Working Women in 1960’s – An Insight.

Last week, I reviewed Mark Lamprell’s new novel: The Secret Wife, and gave it the definite thumbs up. I don’t know how you define a good book. However, I would think that a book which expands your understanding of people or the world in some way, would be high up the list. Moreover, that one which inspires you to undertake your own research, would rate even higher. Not that we generally read a novel for pure education once we’ve left an institutional setting. Otherwise, it would simply be a textbook.

Anyway, after reading The Secret Wife, I’ve been thinking about the women of my own family who were living and perhaps working through the 1960’s. There was one grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, who at this point was working in the aftermath of a highly successful career as an international concert pianist, subsequent music critic in the print and television media as well as being a Professor of Piano at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. She was also a member of the Society of St Joan which was a Catholic women’s organisation which believed in equality for men and women. It was headed by lawyer Mary Tenison Woods. In 1950, Mary Tenison Woods had been appointed Chief of the Office of the Status of Women in the Division of Human Rights, United Nations Secretariat, New York. She also happened to be my father’s Godmother, which has always struck me as an enlightened choice for a baby boy.

Meanwhile, my mother’s mother, Ruth Haebich, was a Lutheran Pastor’s wife, which saw her running many aspects of their church albeit in my grandfather’s shadow. She also occasionally worked as a hairdresser for her aunt, Rose Bruhn, in Brisbane. However, that was more the exception than the rule. Meanwhile, Aunty Rose was quite a budding business woman who ran an exclusive hair and beauty salon in Brisbane and counted Mrs MacArthur (wife of US General MacArthur) and the wife of the Queensland Governor as clients. She also trained birds to perform. She had a series of “Romeos” who could recite significant slabs of Shakespeare, and used to salute the men in uniform during WWII. She also had a kookaburra, Jacko, whose laugh appeared on Brisbane radio. Aunty Rose was also performed what was called elocution where she recited poetry with astonishing gusto. We actually have a recording. It’s hard not to laugh at it now, but she was certainly a mover and shaker. My own mother had also left school during the 1960’s and completed a degree of Teaching and Music through the conservatorium (my father’s mother was my mother’s teacher, which is how they met). I was born in 1969, which is more towards the tail end of the time period covered in the book.

My Great Great Aunt, Rose Bruhn, with Jacko the Kookaburra.

My mind was still buzzing when I’d finished the book. So, I decided to get my bearings and do a little research on what was going on with women and work in the 60’s. After all, it is important not to make assumptions, and just run with appearances. I’ve read one review of My Secret Wife which says the book covers the era before the pill. However, that isn’t the case. Australia’s first oral contraceptive pill ‘Anovlar’ was released on the 1st February, 1961. The book covers the period from the  12th April 1961 through to 1972. So, it is entirely set in the in the post-pill era.

Where’s Mr Sheen when you need him?

Anyway, I came across these very informative articles in The Australian Women’s Weekly dating from the 15th November, 1967, which I thought you might find interesting. The first article is reporting on a seminar: Problems and Opportunities of Women at Work, which was convened by the Sydney Metropolitan Business and Professional Women’s Clubs. The Second Story: Sometimes She’s Her Own Worst Enemy was by Joan Cowan-Aston, Head of A Sydney School Training Women For Sales And Demonstration. She recruited women into various positions and had some startling insights. Anyway, I’d be interested to know your thoughts and generate a bit of discussion in the comments.


“Don’t’ let us get into a bog of moralising about this, saying where a woman’s place is. A woman’s place is where she wants to be.” Fighting words, and from a man — Professor E. L. Wheelwright, of Sydney University.

THE professor was  addressing a seminar on Problems and Opportunities of Women at Work, convened by the Sydney Metropolitan Business and Professional Women’s Clubs.

In a brand-new theatre at the brand-new Macquarie University, just outside Sydney, scores of women (and some men) listened quietly to this frontal attack on the traditional concept of woman’s place.

“Those who continue,” said the tall professor (an economist and himself the father of daughters), “to use the old slogan of ‘woman’s place is in the home’ have not kept up with the impact of technology on the home.

“To insist on keeping her there is like saying man’s place is on the land, when technology has so improved his productivity as to release five out of six to work else-where.”

In a democracy, the professor insisted, it should be a matter of choice.

“If a woman wishes to stay home and enjoy her family, then good luck to her, that is her business.

“If she wishes, for whatever reason, to work outside the home, then equally that is her business, her choice.”

Earlier, another man had attacked another concept, one which lies at the very heart of a married woman’s fears about taking a job — the effect on young children.

He is educationist Professor Hugh Philp, of Macquarie, father of six.

He said flatly, “Experimental evidence shows it is nonsense to say that pre-schools and kindergartens are bad for the children, and bad for Mum.

“For instance, in Great Britain in World War II women were conscripted for work.

“Surveys showed that their children in pre-school centres and kindergartens were taller, heavier, and healthier, and did better at school later.”

Still another man, economist Professor H. R. Edwards, of Macquarie, went even further: “British surveys show that there is more harmony in the home where the wife works.”

The professor (father of four) quoted from an investigation into consumer finances, made by Mac-quarie and the Universities of Sydney and Queensland, which cast much light on the working wife.

Married women in Sydney, it showed, made up 14 percent of the total workforce. (Commonwealth statistics indicate that this is about average for the six capital cities.)


It surprised me that the figure is higher for married women than single—”single” also including the widowed, the divorced, and the separated.

Also surprisingly, nearly one-third of all working wives came from families whose male head belonged to the executive and professional classes.

Professor Edwards commented: “This suggests pretty clearly that the wife’s going out to work is not only, nor even most often, a question of making ends meet on a low income.

“More often than not, it appears, it is the means of enriching the lives both of the wife and her family, in terms of the personal satisfaction she herself derives from the job in addition to her role as wife and mother; and by making possible a greater expenditure not only on expensive durable consumption items but on children’s education expenses, travel, and so on.”

However, in nearly half the sampled families where the wife does not work, family income was less than $60 a week.

The speaker quoted chapter and verse to prove the contention of the Governor- General, Lord Casey, that Australia badly needs her women, including her married women, in the workforce.

But The Best Brains Are Working To Free Woman From Household Drudgery.

By Kay Keavney

PICTURES show Professor H. R. Edwards and some of the audience at the seminar.

Already, certain sectors of the economy would collapse without them. Even in 1961, when the last published census was taken, one-third of the eligible women were at work — just over one million — and the numbers have been rising ever since.

Professor Wheelwright speculated on what would have happened if two-thirds had gone to work:

“Just think of it, one million extra producers, with incomes to spend, with savings to invest.

“They are here, right under our noses — the equivalent of ten years’ migrant intake. And with no transport costs, no assisted passages, no need for expensive missions looking for workers.

“All they need is training, re-training, the necessary facilities to help them cope with children and domestic work, and the expansion of suitable job opportunities.

“Last year the Department of Immigration spent $43 million for a net migrant intake of around 100,000, by no means all of whom were of working age.

“That sort of money would surely go a long way toward providing the facilities which would help release 100,000 women a year into the workforce.”

And there’s the rub—the lack of facilities to enable women to combine the domestic and the outside job.

It affects not only the married but the divorced or deserted wife with children, the unmarried mother, and the many single women caring for aged relatives—a high proportion, in fact, of half the population of this country.

Seminar speakers referred to other “rubs.”

They spoke of prejudice against women in all but the traditional “women’s jobs,” of low pay, unequal pay, lack of part-time work, lack of training and re-training schemes.

But lack of facilities to care for children ranked high. Before the seminar, the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs had under-taken a massive survey of their own, comparing facilities offered in Australia with those overseas.

The results were depressing, and so were the reports of several seminar speakers.

Miss Joan Fry, of the Sydney Day Nursery, and Miss Margaret Chase, of the Kindergarten Union, told of shortages of trained teachers and workers, lack of space, lack of money, and waiting lists as long as your arm.

Speakers and delegates both grew very fiery on this question. Obviously, it seemed to most, if Australia needed her women in the workforce, society must put some intelligent planning into enabling them to combine their responsibilities.

For a start, there should be a full-scale investigation into the problems themselves, so that informed action can be taken by government, industry, and the community.


Other countries are tackling the situation. For instance, in Chile, any organisation which employs more than 20 women must supply suitable child-care facilities.

Denmark, by a careful combination of government and industry, leads the world in its general provision for the needs of children of all ages.

In the United States, more and more employers are tailoring their schedules to the hours when their workers can work.

For example, in light assembly work they’re offering 9-to-3 and 6-to-10 shifts. A big insurance company has led the way by creating 6-to-10 mothers’ night shifts for clerical workers.

In many places employers are teaming two women for the one job, one working in the morning, another taking over in the afternoon.

“Many problems that seem insuperable,” said Professor A. Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie, “can be solved in fairly simple practical ways.”

He proudly cited M.U.M.S. of Macquarie — young mother undergraduates who have taken over a cottage on the campus, where their children have a splendid (supervised) time while mothers attend lectures.

Everyone from the Vice-Chancellor and Faculty to the local Apex Club has bucked in and given help to enable these women to develop valuable skills without adverse reaction on the children.

Alderman Mrs. Gladys Leach outlined community schemes in her own area (Lane Cove, N.S.W.) which are equally simple and practical — and far-reaching in their effects.

“Meals on Wheels,” for instance. Often the simple provision of a hot meal in the middle of the day for a sick or aged relative can release a woman to earn her living.

Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way.

There are solutions, too, to the immense problem of re-training a woman after a long child-bearing break.

Learning by correspondence is one, and it was dealt with by the Head of the School of External Studies at the N.S.W. Department of Technical Education — herself a woman, Miss Renee Erdos.

Professor Philp saw long-term answers in the use of educational TV and electronic recordings. In their own homes, women will be able to bridge the gap made by years out of their trade or profession.

Other women, who married young, perhaps directly from school, will be able to develop new skills.

These solutions and every other possible kind should be explored by the nation to stem the vast wastage of its womanpower, said the speakers.

They spoke of other problems to be tackled: inequality of opportunity, inequality of pay. They said women must themselves push for justice, making full use of their combined political power.

As Professor Wheelwright, the economist, reminded the seminar: “It was a 19th century economist who said that one could judge the progress of a civilisation by looking at the place of women in it.

“And,” he added with a broad grin, “it was a 20th century economist who said that economic development is an invitation to women to join the human race.”

Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), Wednesday 15 November 1967, page 4


By JOAN COWAN-ASTON, head of a Sydney school training women for sales and demonstration.

“Executive Woman Wanted” -there are marvellous jobs offering for women. BUT – many are unfilled because the right woman can’t be found.

WHY aren’t there more women at the top?

“Because we are discriminated against, under-paid, exploited,” most women cry.

But from where I sit, as a trainer and employment agent for female staff, I find most women have themselves to blame for missing out on top jobs and good salaries.

And the main fault is in their attitude to their work. They just don’t take it seriously enough.

A man gets a position and tries, in most cases, to make it a career. This, in the main, is what women have yet to learn to do.

Women have not been consistently taught to regard their work seriously, although this attitude is slowly changing as the demand for their skills becomes greater.

Let me start with my own generation, the 30-45 age group.

Most of this group left school at about 16 and went to work in offices or shops.

The main aim of most of them (carefully instilled in them by their mothers) was to get married. Throughout their childhood all talk of their future was along the lines: “When you grow up and get married . . ?”

Consequently, they regarded work as a “fill-in” until they married, and the major part of their wages went toward buying things for their glory-box and saving for a big wedding. Little thought was given to what they should do after they were married.

They had their children, set out to raise them well, to run their homes-and their minds stagnated.

Their children grew older, their homes were well established, and they became bored with the monotony of housework and tea parties.

They decided to go back to work. However, what positions can such untrained women hope to get?

They are competing with girls fresh from business college and, more importantly, with women who have stopped working but have spent the ten or so years learning their work thoroughly, including new business techniques and terminology.

These last are the women now commanding good positions and salaries.

They have proved their capabilities, and now something real, and valuable, to offer employers.

The women who have done nothing but house duties for several years (and these are the women I deal with at my agency) are shocked to find that employers regard them as juniors.

Most of those I meet seem to think that because they have reached a certain standard in their private life and are of an age when they can cope with people easily, they are suited for the executive positions.

Feminine Foibles

But they lack experience and know-how, and are out of touch.

Another point is that women, although they complain bitterly that they are underpaid and exploited because of their sex, in a great many cases try to use the fact they are women to get special treatment.

They expect their boss to be sympathetic when they have an “off day.” But employers don’t want to be worried by these feminine foibles. They just want the work done.

To give you an example: Mrs. X recently completed a training course with me, as she badly needed a well-paid job to maintain a child and a home.

I placed her in a selling position, $30 a week and commission. Her weekly pay should have been about $50.

I thoroughly briefed her, told her the job would be hard work, and suggested she think it over before I placed her.

She did this and then accepted the position, and I arranged for her to start the following Monday.

She worked on the Monday and Tuesday, had what she termed one of her “bad days” on Wednesday, so stayed home. Then she phoned me on Thursday and calmly announced she didn’t like the job, and was there anything else in which I could place her.

Unfortunately, this type of incident is not rare, too many women expect “fairy princess” treatment. But mere are no princes in business. Women must forget their sex and concentrate on the job.

Another thing I find wrong with the attitude of women to their work is that it is too materialistic.

Women work for the wrong reasons. Their aim is not to do an interesting and worth-while job but to get a pay packet each week which will enable them to buy new clothes or household goods,

They merely use their employer and their job. Their minds are not on the work but on what they are going to buy next.

This wholly materialistic attitude is not new. It was there in the old days when women’s main aim was the pursuit and achievement of marriage.

It was implied in the words, “a good match.”

Just who was a good match? A man of fine character who loved his wife and children and worked honestly and well at his job?

No. A good match was the man who could provide a big house, expensive clothes, and so on.

How often did I hear in my childhood. “She made a good match and they have a lovely big home”

Although these attitudes are changing, there is still tremendous room for improvement.

In the younger generation is the girl who has been overseas and expects this to open all doors to her.

Many such girls take just any job when they leave school. They save for about three years, then go overseas.

This would be all right if their travels were designed to increase their knowledge and skills. But the majority wander aimlessly without learning a foreign language or doing any special study.

Then they come to me and say that because they have been overseas they feel they are ideally suited for public relations work or fashion compering. Yet these jobs, like every job, require training and experience.

Recently, I had occasion to place a number of women in a fast-moving promotion. One of the many I sent to the company was a 21-year-old girl who had passed my course with flying colors.

She dresses expensively (though not always in a business-like way), has travelled overseas, but has no experience to speak of. Yet she showed great potential.

She wasn’t successful after the second interview for this particular job, mainly because of her youth.

When I was talking to her about it, and discussing other positions 1 could place her in, she informed me that she thought she would like the sort of position held by the executive woman who had interviewed her.

She was surprised and, I think, angry when I suggested that she would have to wait a few years and gain experience before she could think of anything like that.

The basic attitudes I have instanced must be changed if women are to get employers to take them seriously and treat them as equal to male staff.

Young girls should be encouraged to adopt a career attitude, and to choose a job they can continue throughout life.

Ideally they should not marry until after they have established themselves in a career. And when they marry, they should not drop this career completely.

I do think it is important that a mother be home with her children when they are young, but these days it is not necessary for women to waste this at-home time and put themselves out of the running for a career later.

In fact, it is a wonderful chance for them to pursue some sort of study to increase their knowledge and skills.

A little later they can take up part-time work to fit in with young children’s needs.

This raises two important community needs for which women must work.

First, employers should be encouraged to let married women continue in their careers, by allowing flexible working hours which enable mothers to be home when their children return from school.

Secondly, a good domestic workforce should be developed to free skilled women from the home. (A very high percentage of this country’s skilled labor is being wasted over a kitchen sink, which is a tragedy for a growing country.)

Domestic work these days is well paid and is the answer for women who don’t want to enter the hurly-burly of a position in business. Such women can work within their own areas, dodging commuting problems and spending more time with their families.

Finally, in return for the equal respect of their employers, women must be professional in their work. It doesn’t matter if they are doing a part-time job for extra money or a full-time one as a career, they still must think of themselves as professional.

Women are needed in industry. They are just as clever, just as capable as men, and, provided they think the right way and are prepared to work regardless of personal problems, they will find that they are in as much demand.


Anyway, I’d be interested to hear our thoughts.

Best wishes,



Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), Wednesday 15 November 1967, pages 4 -5.

4 thoughts on “Working Women in 1960’s – An Insight.

  1. lindamaycurry

    Your family had some very talented and exceptional women! All the women in my small family worked. One grandmother trained as a dressmaker although in later years she worked as a housekeeper on cattle stations and then had her own frock shop in Sydney. The other grandmother was widowed and also worked as a housekeeper on cattle stations. My mother trained as a dressmaker, threw it in to be a receptionist at a hotel and then helped my father with his various business enterprises. In the 1969s she took over his business sourcing second hand steel and piping which was mainly used by farmers for fences and gates. She cut the pipes to the right lengths and bent them with a machine,then took them to a welder. Then she spread wire netting over the gate and used another machine to attach it. She found most men were courteous and supportive, but she did keep a gun as she lived alone with one child on a property. I thought she was the most amazing woman. Back to your post, the comments about attitudes of women to work were very interesting.

  2. Rowena Post author

    Your Mum sounds extraordinary. Gutsy. I particularly liked the second article and appreciated it’s perspective and it’s one I haven’t really heard before. I’ve been working on another story about a dinner of Women At the Top, which included my grandmother and aviator Nancy Bird-Walton. It received very little media coverage but there was a story in The Bulletin where the female journalist clearly had eaten sour grapes. It’s not far off being finished.

  3. bademoxy

    After the interest rate explosion in 1981 destroyed my parent’s business (where my mom handled the finances)and then their marriage, she got into the landscape design business, first earning a University degree in horticulture during her 40’s, a bit late in life.
    Her mom was a Francophone nurse with an eye towards VON , but who also owned and ran a boarding house wherein she met and married into a wealthy farming family who’s son graduated from Queen’s University and started as a shift boss at a nickle mine.
    She had an aunt who owned a gold mine , during the Great Depression.
    Based on all this, I conclude that women and men are NOT fully interchangeable in every job role (excepting for rare outliers), the skillsets can be very different , just as personality traits can predispose a person towards certain professions such as marketing for example favoring those with an outgoing verbose charm, considered more a cultured trait than education alone. The religious might call that “gifted”.
    There are strong biological elements in gender preferences, thus the Leftist lie-that gender is socially construction-is just THAT; a lie and a hypocritical one at that as that same ideology which beat creationism over the head with evolution, claiming we evolved by chance from nature , yet somehow we inherited no primate gender identity.

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