Research Reflections from the SLNSW fellowship

June to August was spent researching in Sydney—in the State Library of NSW, and in the homes and clubhouses of Greek-Australian women invested in social services and welfare rights for marginalised communities. This was part of the project ‘Greek-Australian Women and Building Alternative Multiculturalisms: Grassroots Histories of Migrant Welfare in NSW, 1960s-1980s’, undertaken with the generous assistance of the CH Currey Memorial Fellowship at the SLNSW.

Below are some research thoughts related to the archival material and testimonies, and in response to initial research questions. The responses aren’t conclusive, and rely only on the research completed thus far. I’m open to having assumptions challenged.

  1. What perspectives can Greek-Australian women who worked at the frontlines of migrant welfare and service provision provide on the early history of multiculturalism (1970s-1980s)?
    • It’s been difficult to access these voices in the extant archive. This is where oral histories, and community networks, will become especially important. Some reports, especially those from the 1980s (during which concern about the working conditions facing migrant women in factories seemed to breach the public-private divide)[1] provide arresting testimony from migrant women themselves, and sometimes the migrant advocates who fought for their rights in the workplace.
    • My assumption was that Greek-speaking women did the thankless tasks from within male-dominated community groups. They did, but it’s not as simple as this. Furthermore, ancedotal evidence indicates a generational shift in attitudes (and a more outward-looking aspirationalism?) from the first generation to the second (or even 1.5) generation – eg. University-educated women from the late 1970s and 1980s embracing both a new government funding regime and system of ethnic lobbying in a (state) multicultural framework, and in the context of a professionalising welfare sector.
    • Early attention to migrant women’s issues (particularly working-class issues) was bolstered more by radical trade unions and the Far Left than by Women’s Liberation groups. Groups like the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and the Women’s Employment Action Centre, make brief references to ‘ethnic’ women and their issues, which comes across as condescending, classist, and Anglocentric. Assistance, especially in the early 1970s, is extended not in the spirit of collaboration and mutual understanding, but in a patronising and paternalistic effort to ‘educate’ the non-English-speaking-background woman—a hangover of assimilation too. This is not confined to ethnic/ethnicised women, and the attitude can also emanate from Greek-speaking women toward other (differently classed) ethnic women (some of Dorothy Buckland-Fuller’s comments on the Greek women she assisted in the Marrickville Baby Health Clinic fall into this category). And of course, inclusion/exclusion and the racist institutions upheld by mainstream white feminism has been discussed and identified by First Nations’ women, and is an ongoing struggle in settler-colonial Australia. We are all implicated in this process [2].  
    • The elevated position of (Australian-born or educated) Greeks within official bodies contributed to their cultural capital—but did the arguments around working conditions and welfare rights, although dire during the decline in manufacturing in the 1980s, dissipate because of these peoples’ (conditional) ‘integration’ into reigning (Anglophone) systems of governance? Some in the Migrant Rights’ Movement have laid this charge against the willing ethnic professionals and lobbyists who signed up to be a part of the new bureaucracy the grew around state multiculturalism from the late 70s. 
    • The serious issues facing working migrant women [in factories] were eventually recognised by governmental agencies like the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission (EAC), pushed along by (gov-funded bodies like) the NSW Ethnic Communities Council (which contained, from what I understand, a sub-committee called the NSW Migrant Women’s Working Group in the 1980s, featuring some familiar names, including Franca Arena, Vivi Koutsounadis, Stella Nord, Nazil Murir). Or did this group sit under EAC? They had representatives from both, as well as trade unions – was it a national organisation? What did they manage to achieve in their advocacy role? The same issues are brought up again and again (translation, interpretation etc).
    • The point is, the push to recognise issues facing working migrant women came first from community-initiated research and reports (including the Centre for Urban Research and Action in Melbourne in the 1970s).
    • All of this is not to say that Greek-Australian women didn’t engage with the Women’s Liberation Movement, and most the people I interviewed considered themselves feminists, especially those who were teenagers during the 1970s. Questioning prevailing stereotypes about conservatism and ethnic women remains important, and Gillian Bottomley’s work from the 70s/80s is revealing in this regard. Capturing some of that sociological detail remains a worthy historiographical task (and I’m indebted to Bottomley, and others like Caroline Alcorso and Ruth Fincher).
    • I am eager to interview ethnic women involved in industrial disputes too. I don’t have these networks in Sydney (though maybe the current-day Atlas League could help?), but there is a cohort in Melbourne who still attend events at the Democritus League and whom I hope to interview.

  2. What are the gaps in the research on multiculturalism in Australia?
    • Community work and grassroots action! Obvs. This underlines the whole project.
    • The intersection of community groups, new government administrative bodies, Departmental social welfare workers, and how they worked in tandem to deliver social services.
    • Legal battles (and the Social Security Scandal – the role of the second generation here … the law more broadly, especially as it intersects with discrimination in workers compensation and disability pensions).
    • Uneven funding (and the competitive capitalist logic of Australian liberal multiculturalism from the 1980s).
    • Still women, not just working women, but the role of women in welfare and service provision for their communities… in a formal AND informal capacity (unpaid labour is important here, and hard to account for in the archive).
    • Medical issues / health systems. In particular, the constant attribution of ‘neurosis’ to migrant workers suffering work-related injuries and consequent mental health issues. This sparked my interest when listening to the Ethnic Affairs Commission oral histories from the early 1980s, and how often the Greek women in that collection recall being given the diagnosis of ‘nervous disorder’ and prescribed heavy medications. I found the issue discussed further in articles in the Medical Journal of Australia, and contained in the Spiro and Margaret Moraitis collection at the NLA; it’s also a subject of discussion for seminars and meetings held by the Australian Greek Welfare Society in the 1970s and 1980s. Community voices and welfare advocates were concerned about doctors’ tendency to over-prescribe minor tranquilisers and anti-depressants to Greek-speaking women suffering from ‘nerves’ (that is, the over-burden and stresses of working full-time while maintaining family life to the expectations of her partner, community, and within a wider socio-cultural environment that devalues her). Some community groups began to express anxiety about drug-addiction within the Greek community (particularly by young mothers!), and to run community seminars on the topic. This could be a flash-point, and something to ask future interviewees who worked in the welfare field.

  1. What role did the Greek migrant community (of NSW) have in the access and equity debates of the 1970s?
    • Through the ECC and the EAC, and individuals within them? The Atlas League seems to disappear at this time, probably due to internal political splits relating to communist allegiances and orientations to the Soviet Union.
    • I’ve ignored the role of the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW (and, the Church, perhaps) … maybe to my detriment. But again, splits here make their role/s opaque, and the dominance of current personalities have silenced diverse voices.
    • The Melbourne scene seems to have been more active in the access and equity debates of the era because of a few key activists and the support of local ecumenical charities (and the concentration of Greeks in Melbourne!)

  2. From what political position did these women engage in welfare work and welfare activism for their communities [in NSW]?
    • Sometimes from a professedly un-political position, and with personal motivations (emotional and historical), though they were buoyed by a social justice agenda. This seemed to be the case with welfare worker (trained psychologist) and community advocate Vivi Koustounadis, although all women admit a preference for the ALP (and were members of the cult of both Whitlam and Hawke).

  3. What work did women (from within community organisations) do for their migrant communities in terms of:
    • Childcare services (amazing how familiar most of these problems are: access and cost, culturally-appropriate care, subsidising services and making it available through workplaces)
    • Workplace conditions, safety and pay (for migrant women workers in manufacturing/institutions/piece work)
    • Other social justice issues (eg. workers compensation / language lessons / translation in the workplace)

Still working through that question … and the mountain of scans collected. 

Also pending a couple of oral histories with women who weren’t unavailable until 2023.

Email me your thoughts or contacts if you wish! I’m at alexandra.dellios@anu.edu.au

—————————————————————————————————

[1] Stella Nord’s Migrant women workers – these are your rights (Wollongong, N.S.W. : South Coast Labour Council (NSW), 1983), contains some fascinating quotations/first-person accounts from migrant women working in factory settings. So too does: National Women’s Advisory Council’s Migrant Women Speak, A report to the Commonwealth Government (1979)
[2] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2000).

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s