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Making Ends Meet: Brisbane Women and Unemployment in the Great Depression

  • Joanne Scott

Extract

Reflecting on the process of writing history, Tom Griffiths argues that it is ‘the product of a fascinating struggle between imagination and evidence’. He adds that ‘it is our job to release reality, enable it to be seen, enable voices and silences to be heard’. Many Australian historians have expended considerable effort in seeking to understand the reality of the Great Depression of the 1930s, analysing its political, economic, social and cultural dimensions. There are still, however, ‘voices and silences to be heard’, including those of Brisbane women who suffered financial hardships in this period and who actively responded to those hardships by accessing government relief, generating income and reducing their and their families' expenditure. Attempting to retrieve and evaluate those responses suggests that the ‘voices’ are inevitably accompanied by ‘silences’ — that the pictorial, documentary and oral sources which offer valuable insights into Brisbane women's lives also prompt questions that cannot be answered from those sources. In addition to providing an overview of how Brisbane women ‘made ends meet’ during the Depression, this article emphasises the limits of historical knowledge. Those limits are especially apparent in my attempt to reconstruct — or imagine — the experiences of one of the hundreds of unemployed women who visited the Female Labour Exchange during the 1930s.

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Notes

1 Griffiths, T., ‘The Poetics and Practicalities of Writing’, in Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath (eds), Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration (Melbourne: Monash Publications in History, 2000), 6–7.

2 Reports of the Director of Labour and Chief Inspector of Factories and Shops for the years ended 30 June 1930 and 1931, Queensland Parliamentary Papers (QPP), 1930, Vols 2, 3, and 1931, Vol. 2, 18.

3 Reports of the Director of Labour and Chief Inspector of Factories and Shops for the years ended 30 June 1931–34, QPP.

4 Daily Standard, 3 December 1930, p. 11.

5 Mackinolty, J., ‘Woman's Place …’, in Mackinolty, Judy (ed.), The Wasted Years? Australia's Great Depression (Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), 110.

6 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933, Vol. 1, pp. 320, 323. Note that the divisions used by the Statistician for Brisbane were those of the state electorates.

7 The number of Indigenous women in Brisbane in this period is unknown. The 1933 Census included only those Indigenous women it categorised as ‘half-caste’, and it claimed that there were 136 women in this category. Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933, Vol. 1, 309.

8 Report of the Director of Labour and Chief Inspector of Factories and Shops for the year ended 30 June 1930, QPP, 1930, Vol. 2, 4.

9 Costar, B., Labor, Politics and Unemployment: Queensland During the Great Depression, PhD thesis (St Lucia: University of Queensland, 1981), 196.

10 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933, Vol. 1, 320, 323 and Vol. 3, Statistician's Report, 304.

11 Tenth annual report on operations under the Unemployed Workers Insurance Acts, 1922 to 1930, QPP, 1933, Vol. 2, p. 3.

12 Second annual report of the Under Secretary, Department of Labour and Industry, upon the operations and proceedings under ‘The Income (Unemployment Relief) Tax Acts of 1930–31’ for the year ended 30 June 1932, QPP, Vol. 2, p. 27. The sewing program was available at Brisbane and Rockhampton.

13 Second annual report of the Under Secretary, Department of Labour and Industry, upon the operation and proceedings under ‘The Income (Unemployment Relief) Tax Acts of 1930–1931’, for the year ended 30 June 1932, QPP, Vol. 2, pp. 2728.

14 Sixth annual report of the Under Secretary, Department of Labour and Industry, upon the operation and proceedings under ‘The Income (Unemployment Relief) Tax Acts of 1930–1931’, for the year ended 30 June 1936, QPP, Vol. 1, p. 62.

15 Second annual report of the Under Secretary, Department of Labour and Industry, upon the operation and proceedings under ‘The Income (Unemployment Relief) Tax Acts of 1930–1931’, for the year ended 30 June 1932, QPP, Vol. 2, 1932, p. 28.

16 First annual report of the Under Secretary, Department of Labour and Industry, upon the operations and proceedings under ‘The Income (Unemployment Relief) Tax Acts of 1930–31’ for the year ended 30 June 1931, QPP, Vol. 2, p. 11.

17 Daily Standard, 28 April 1931, p. 6.

18 Australian Woman's Mirror, 13 October 1931, p. 14.

19 Worker, 3 December 1930, p. 18.

20 Matthews, J. Julius, ‘Deconstructing the Masculine Universe: The Case of Women's Work’, in All Her Labours: Working It Out, Vol. 1 (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1984), 17–19.

21 Charity Organisation Society of Brisbane (COS), Case No. 5856, 22 July 1938, Case particulars sheets, John Oxley Library (JOL) OM70-42/11/2.

22 Costar, B., ‘Christianity in Crisis: Queensland Churches during the Great Depression’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 13(6) (1988): 205.

23 Young Worker, 1 October 1931, p. 3.

24 Interview with Mrs Grace Bennett by Carole Ottway for Australia 1938 Oral History Project, 23 September 1982, National Library of Australia TRC 2404/4002.

25 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933, Vol. 1, 323. In addition, 5812 women were listed as unemployed within the ‘wage or salary earning group’.

26 Daily Standard, 7 September 1932, p. 5.

27 Fox, C., Working Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991), 128.

28 Working Woman, 15 October 1930, p. 3.

29 Annual report of the Commissioner of Public Health to 30th June 1932, QPP, 1932, Vol. 1, p. 12.

30 Daily Standard, 14 March 1935, p. 5; 17 April 1935, p. 2.

31 Daily Standard, 24 July 1930, p. 7; the court's sympathy related to the woman having been deceived by a man who falsely claimed he was unmarried as well as her loss of employment.

32 COS, Case No.5383, 17 January 1934, Case particulars sheets, JOL OM70-42/11/1.

33 Worker, 17 May 1933, p. 18.

34 Selby, W., The Golden Gamble: A History of the Golden Casket Art Union (Brisbane: Golden Casket Art Union Office, 1995), 58; Queensland Year Book, 1940, 270. According to the Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933 Vol. 1, p. 332, a total of 3774 female breadwinners in Brisbane earned no income and a further 22 036 women (apparently including some individuals classed as ‘dependants') earned less than 52 pounds. The term ‘breadwinner’ in the 1933 Census included employers, self-employed workers, employees, the unemployed, helpers without wages, pensioners, retirees, individuals of independent means, and individuals in religious and benevolent institutions.

35 Selby, The Golden Gamble, 54.

36 Australian Women's Weekly, 10 June 1933, p. 6.

37 See, for example, Daily Standard, 29 November 1930, p. 14 and Brisbane Courier, 1 December 1930, p. 1.

38 Daily Standard, 6 November 1931, p. 8; COS, 34th Annual Report for the year ended 30 June, 1933, p. 5.

39 Quoted in Scott, J. and Saunders, K., ‘Happy Days are Here Again? A Reply to David Potts’, Journal of Australian Studies 36 (1993): 15.

40 Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1933, Vol. 3, pp. 2064–65.

41 COS, 34th Annual Report for the year ended 30 June 1933, p. 5.

42 COS, 29th Annual Report for the year ended 30 June 1928, pp. 5, 7.

43 COS, Case No. 5610, 16 June 1937, Case particulars sheets, JOL OM70-42/11/1.

44 COS, 34th Annual Report for the year ended 30 June 1933, pp. 45.

45 See for example Daily Standard, 29 November 1930, p. 15.

Making Ends Meet: Brisbane Women and Unemployment in the Great Depression

  • Joanne Scott

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