A life-long fighter for women's equality

Issue 

Cups with no Handles: Memoir of a Grassroots Activist

By Carolyn Landon

Hybrid Publishers, 2008

288 pages, $29.95 (pb)

When Betty Richards tried to organise the young Commonwealth Match Factory women into the union in Melbourne in the 1930s, most were fatalistic about their below-dole wage exploitation and their future of marriage and babies.

"That's just the way it is, Betty", they told her with resignation.

Betty, however, didn't think that lack of education, cheap labour and domestic tedium was the way it should be. Cups With No Handles is the memoir (told to Carolyn Landon) of Bette Boyanton's (Betty Richards) life in this cause.

Bette Boyanton was born Betty Richards in 1921 in inner-city Melbourne. Bread-and-dripping was the staple food, the cups had broken handles, evictions and midnight flits were their housing lot, diphtheria roamed at large and the marathon drudge of laundry day and other household toil stifled the spirit. "I felt condemned by my sex", says Boyanton, observing the life that had ensnared her mother of eleven children into a sticky web of housework and breeding.

Escape and "a future I could dedicate myself to" was found through Boyanton's father, Sam Richards, a Gallipoli veteran whose experience of the disaster had turned him against war and social injustice and who was a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Boyanton would deliver the party paper with her dad on Sunday mornings, attend the party's Socialist Sunday School, march on May Day and accompany her father to free speech battles.

The fantasy of a glamorous life in the movies (Boyanton changed her name to Bette after her favourite movie star, Bette Davis) was soon abandoned for the party and the political life that kept her self-confidence alive through the disappointments of a one-term stay at Richmond Girls High and a succession of lowly paid jobs.

The party's youth wing, the Eureka Youth League, the party-affiliated Union of Australian Women (UAW) and the Carnegie branch of the CPA gave Boyanton's life meaning and purpose. She became best friends with the author Frank Hardy and his partner Ross.

Like her father, the Hardys encouraged Bette to speak her mind, treating her with an intellectual equality rare for Australian women in the middle decades of the 20th century.

The party also gave her a "practical education" in grassroots community organising with a successful campaign for an Infant Welfare Centre in Pakenham in the post war years, discovering "the power of women" in the process.

It all came to a stuttering halt, however, in the early '50s. Her partner Les's best mate, enticed them (Les willingly, Bette against her best instincts) to share-farming in Neerim North, conservative dairy country.

Boyanton was not farming material. Cows, chooks and spuds were no substitute for politics and ideas. Despite a move to the nearby town of Warragul where she helped found a small CPA branch, social and political isolation were her lot due to anti-communist prejudice and backward attitudes to women (her place was in the kitchen, keeping quiet like the rest of the "womenfolk").

Boyanton continued to bravely fly the flag of social radicalism and activism (even after the local party branch dissolved after the 1956 revelations about Stalin) through the UAW and its campaigns on food prices, women's health and world peace. It was tough, isolated going in the Cold War freeze of rural Australia, and her "blasted asthma" forced her (premature) retirement from work in 1978.

In later life she was inspired by the feminist movement's campaign for women's learning houses where under-educated women organised their own classes in craft, drama, creative writing, first aid, nutrition, cooking, history, art, politics, health and other issues.

With a core group of Warragul women, "none of whom had ever done anything of significance in the community before", Boyanton energised a grassroots campaign to establish the Warragul Neighbourhood House (one of the 300 women's learning centres in Victoria and over 1,000 nationally). She was back in her natural element. She was organising again, changing lives and redressing social inequalities.

Before she died in 2003, Boyanton told her story to Carolyn Landon from her nursing home, capturing for the benefit of a younger generation of social activists just one of the lives of those who helped change the political face and social landscape of Australia towards a world where all women can have equality and everyone's cups have handles.