Vale Joyce Stevens: fighter for women’s liberation

Joyce wrote the famous poem "Because we're women".

Joyce Stevens was born on January 6, 1928 and was 87 when she died on May 6.

She was the third child in a family of four children, with two older brothers and a younger sister, Lorna, who survives her. Her father was a railway fettler and her mother had been a nurse.

The family lived in country NSW and Joyce enjoyed some of the pleasures and freedoms of country children. She moved to Sydney with her mother and two of her siblings when she was 14.

In Sydney she attended the selective and prestigious North Sydney Girls High. But Joyce did not enjoy life at the school and decided to leave as soon as she could rather than pursueing her early goal of becoming a teacher.

She began her working life in an office and later spent a year in the Land Army and then became an organiser for the Eureka Youth League.

At that time, the League's major focus was on supporting the war effort to, as she said, deal a blow to fascism. Many of the people in the League she most admired were members of the Communist Party and, impressed by their politics, she joined the Communist Party, later on working full time for the party and later still, for Tribune, the party's newspaper.

Despite the bankruptcy of the Soviet form of socialism, Joyce never lost her idealism and commitment to a more just, egalitarian and democratic society free from the oppression of working people and free from racism and war and the particular oppression of women and for a society that provided opportunities for all.

I got to know Joyce in 1965 when I began working for the Communist Party. Joyce was already working there. At that time she was married to and living with Jim Stevens and their two children, Jamie and Jennifer.

We worked on and were involved in the various political issues of the day.

Then in the late 1960s some literature about women's rights began to appear from the United States. It was exciting and liberating and we were gripped by the ideas.

We had been heavily involved in campaigns such as the ban the bomb movement, for improved living standards, support for industrial activity, for emerging environmental issues, against nuclear testing in the Pacific, against uranium mining, against the Vietnam war.

But somehow, in all of our campaigning, many issues of specific importance to women were at best peripheral. It was not that there were not lots of strong women in the Communist Party but somehow other issues assumed priority and many issues of importance to women were not raised in polite society.

But things were about to change. Other women were reading this emerging, literature as well and in 1969 we attended the first meeting of Women's Liberation in Glebe Point Road, Sydney.

Joyce was like a force of nature in this new movement for the liberation of women. She was enormously energetic, inspired and inspiring.

She played an important role in the establishment of Women's Liberation House, with the first premises being in Alberta Street, Sydney. It ran a contraception and abortion referral service, helping to lead in time to a change in the law.

She helped organise yearly International Women's Day marches. These succeeded in mobilising large numbers of women and some supporting men and assisted to promote and provoke community debate about women's issues.

It was for an IWD broadsheet in 1975 that Joyce wrote a poem “Because We're Women”, that become became very well-known around the world.

She helped organise dozens of conferences, commissions and seminars in which her ideas were influential and her organising ability was often instrumental in the successful outcome. These conferences identified issues like that of domestic violence, and needs, such as for women's refuges.

She was part of a group of women who turned a small property in Glebe into “Elsie”, the first women's refuge in Australia.

She was also part of establishing the Leichhardt Women's Health Centre in 1974 and the Liverpool Women's Health Centre in 1975.

She helped produce the first Women's Liberation newspaper, MeJane, and the first socialist- feminist magazine, Scarlet Woman.

She was also an historian of the movement. In 1985 Joyce wrote A History of International Women's Day. In 1987 she wrote Taking the Revolution Home – Work Among Women in the Communist Party of Australia – 1920-1945. In 1991 Lightening the Load: Women at Work – A History of WEAC 1982-1989.

Her contribution, influence and impact were enormous.

In her personal life, Joyce separated from Jim when she was 42. Her dearest and most enduring relationship after that was with Margot who continued to visit and support and love Joyce through her later years when she was not well and could no longer live at home. Margot, along with Jenny, was with Joyce on her last day.

Joyce was loved by many, she was deeply and widely respected, she was entirely ethical, had enormous integrity, she was always dignified, she was self effacing and above all, she was inspiring. She achieved so much and made such a difference to the society in which she lived.