Margaret Holmes: living the fight against war


Margaret Holmes: The Life and Times of an Australian Peace Campaigner
By Michelle Cavanagh
New Holland, 2006
319 pages, $29.95 (pb)


Prime Minister Robert Menzies, two weeks after his Coalition government had reintroduced conscription in 1964 for the war in Vietnam, was due to speak at an election rally in Hornsby. He wasn't expecting Margaret Holmes and 40 other middle-class women to stand in silent protest with black veils over their faces and slowly file out of the hall handing out anti-conscription leaflets. It "stopped him dead in his tracks", explains Holmes in Michelle Cavanagh's biography of one of the stalwarts of the peace movement in Australia.

This protest was just one of the countless actions by countless people of varied backgrounds and beliefs, over decades of effort to make Australia and the world a less violent and less unjust place. Holmes occupied an eclectic left-wing, Christian-pacifist, feminist niche in this political cosmos. Ending up that way was by no means a predictable destiny for her however, born Margaret Read in 1909 into a privileged, politically conservative North Shore (Wahroonga) family.

There was much overseas travel (all of it first class), a holiday house and a pony. She was the only Sydney University student with a car and she had never spoken to anyone with a public school education. University, however, stripped away the cocoon of her sheltered upbringing. Mixing pacifism with a radical anti-capitalism fired by the Depression, Holmes joined the Christian Socialist Movement in 1936 and she was friend and collaborator with members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

From their home in Mosman (on, ironically enough, Military Road), Holmes and her partner welcomed refugees from Nazi Europe and attempted to remain anti-fascist pacifists by, writes Cavanagh, "serving the community to an increased extent, but in ways not inconsistent with their conscientious objection to war".

After the war, Holmes took up prison reform, the New Housewives Association (for economic justice for women), Aboriginal rights and opposition to Australian military involvement in Korea and Malaya. From the late 1950s, she found additional reserves of energy for what became her core focus — the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an international peace and social justice organisation that dated back to 1915, founding the NSW branch in 1959.

Smuggling 20 Bibles to the Moscow Baptist Church did nothing to lessen her as a "person of interest" to the NSW police (Special Branch), which had been spying on her since 1949, nor to ASIO, which, from at least 1957, began phone-tapping, mail interception and, in all probability, infiltration of the NSW WILPF branch to exploit political and strategic schisms.

WILPF was also attacked as a communist organisation by federal politician W.C. Wentworth in 1961. Some WILPF members were CPA members, but Holmes refused to take the red-baiting poison. Privately, Holmes had her doubts that disarmament was possible "under the capitalist structure", but what mattered to her throughout her political life was united activity by all those, no matter where they came from, who wanted an end to war and economic injustice.

Nuclear weapons testing was a key focus of Holmes and WILPF, tackled with letters, petitions, marches, the silent vigil (WILPF's trademark signature) and lobbying (trading on WILPF's status as an NGO recognised by the UN), all peppered with more creative spice such as leaving milk bottles labelled Strontium 90 (the radioactive element that readily accumulates in milk) outside the French consulate in opposition to French nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Holmes was particularly galvanised by the Vietnam War and conscription, which saw 64,000 young Australian men called up. WILPF picketed army barracks when new recruits arrived, conducted workshops on draft resistance, staged vigils at conscription ballots, held rallies in support of conscientious objectors at their court hearings and formed the silent protest contingent at mass protests.

War toys, chemical warfare, US bases, East Timor, apartheid, uranium mining, a nuclear power station in Jervis Bay, environmental conservation — Cavanagh's biography of Holmes methodically documents the landscape of political struggle in Australia, chronicling the campaigns waged by the left and by people of broad humanitarian sentiment that on occasion erupted into history-changing mass movements.

A senate politician once patronisingly referred to the women in WILPF as "innocent idealistic women" manipulated by "communists and extreme leftists". On the contrary, they were independent-minded and, like Holmes, refused to be red-baited into silence and passivity.

Through it all, Holmes displayed the qualities that made her a leader and an inspiration to many — she was a skilled networker and communicator whose enthusiasm for her beliefs, dogged persistence and "refusal to become downhearted when actions did not immediately bring about change" recruited many to the cause. She tactfully brought "diplomacy and common sense" to internal disputes in WILPF, holding the NSW branch together and maximising the effect of their public actions.

Holmes was awarded an Order of Australia in 2001. With the characteristic modesty of the legions of unsung partisans of progressive political struggle in Australia, she accepted it only for the publicity value this establishment recognition gave WILPF and its long, anti-establishment history of taking up the great fight against war and injustice.