IWD talk: The limits of the archive – revisiting histories of multiculturalism and women’s voices

In an effort to trick myself into being (feeling?) ‘productive’, and thus keep that all-pervading panic and fear at bay, I’ve edited this paper I gave at the Greek Democritus Workers’ League in Melbourne for International Women’s Day on the 8 March 2020. A lifetime ago.

Many of the women in the room that day recalled their participation in: factory strikes and protests for better working conditions, and establishing and providing better welfare services to Greek-speaking communities in Melbourne from the 1970s onwards. They did this alongside various caring duties.

I was looking forward to recording some of their stories in oral history interviews. I’m still hoping to conduct these interviews once restrictions are lifted and it’s safe to do so. Thank-you to everyone who came out on the day.


IWD talk

When we’re recalling Greek-Australian left-wing and labour movement activists, who comes to mind? There were a number of prominent men in the ‘ethnic or migrant rights movement’ of the 1960s and 1970s – some are in this room. They appear within community histories, and (less so) in mainstream histories of multiculturalism (Mark Lopez’s conservative history of multiculturalism comes to mind). But where are the women?

Today, I’ll be talking about:

  • The role of Greek-speaking women in early multiculturalism—the ethnic or migrant rights movement that preceded state-sanctioned multiculturalism.
  • I also want to explore the reasons behind their less-than-prominent visibility—offering some historical, sociological and institutional reasons why their role in the earliest iterations of multiculturalism is not as apparent as it should be, if we turn to the ‘archive’. By the archive I mean: the larger, publicly accessible libraries and archives, those state-funded collecting institutions. I’ll use the National Library of Australia’s collections as an example here too.
  • I will end with a call to collect these stories, highlighting why it’s important to actively record through the practice of oral history a record of alternative multiculturalism and women’s role in it.

It’s no secret that elite institutions, our state-funded collecting institutions, lack ethnic women’s voices. They lack stories, in particular, of ethnic women’s political leadership and their role in welfare provision. When non-Anglo-Celtic-origin women do appear in the official records, especially in the earliest state-funded projects dating from the 1980s, their public lives (as opposed to ‘private’ lives) are not the focus.

My preliminary research hints that many Greek women were at the ‘frontlines’ of early multiculturalism. There were some Greek women leaders, but many more were also acting as volunteers in welfare societies or in  ‘caretaker’ roles, in which they facilitated the actual delivery of much-needed services to their communities. I found the lack of women’s voices in the official archive particularly frustrating, especially because, if we read a little closer, the records seemed to indicate that women (specifically the wives of male figureheads) were doing much of the pastoral care and volunteer labour within the office in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to all the typing (as hand-written note of thanks slipped into typed records indicated). Such work doesn’t appear as prominently in the archive, but it is there – sometimes it’s a matter of reading ‘against the grain’ in order to centre these women’s stories.

But before I progress, I’ll offer an exploration of the ‘alternative multiculturalism’ being articulated at the time of the migrant rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Multiculturalism and migrant rights

Multiculturalism is traditionally talked about from top-down perspective as ‘a set of policies concerned with management and containment of diversity by nation states’ (Wise and Velayutham 2009: 15). The argument goes: Gough Whitlam and Al Grassby introduced the policy of multiculturalism, ahead of popular opinion and they led a change in attitudes. Histories of multiculturalism stress the role of Grassby and the Whitlam Labor government, and of various government reports and policies released throughout the 1970s on the needs of ‘Non-English-Speaking-Background’ (NESB) migrants (notably, the Galbally Report). But the agency of migrant communities themselves is missing in this top-down approach.

Many people within this room would know that some of the earliest versions of multiculturalism, articulated within the frame of ‘migrant rights’, were intended to aid access to much-needed services and to fight discrimination based on language-exclusion and ethnic stereotypes. This ‘migrant rights’ version of multiculturalism was also about collective notions of social justice. It was a rights-based discourse that drew less on post-war UN declarations on universal human rights and more on earlier socialist ideas of welfare rights. Welfare rights as social rights

Multiculturalism and the politics of representation in Australia have evolved a lot since the 1970s. There have been many criticisms of a state-delivered multiculturalism. Political scientists and anthropologists in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have criticised multiculturalism in liberal-democratic nations as being simplistic and essentialising cultural identities. This ‘managerial’ or white multiculturalism, as described by Ghassan Hage (1998), entails a process of ‘ethnicisation’: ethnic peoples are objects for consumption by those in positions of more power, ‘white cosmospolitates’. ‘Difference’ here becomes a symbolic performance that is visible only as a market-driven commodity, rather than something with social needs and demanding social care.

The version of multiculturalism offered by community groups and migrant rights’ activists in the 1960s and 1970s was superseded by a depoliticised ‘diversity’.  At the same time, the language of social justice, the right to welfare, and the class dialect of an earlier era, has changed substantially since the 1970s.

Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos (2002; 2005) in their work on the Democritus League have also argued that state multiculturalism ensured an interest-determined relationship—cultural pluralism is promoted as a mode of capitalist consumption, but structural pluralism is discouraged. Similar arguments have long been made by sociologist Andrew Jakubowicz (1984; 1989; 2007) [see also Jakubowicz’s online library on multiculturalism], who argued that the government’s embrace of multiculturalism took the issue of migrant rights ‘off the streets’ and into the realm of government policy. That is: in order to contain migrant rights activists’ demands for equity and access, and to quell their politics of representation and participation, state multiculturalism would instead allocate financial support on a needs basis and through competitive schemes.

Cultural collecting institutions in Australia have slowly recognised the limits of a celebratory and superficial ‘food and folklore’ version of multiculturalism. And accordingly representations of ethnic-minority groups have changed since the 1980s, when multiculturalism first emerged in museum exhibitions. But often these institutions, which are represented by largely mono-cultural boards, do little to de-centre the presumed Anglo-Australian mainstream—the ‘core’ against which all ‘Others’ are defined.  In regards to collecting oral histories in particular, the practice around ‘NESB’ peoples or (to use current bureaucratic parlance) ‘Culturally and Linguistically Diverse’ peoples, has often served to reinforce the ‘Otherness’ of these identities, and their separation from wider social and cultural forces shaping Australian life. This framing undermines how cultures change and evolve, especially within the diaspora. To put it another way, gaps in mainstream Anglophone archive and library collections are identified, filled, and categorised with material that is labelled according to one’s status as non-Anglo-Australian.

What became most apparent in the early stages of my research, was the lack of women’s voices (especially ethnic women) in larger cultural collection institutions. I started at the National Library of Australia (where I was a Fellow from July-Sept 2019), but have subsequently sought records in the National Archives and the State Library of NSW. In parts of the Greek community, women delivered ‘on the ground’ welfare provision, but finding their voices, and centering their work in building early multiculturalism, became a matter of reading sources ‘against the grain’. It is also important we actively collect new oral histories to fill the gaps in existing collections.

Women’s involvement in building and articulating early multiculturalism/s

‘Ethnic’[1]  women in welfare societies and workers’ leagues

In their early years of operation from 1972, the Australia Greek Welfare Society (AGWS) had a committee that entirely consisted of men; however, the volunteers at that time were almost entirely women. It was the volunteers that conducted a lot of the front-line work—dealing with individual migrants visiting the office day-to-day, and fielding requests for assistance with translation or interpretation, or help dealing with government bureaucracy.


Voula Messimeri-Kianidis calls it ‘the coalface’. Women like Messimeri-Kianidis, who was director of the AGWS from 1989 and President of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils from 2005, were key members of and leaders in community organisations that offered services to migrant women. It is a later period to the one I’m interested in unpacking here, however.

AGWS and the Australian Greek Society for Care of the Elderly

I came across the following 2 women mentioned in the National Library manuscript collection of Spiro Moraitis (co-founder of the AGWS); they also appeared in the other records of the AGWS, and, if one knows where to look, we can see that both have published or appeared in newspaper articles and reports on community affairs, the health and welfare needs of Greek migrant arrivals. However, simply searching their names in the catalogue will result in only one finding: their short oral history recordings, conducted in 1998, as part of the Greek-Australian Oral History Collection – which I’ll talk about later.

  1. Rita Packer (born in Melbourne in 1928; her father migrated to Australia from Asia Minor in 1923). Welfare Rights Office of AGWS from 1973, after being contacted by Nick Polites. And even after leaving this role in the 1980s, she continued to work, including as a volunteer, for Greek community organisations and aged care. 
  1. Anna Matthews (born in Athens; migrated to Australia in 1947) life-long commitment to working with the elderly, and highlighting the needs of the ageing Greek population in Melbourne. She was public relations officer at the Australian Greek Society for Care of the Elderly, Vic [now Fronthida Care]. I came across her name too alongside Rita’s in the records of the AGWS.

Reasons why they aren’t as prominent in cultural collecting institutions (archives)

  • Is it because their voices aren’t put forward? Is there a reticence on the part of Greek migrant women? Some community voices have suggested to me that these women are ‘unassuming’ – that they don’t put themselves forward for this type of recognition.
  • We have seen that this can result in their erasure from more public histories, and the continual privileging of more affluent, connected male voices in the writing of this history.

Margy Burn has argued that women (in general) are much less likely to donate their papers and personal archives to larger institutions like the National Library; they respond to society’s valuation of their work in different ways. For some migrant or ethnic-minority women, this lack of visibility is two-fold. Nikki Henningham’s research and her work on the Encyclopedia of Women’s Leadership found similar things—she noticed gaps in the representation of ethnic or ethnicised women. That is not to say that Greek migrant women were not talking about their political activism or, concurrently, about their work in service provision—which, as I’ve argued, was deeply political. As Henningham argues: ‘The fact that gaps in the record exist does not mean that they weren’t talking. The problem was at the other end of the communication chain; they weren’t being listened to, they weren’t being heard.’

Kay Tsounis (who, in 1962, became the first woman secretary of any Greek Australian association) has spoken out about Greek women and politics in Australia. She argued that they were held back politically by ‘their husband and fathers’, and the expectation that they adopt more ‘caretaker’ roles rather than explicitly ‘political’ ones (see: Damousi 2015). Volunteer work and jobs seen as ‘caretaker duties’ are hidden work, less prominent in the archive (and sometimes not even recorded in oral history testimony). While many of these women did not in the first instance become ‘presidents’ of these organisations, they were busy working at the frontlines of service delivery, or campaigning for more equitable and culturally-appropriate services and representative forms of local governance. The latter was one of the initial aims of groups like the AGWS.

Leadership and discussing leadership

Messimeri-Kianidis, who I mentioned earlier, was interviewed as part of a much later oral history project than the National Library’s Greek-Australian Oral History Collection: she features in Nikki Henningham’s Women and Leadership project, conducted in 2011. Her interview is one in a collection that, despite Henningham’s best efforts, doesn’t feature many ‘ethnic’ (or ethnicised) women – but it does focus explicitly on women’s public and political lives.

Messimeri-Kianidis spoke at length about the nature of women’s leadership in ethnic community organisations, the different ways in which Greek women in positions of leadership connect with the community, the boy’s club that prevailed, and the ‘lonely road’ for women who elect to become leaders.[3]

For her part, Rita Packer, in her 1998 interview, also commented blithely about men and their behaviour in community politics:

‘We used to joke about, if you have a Greek committee of 2, you’d have 3 [male] presidents or aspiring presidents. Everyone seems to want to be the boss person’.

This jest accords with Messimeri-Kiandis’ testimony, retold decades later, about the ‘male hostility’ she encountered in response to her leadership aspirations.

Sociological reasons and Greek social conservatism – an adequate explanation?

For some of these Greek migrant women, well into the 1990s a close-knit and rigidly defined family structure dominated their lives. This could dictate appropriate roles and means of expression for men and women. Despite the need for both men and women to work in Australia—due the cost of housing and the need to repay debts incurred due to migration—the family unit retained many of the roles and expectations espoused in the previous rural and small-town setting from which many post-war migrants came. This is widely reported in sociological studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s.[2]

Well-publicised accounts of the conservatism of Greek diasporic communities—that refer to the dowry, and the patriarchal controls that dictated the roles of women as dutiful mothers and wives—argue that such views continued to operate within the Greek-Australian diaspora beyond the first generation. But, I think such views give little credence to, first, the conservatism of Australian society, and, secondly, the influence of second-wave feminism on emerging Greek-Australian women leaders in the 1970s. I would love to speak to more migrant women about this period, and what influence second-wave feminism had on their outlooks and attitudes. There’s a definite gap in our knowledge here, and a need for alternative stories, a need to combat stereotypes about Mediterranean migrant women at this time (as subservient and/or conservative if not unconcerned with social justice issues).

Examples from the NLA’s Greek-Australia Oral History Collection from the 1990s

Reading against the Grain

The NLA’s Greek-Australian Oral History and Folklife project was conducted between 1997 and 1999. Parts Two and Three contained ‘interviews conducted with members of Australia’s Greek speaking community in Melbourne’, the city with the largest proportion of Greek-origin peoples in Australia. The interviews themselves were conducted by Demetra Enizilis, who grew up in Greece. She obtained a Masters thesis from the University of Melbourne in 1996 on ‘The language of rebetika’. She held the language skills, and presumably the relevant points of cultural reference, to conduct many of the interviews, especially with those who had spent their adult lives in Greece. Although Greece had changed substantially since the post-war era, most provincial settings maintained many of the patriarchal traditions of decades earlier—which I think shapes some of the lines of questioning that Enizilis adopts.

Enizilis, the interviewer, doggedly pursued questions about the domestic sphere in an effort to open up this ‘private life’ in the space of the NLA interview. Across all the interviews with women (including Rita Packer and Anna Matthews) they are asked about: family; religion; marriage; celebrations; nikokira (woman’s role in family, as wives and mothers, or more literally translated as ‘housekeeper’); their maintenance of Greek traditions; Greek lullabies; the ‘evil eye’ or mati; folk medicine; the future of Greek traditions and language. Alternatively, interviews with Greek men in this collection focus on their working (public) lives.

I don’t wish to imply that maintaining conceptions of ‘Greekness’ and the idea of traditions are non-political issues. The personal is political; and these cultural maintenance issues (especially in early multicultural Australia, or in an assimilationist Australia) can be deeply political. Cultural maintenance could be a subjective form of resistance to the institutional pressures to ‘speak English’, an active rejection of assimilation. The practice of the Greek Orthodox religion, regional cooking and village-based superstitions can take on a new importance in a diasporic context, especially for Greek women tasked with safeguarding folklife and this version of ‘Greek’ culture.  However, these issues are not limited to the domestic or private sphere—although this is implied in the oral histories. The focus on the private was deeply gendered in this exchange between interviewer and interviewee, and Enizilis consistently declined to ask questions, or follow up on comments, about women’s public and political lives, instead preferring to repeatedly interject with questions like ‘Do you feel deep down inside that you are proud to be Greek?’ I think the prevailing rhetoric around Greek-Australianness at this time (in the 1990s) was less developed, and more binary (black-and-white) than it is now: we can now hopefully acknowledge that cultural and ethnic identities and gendered norms are not static, especially not in a diasporic context. Overall, the collection speaks to a limited conception of women’s involvement in migrant rights activism (as a public fight).

This is just one example of how two politically-active women feature in the archive. Please note, I’m not touching here on community and family archives and small libraries, which may approach the representation of these women very differently. The next stage of my research will delve into community archives. When it comes to public visibility, these women only became visible in the official archive as caretakers of a static culture, rather than politically astute workers and contributors to their communities.

On visibility and the importance of oral history 

Visibility is important. It’s important to a version of multiculturalism that aims to challenge the make-up of leadership in this country, at all levels of society. Visibility is also important in order to achieve recognition: a recognition of cultural legitimacy. This politics of recognition was also important to earlier (forgotten) versions of multiculturalism.

Oral history offers a means to capture intimate narratives, highlighting the social meanings of particular places and spaces in people’s storytelling, and the intersections between social and personal attachments. Oral histories that centre community stories also focus attention on the long-term and intimate aspects of a community’s history and of wider histories associated with the post-war migration scheme. The value of storytelling can’t be underestimated here—nor can oral history as a feminist practice.

Greek women, and their place within not only Greek culture in this era but also Greek diasporic culture deserves more historical attention. I’m talking about women’s agency in the evolving social space of the family and the home, the role of women in both preserving—in service of the patriarchy—traditions and customs, as well as their role in breaking them down in new and evolving socio-political contexts. Many Greek-Australian community organisations are still male-dominated spaces—the histories of these organisations have continued to be written from a male gaze, and without much consideration for the often unpaid volunteer labour of women. Storytelling can be powerful. It can contribute to the impetus to analyse women’s subordination within patriarchal structures and produce alternative histories rooted in women’s experiences and their truths. 



[1] Rather than the bureaucratic terms of CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) or NESB (Non-English Speaking Background – which implies a lacking), I will mostly be using the term ‘ethnic’ throughout; this accords with ongoing community practice, but is also cognizant of wider societal structures that marked (and continue to mark) non-Anglo Australians as ‘ethnic’. Greek-speaking people are ‘ethnicised’ in this national context, although their racialisation is not the same as people of colour. It should be noted that race and racialisation is historically contingent and evolving.

[2] Centre for Urban Research & Action. & Ecumenical Migration Centre, Migrant women workers: a collection of source documents,  prepared by the Centre for Urban Research and Action and the Ecumenical Migration Centre as part of a project funded by the Australian National Advisory Committee – International Women’s Year 1975 Melbourne; Des Storer et al., But I Wouldn’t Want My Wife to Work Here: A Study of Migrant Women in Melbourne Industry (Fitzroy, Victoria: Centre for Urban Research and Action 1976).

[3] For more reading on Australian women and diversity in leadership, see Damousi, Rubenstein and Tomsic’s 2014 collection.



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