Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sally Bowen - Drover, Dressmaker, Steelworker, Unionist & Pacificist

Drover, dressmaker, steelworker, union official, political party member & state election candidate, anti war campaigner, health & aged care advocate ... and yet, ten years after her 1999 death at Lawrence Hargrave Hospital in Thirroul, the name "Sally Bowen" might mean little to some in the Illawarra. And if they had heard of this pedigree, they may have, quite incorrectly, imagined a stern, forbidding, divisive & judgemental personality.

But to others, Sally Bowen was a woman respected and loved. A warm smile from this pioneering & legendary woman, who also became a dressmaker, able to do beautiful beading on Irene Arrowsmith's wedding dress. I will always remember that warm smiling, caring face.

Born Sara Elva Gladys Phipps in Gunnedah 1918, the daughter of share farmers, she ran as a Communist Party Australia (CPA) candidate for the NSW seat of Bulli in 1953, 1962 and 1965. According to the biographical entry, under Sara Bowen, in the National Foundation for Australian Women's register, "At the time of her two later campaigns, she was married to a miner and they had two young children. She was the Vice President of the South Coast District of the Union of Australian Women and a member of the Corimal Miners’ Women’s Auxiliary. A member of the Save Our Sons movement, Bowen was one of the participants who chained themselves to the railing in the gallery of Parliament House (Canberra). She also demonstrated against Australian Iron and Steel, a subsidiary of BHP, for the Jobs for Women campaigns. She had played a leading roll in campaigns for local government reforms."

Sally Bowen's story is featured in several books, including Mavis Robertson's 1980 "Women, class and history : feminist perspectives on Australia, 1788-1978" under "Sally Bowen: Political and Social Experiences of a Working-Class Woman". This work was later cited in the 1998 "Rebel Women in Australian Working Class History". And Sally's story was also told in Anne Deveson's "Faces of Change" under "The Women of Wollongong" - written in 1984, following a period of great upheavals in the steel and coal mining industries. That year she also featured in Tom Zubrycki's 16mm documentary, "Kemira : diary of a strike" -more. Around that time she was also supporting the jobs for women campaign at BHP's Port Kembla Steelworks, as she had done since the 1970's.

The National Foundation for Australian Women's register entry under Sally Bowen is more detailed, than that for Sara Bowen - "In 1950 she was elected the secretary of the South Coast District Committee of the CPA. She met her future husband, miner David (Dave) Bowen (died 1984) , when she spoke at Balgownie against Menzies' referendum to ban the Communist Party. They married in 1954 and had two children. Bowen resigned as district secretary of the CPA in 1955 but remained on the committee, later to become president. She worked with the Women's Centre in Wollongong and Miners' Women's Auxiliaries. It was the auxiliaries that initiated the celebration of International Women's Day (IWD) on the South Coast in 1938. In 1964 Bowen led a CPA women's delegation to the USSR. "

The northern suburbs of Wollongong had been a pocket of CPA activity for decades. Although for many of us locals, the CPA slipped under our radar with the dominating political influence of local RSL branches in the years through to the end of Vietnam War. The Illawarra, including Thirroul, was polarised on the issue, as was much of Australia. Sally Bowen had been an active member of Save Our Sons - which "protested against conscription of Australians to fight in the Vietnam war. The movement made conscription of men under 18, who were not eligible to vote at that time, a focus of their campaign".

Known as a pacificist during the Vietnam War, in fact Sally had worked in the Port Kembla Lysaght Works, assembling Owen machine guns during World War II. The story of the Owen Gun & Sally's involvement was recounted in the 1982 play "Diggers Darling" (refer Des Davis' 2007 PhD Thesis). She also became the shop steward for the Ironworkers union. Before that, like my own father in Boggabilla, she had started out from Gunnedah as a drover - I hadn't even realised that women had been drovers back then.... and yet there were a number. After WWII Sally left Lysaghts to work in a clothing factory, and found conditions oppressive there. Once again she became a union delegate, later becoming District Secretary for the Communist Party. In the 1950's she became part of the Peace Movement and the Miners Womens Auxiliary.

It was in 1984 that I first head of Sally Bowen, from Barbara Quintrell, a leader in the Coalcliff Miners' Women's Auxiliary, when the Coalcliff mine closure was announced. At the time I had joined the fledgling NIRAG to oppose the construction of a coal conveyor, bins & rail loading facility at Sandon Point, Bulli - straight into the middle of a "blue" within the union movement, involving the Miners Federation, the South Coast Labour Council, as well as various other union bodies.

It was believed by some that the construction of this coal conveyor and coal bins infrastructure would save the NSW southern district coal mines, including the "Old Bulli" pit. In a bid to avoid destructive divisions between the unions and the environmentalists, I had gone along to various miners meetings. At one of these, Barbara Quintrell advocated approaching Sally Bowen to support the Womens Auxiliary at Coalcliff. After I was elected to Wollongong Council in 1991, I met Sally Bowen many times at various functions and meetings.

In 1992, Sally was still campaigning on public health issues, when the local Bulli hospital was under one of its many threats of closure. " In fact Sally Bowen was also involved in the environmental movement and was prominent in promoting aged care issues. She became chairperson of the Healthy Cities Illawarra Aged Task Force for the South Coast area." 1994 saw Sally Bowen recording her life experiences in the publication "A Garland of Poetry", before Len Fox wrote of her in his 1996 "Australians on the Left".




Below are two of my favourite poems that epitomise Sally in "A Garland of Poetry"



Sally's daughter, Margaret Bowen, a Thirroul resident, followed in her mother's footsteps to fight for those less advantaged, ultimately become CEO of the Illawarra Disability Trust, now known as The Disability Trust. In 2012 Margaret was declared Illawarra Business Woman of the Year, for her role in leading The Disability Trust.


Sally Bowen was a principled woman of the Left, a campaigner of various causes for her entire adult life until her death in Thirroul in 1999, reported in the Green Left.

POSTSCRIPT - Sally's story has been included in a list to fundraise to help others at A Women's Investment Blog - "Tribute: how your blog post can raise $1000 for people living in poverty - I have some great news to share with you! Over the next week Melbourne based business Incentive House will be contributing up to $1000 towards an Opportunity International microfinance fundraiser by donating $100 for every blog post you write for a special project."

1 comment:

KerrieAnne Christian said...

Good info from Mick Roberts on Sally Bowen - http://zyworld.com/lookingback/Rube_Hargrave.htm