sport, and 20% to girls’, if that. All of that kind of research was coming out more and more, and that was filtering through into awareness in the Department.


Facilitator: And what sort of motivated, or what led you to come to that decision, to then step away from your officer work with the Teachers’ Federation?


Interviewee: I’d just had enough, I really was…I was very drained, burnt out really by the end of it. It was an extraordinary time, and I’m grateful to have had it, and I really was burnt out. And I also felt deep down, I’m a classroom teacher, I love English, I love being an English teacher, that was my passion from the age of 16, you know I just clicked, I so wanted to help other people understand the beauty of Shakespeare, you know, at that age it just dawned on me how beautiful it was.

So, I thought no, you know, time to move on and be a classroom teacher again, do what I wanna do in that sphere. Which I did do for quite a lot of years after that.


Facilitator: Okay. Coming to that point and describing the nature of the work, was it…how did you sort of characterise it as being exhausting work, or was it just the nature of the resistance, or the workload or…?


Interviewee: It was all of that. It was the whole combination. A lot of it was the workload. Like I’d get to the end of the week and Saturday I would just kind of go to bed for the day, pretty much, you know, I can’t…I’d so gotten, you know, I was in a milieu all week of people, people, people that it was just oh, I can’t…I don’t want have anything to do with anyone.

And, you know, my boyfriend at the time, I would say to him I just…‘I feel like I can’t get away from the world enough’, I used to say to him sometimes. And I’d just go to bed and take it easy and then kind of have a nice Sunday and then be back on deck for it all again. So, it was a very relentless treadmill type workload, interspersed, I mean I still think this, and I thought it then, there is no harder job than the classroom teacher, you know. To know the treadmill experience really is to be a classroom teacher that’s… like as a union officer, I, I mean it was lovely, you know, I started to realise as I was working at Head Office, at Sussex Street then, I thought oh, well I’ve…I don’t have an appointment ‘til 2 or something, I can go up town and have a coffee. There was that little bit of freedom. I was off the treadmill in a way that, you know, as a classroom teacher I’d not ever known. So, I have to say that I take my hat off to classroom teachers cause that’s the real…so when I talk about treadmill, it’s relative. Does that make sense?


Facilitator: Yeah, it does, it does.


Interviewee: So, it was the workload, and it was getting…I learnt early on, don’t assume anything. Like I’d started in the job kind of assuming that other people would think that a lot of what I was saying was reasonable and they would go along with it. Well, I got a very rude awakening that no, no, a lot of people think this whole thing is ridiculous. They don’t know why we’re having an International Women’s Year. So, you know, adjusting to all of that increasing awareness was very tiring really, and yeah.


Facilitator: And does it sort of go to some of the expectations around having a very new role within the Teachers’ Federation?


Interviewee: I think so. I think, it yeah, yeah very much so. I mean I’d be very interested to hear and, you know, what, say, the present Women’s Coordinator says, I dunno are you going to be interviewing her too, more recent people?


Facilitator: Um, possibly. Yep.


Interviewee: I’d be very interested to see what the differences are maybe now and what are the similarities. I’m sure there is still a lot of similarities in terms of attitude. And there’s also now more the accepted thing of, well, yeah, you’ve…you’re here and you’ve got a right to be here, you know.


Facilitator: And I just wanted to touch on a point that you mentioned quite early in our conversation Gail about how activists kind of don’t, don’t retire in a way. Did you sort of take that sentiment through to your work after being an officer with the union?


Interviewee: Yes, yeah. I, I stayed connected. I always followed union directives, you know, so to go on strike. I’ve been a Women’s Contact in the schools I’ve taught in. I went on and gained a position in TAFE as what was called a Women’s Access Coordinator. There were 15 of us around the state. I started doing that work in TAFE in 1985 after having some years in high schools.

And that was partly because I wanted to continue on with my, you know, belief in women’s issues. And also, I wanted to, you know, not have the lion taming dimension of the high school classroom that it can be. I thought no, this is pretty draining, I think I’ll look around, what can I do in adult education. So, I worked in TAFE in that same capacity, women’s issues, until all those those15 positions were abolished in 1988 with the then state government, Liberal government.

After that I left teaching for a while and I came back to it. And as soon as I came back to it, I connected with the Federation again and since then I’ve, you know as I say, I’ve been an acting Fed Rep, I’ve been a delegate to Annual Conference, a proxy for people on Council. I mean I’m going to be going to the Federation Conference this coming Friday on Zoom as an observer at the moment. I’m intending to. I haven’t heard back yet on getting the details for Zooming in as an observer, I hope I get them in time. I’ve got them for going to the Life Membership ceremony, so that’s something. And I can’t imagine not still going along to Council, you know, because I just find it fascinating. It’s like my own tribe, there’s people in my tribe, they care about the same issues. I want to know what’s happening in the state, and that’s the best way of knowing, you know.


Facilitator: Tell me a little bit more Gail about the Women’s Access Coordinator role as well, and what was sort of involved within that?


Interviewee: That was a great thing. That was started by a woman called Kay Schofield who was an activist and was very senior in TAFE at the time. She started something called the Women’s Coordination Unit in TAFE. And we were like the officers in the field, the 15 of us. And our job was to teach…to get up and running what were called…what were they called…NOW courses they were called at the time – New Opportunities for Women. And they were courses that were devoted to increasing the access of women and girls into especially the traditional areas, the trades areas and so on, in TAFE. And, also, for women who hadn’t had much formal education in later adulthood wanted to take, you know, cross that bridge into formal tertiary education. Also, for women from non-English speaking backgrounds. There were NOW courses especially for women from non-English speaking backgrounds and standard NOW courses.

So, our job was to teach in those courses. We had a subject called Women, Work and Society. And to oversee them, to get them up and running, to administer them, to get them going in other colleges. I was based at Liverpool college when I started off in the Women’s Access position there. Kay encouraged all of us to go for promotion and get to Head Teacher status, which we all did do.

So as a Head Teacher, my job was to…I had responsibility for Liverpool and also Miller college in Wetherill Park. So, I would negotiate with those colleges to get a NOW course up and running and, you know, do all the administration of employing the teachers to be in the NOW course. The courses were wonderful. They were so popular. Women loved them. I won’t ever forget my first day when I got there. I’d met the outgoing Women’s Coordinator at Liverpool college, a woman called Leonie…I forget…Campbell I think her surname was. And she was a really dynamic woman. And she said I’ll meet you in town on Thursday night and I’ll handover the basic material and we’ll have a quick talk about what you do and what’s involved. Handover.

And I turned up Monday morning at Liverpool college and she said ‘I’ll warn you, your first job, you’ll be interviewing all the applicants, here’s the pile of applicants’, you know, ‘you’ll be interviewing them Monday morning’. Okay, okay. I mean, I tell you, I can turn a hand to anything in a pinch. And I never forget it. I turned up and this little office that I shared with another woman who was running labour market programs. And there was this queue of women, 80 women, a queue that long, and I could choose 15. Oh, it was heartbreaking. I thought oh my god, you know, she’d warned me. She said ‘it’s very popular, you’ll get a lot more people than you can take’, blah, blah, blah. Okay.

And so that was the situation, that, you know, Women’s Coordinators, Access Coordinators were working in. And the courses went like wildfire. They had different components in them. One of the components the women really loved was one called Confidence Building. We had great teachers there that taught, you know, assertion training skills, the difference between assertion and aggression, all of that kind of thing, communication skills. And we’d give them a taster of whatever subjects were on offer in that college, so they could, you know, do a bit of carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, cake making, you know, retail, all kinds of things, depending on what was available in the college.

And women went on to do amazing things from those courses. And the age, the age ranged from about 19, was probably the youngest, to a woman who was 80. And she went on and did a law degree, you know, extraordinary stories that came out of it. It was truly, they were bridging courses. And word spread like wildfire amongst women, you know, ‘cause they loved it. The course was 15 weeks long. We were prepared for a drop out at about 7 weeks, there seemed to be a pattern emerged. Some people, you know, found it too much. But we were very accommodating and there was a lot of negotiating with other staff who weren’t used to this or didn’t think much of it or, you know, thought it was a bit ‘mickey mouse’, if you like. To get them to sometimes give more leeway for the type of students that we had. And most staff were incredibly supportive, especially some of the male trade teachers, they just couldn’t do enough to help those women.

I get tears in my eyes when I think about it, ‘cause they were so supportive. They knew, they got it, how much these courses meant to some of these women. You know, some of them were single mothers with 6 children, 7 children. They really wanted to get on their feet. And one of the components in it was work experience, and that was my job too, to organise the work experience for them.

And that was marvellous. And I saw wonderful things come out of that. I remember a woman from Polish background, she made beautiful preserves and things. She got work experience with David Jones, they loved her product, and the last…when she was graduating, she started getting a little business going in her backyard. The last I talked to her she hired an old warehouse, she had about 10 women she was employing, they were making all these preserves, she had a contracted permanent supply to David Jones. She was off and running. You know, business skills wonderfully developed.

So, there was stories that came out of those courses. The 80-year old woman, I remember she’d come from a very poor family. All her life she wanted to be a lawyer and wasn’t able to do it. She grew up, married, had children, had grandchildren. And then decided it’s my time now, I’m gonna do this law degree. And she used to come all the way, I remember… Leonie told me about this, she came all the way from Kensington, I think, to Liverpool every day, passed the NOW course, graduated, you know, adult older age credit. What’s it called, I forget? Older age entry. Mature age entry. Got into a degree, graduated. Was wonderful.

And one of the things we used to do to give inspiration and motivation for present day NOW students was invite a panel back of past students. And I remember she came back and spoke to students, and it was just wonderful for them to hear, you know, this is what’s possible in this course. Is that the kind of thing you want to know and hear?


Facilitator: Yeah. And do…did you feel like you could take some of those lessons or experiences from your time within the union to other roles that you were involved in from that time?


Interviewee: Yes, yes, I did. I did. Like for example, the organising work experience, as I mentioned earlier, I left….I reached a point with changes that happened in TAFE in ‘88 the Women’s Unit in TAFE at that time had a staff cut of 92%. And I remember the Head of our Unit walking out her office and saying ‘well everyone, we’ve got 8% of the staff now to do twice the amount of work’. It was overwhelming. ‘88 was a tumultuous year.

And, so, I went through a redeployment process and all kinds of things that happened at that time in TAFE. I left if it. I thought I’d had this: I’m not being employed for what I originally in TAFE to do. I’m gonna leave. And I thought I had another job lined up, anyway, it’s a long story, I won’t go into it. But that fell through. And I just basically had to get any job I could for a while there to pay the bills. And that, you know, it was alright.

And I decided no, I’m a teacher. And, so, I applied for the Department of Education again. And I remember when I was offered the job, it was a Careers Adviser at a high school and the person offering it to me said, you know, there’s only one thing it’s a Careers Adviser position, you know, you’ve applied for a teaching position. Careers Advisers have to have teaching. Will that be alright?

And I quickly thought, I thought, yeah, I can turn my hand to that. I’ve done organising careers, work experience, and careers advice in TAFE with the women in the NOW courses. And I know high school’s backwards, you know, I’ve been an English teacher in them for…I worked it out, would’ve been about 10 years overall. And, so, I said yes, certainly. And I really wanted to have a full-time, permanent position in a high school again. So, I took the position and I did that for 10 years being a Careers Adviser. So, yeah, I drew on my background in all of that. And I, you know, I was the Women’s Contact in that high school for the Federation. So, I drew on that.


Facilitator: And the Women’s Contacts, that’s kind of the school level role?


Interviewee: Yes. Yeah. It’s like each school is asked to appoint a Federation Rep and a Women’s Contact: they’re two positions that are equal, side-by-side in each school. And it’s kind of moved on a bit from that now where each school is asked to have what’s called a Federation Committee, you know, to spread the load a little bit. But for quite a few years there it was only the Fed Rep and then it became after ‘75 it was the Fed Rep and the Women’s Contact.


Facilitator: And I know, since that time you’re been still quite active within the union. But I guess reflecting on unionism now, compared to when you sort of started your time being an officer, what do you sort of see is some of the change, or some of the real challenge that unions are perhaps facing now compared to when you first started?


Interviewee: Oh. Oh, good question. Oh, wow. When I started, I mean I think the union membership in Australia was like 70% of the overall paid workforce. I’m not sure what it is now, I know it’s much less than that. Much less.

There was much more an atmosphere in the school of nearly everyone’s a member of the union. And today it’s not that overall, I don’t know what the figures are, I know it’s less. There was much more awareness I think of how important the union was, and what it had achieved for people; awareness of the history. An unquestioning, you know, well of course you’d be in the union, why wouldn’t you? That kind of attitude more with most teachers I think than there is today.

I think there’s been, over the years, more people have come through that have…well why would I join, why, why? You’ve got to convince me to join a union today. Whereas back then that wasn’t as necessary. I think there’s more, you know, disillusionment with unions. And I can…I understand, you know, a lot of why these things have happened. From my perspective, it is still ignorance though of not knowing the history of union action and taking a lot for granted, not knowing. Wouldn’t have the good conditions you’ve got if people hadn’t fought for them for the last hundred years, you know? I mean, I used to say that kind of thing to students in… when I was teaching the careers lessons as a Careers Adviser and we’d look at, you know, issues around the workplace. And I’d say, you know, do you realise we’ve only got weekends because unions in about 1850 fought to have a weekend. And they’re just kind of…students are usually stunned. I was stunned when I first heard that. So much has gotten taken for granted, I think.

So, I can get despairing about that. But I stay hopeful. And I think, since the pandemic, I think that’s driven lot of people maybe to look again at what the unions have got to offer. I’ve got a lot of faith in the people in the ACTU, the activists there. And I guess, I mean it is all connected, talk about the, you know, the pressures on democracies around the world. It’s the same kind of dynamic happening, I think.

And I’m hopeful, you know, as a speaker on Q&A said the other night, a wonderful researcher from, from Holland who’s researching issues around shame and human behaviour and…I dunno if you saw it…in crisis. And the question was put to him. He said ‘what my research is showing, that even people that have horrible behaviour, if you go a bit beneath the surface, most people are decent and want to work cooperatively and help their neighbour and that kind of attitude’.

And when it was put to him at the end of that program, ‘well where would you say you are on the spectrum, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world?’ And he said ‘neither. I prefer to say I’m hopeful’. And I thought that’s a really good distinction, I need to, you know, think about that. I think that’s where I am today too. I’m hopeful that we can get the unions stronger again. Get more awareness of why we need them. Does that answer your question?


Facilitator: Yeah, it does, absolutely.


Interviewee: I’m sorry, I forget. Did you say you saw the Q&A?


Facilitator: Yes, I did.


Interviewee: Wasn’t it interesting? What did you think of it?


Facilitator: Absolutely. I think it’s a very good sentiment to have at the same time and sort of saying well obviously there’s a lot of problems within the world, but there’s always…you always get those silver lining moments at the same time, so…


Interviewee: Yeah.


Facilitator: And this is I suppose one of the final questions that I have but I’ll definitely open up if there’s other things to mention. But I guess if you can sort of reflect on, Gail, what would you kind of consider to be the most enduring, or one of the things that your most kind of proud of having worked as an officer with the Teachers’ Federation that you sort of still hold with you with significance?


Interviewee: Oh wow…I think I’m most proud of the fact that the women’s position exists today and is still growing, and developing, and will go on into the future. That truly is my proudest achievement. I’m so happy I did that. And I didn’t do it alone, I’ve got to add that. You know, as that book shows, a hundred years of incredible women that went before me. I stand on the shoulders of giants, that kind of idea, I really like that…I stand in the shade of trees I did not plant, and drink from wells I did not dig. I love that way of thinking. So, in that context that’s my proudest thing.

And, also, being given Life Membership of the Teachers’ Federation. I treasure those little medals, you know, I know what they mean. I mean as is often said, no one knows what it’s like as much as your peers, what the job entails, there’s no greater honour than being recognised by your peers. So, in terms of legacy and…As I’m growing older, you can see the hair’s getting grey and all of that, I had someone say…I’m proud of them, every grey hair is a medal for what I’ve survived. And I’m trying to get into that frame of mind.

As I’m growing older, I’m kind of thinking, I’m not so afraid of dying anymore, I’m just afraid of leaving a bad legacy. And I’m proud of this legacy, you know, I feel yep, if I go now, well I’ve done my bit as best I could.


Facilitator: That’s wonderful.


Interviewee: Thank you.


Facilitator: And is there anything I suppose that we haven’t kind of touched on that you think might be particularly important to kind of capture as part of your story?


Interviewee: Oh, gee. I guess something that came out of Q&A last night. That wonderful young woman at the start who put that question about…she didn’t know what she wanted to go into politics, but seeing what it’s like she doesn’t know whether it’s really a good idea. And I think what Jane Caro said was so pertinent and true. I would hope other people can follow my example, to some extent, and I only say to some, I’ve made some bad mistakes in my time and everything. But even when it’s really hard going, it’s worth hanging in there and keeping on going and I would like to hope that say women like that young woman. And lovely young men. You know, I see wonderful hope for the future…do have the courage to get out there and fight the things. And they are. I mean look at the wonderful climate change activists and all of that. I find that totally inspiring. And I’ve gone along to the climate, you know, the youth demonstrations. I give my support as best I can.

So that’s…I think that’s the main thing I would add. That I hope people coming on after me do similar things where those things are constructive and helpful and don’t get too daunted when the going gets tough. I mean, I actually, you know, I remember getting so depressed at one point after I finished with the Federation. I thought oh my God, I want to go and migrate to Scandinavia or something where the attitudes are more open-minded. And being so depressed and dismal. Thankfully my life’s not like that today, I’m in a much better place.

But I know those kind of feelings of despair, and oh God it’s hard. So, I would hope that people could follow my example and know can get through those days. I mean I can still have days like that and I just go to bed for the day or have a hot bath and do nothing but have a cup of tea and read.

In any activists’ life, there are days like that. That, that wonderful Beatles song ‘Nobody told me there’d be days like this’. That’s the kind of message I would like any activist coming along to keep in mind. Nobody told me that. I wished someone had. And it’s alright, I got through it, ‘cause I had…you know, a lot of love and support in my family of origin, I’m very fortunate in that way. And I think that’s partly why I’m so passionate about proper funding for child care and everything, you know. Every child has a right to be wanted and to have a loving environment and excellent free education, that’s my, my fundamental belief and I work for that today.


Facilitator: Well, that was wonderful, thank you so much Gail, absolute pleasure to sit down with you again and hear your story.



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