Vale Marie Muir: unionist, feminist and fighter

Marie and Ken Muir

Marie Muir was born in 1930 on the NSW Central Coast, the youngest of five children of Doreen Burt and George Jovanovich.

Growing up with the surname Jovanovich in the 1930s and ’40s meant Marie was often called a “wog”, but Marie said it taught her acceptance of all people, regardless of their creed or colour, and to show compassion and tolerance to others.

The family moved to Sydney when Marie was accepted into the selective Sydney Girls High School.

In 1948, she won a scholarship to Sydney’s Teachers College to study Infants Education. While still a student, she joined the NSW Teacher’s Federation and remained an active member until the day she died.

Marie was an activist all her life, perhaps because she was born on July 14, Bastille Day. She often said she thought she was born a revolutionary.

In 1950, Marie was appointed to her first school and two years later transferred to Scone District Rural School, where her parents lived.

There she met Ken, an industrial arts teacher at the local secondary school. Marie always said her marriage to Ken had been arranged by the NSW Department of Education. They were married on May 2, 1953.

Unionist

Marie and Ken were active in many union campaigns for public education including equal pay and Commonwealth Aid for Education.

Marie fought for toilet paper to be supplied to schools. In those days, teachers had to cut up squares of newspaper for the children.

Marie was horrified. She used to collect tissue paper from the local fruit shop for the children to use.

Marie began a campaign and the school’s Mothers’ Club agreed to supply toilet paper, but only for the students. The staff went without.

Marie continued her campaign and eventually, the Department of Education supplied toilet paper to school — for both students and teachers.

Marie and Ken moved back to Sydney in 1955 and in November William Roderic (known as Rod) was born.

In 1956, Marie returned to teaching. In those days, it was not done for women to return to work so soon after a child was born. But Marie remained true to herself and, with Ken’s support, continued teaching.

Marie took a break from teaching after I was born, but in May 1963 she returned to teaching as a casual. To be appointed to the permanent staff you needed to agree to teach anywhere in the state, which prevented many women from being made permanent.

Marie decided to challenge the Department of Education. She applied for permanency and when asked during the interview if she would go to Broken Hill replied: “Of course, if you transfer my husband too, he is an industrial arts teacher.”

The Department official retorted: “That may not suit the Department’s staffing needs.”

Marie went straight to the Teacher’s Federation and told then general secretary Ivor Lancaster what had happened. He immediately contacted the Department of Education and threatened them with media headlines of: “Department of Education actively breaks up families”.

Marie was given permanency.

In the 1970s, in collaboration with two other teachers, Marie wrote a text book, Mathematics Evaluation Procedures. All proceeds from the book went to Stewart House, a not-for-profit organisation to help children in public schools.

In 1976, Marie was invited to the United States to talk about infant education and in 1977 she was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal for services to infant education.

In 1980 she represented the Australian Teacher’s Union at the World Congress of Teachers in the Cook Islands.

By then Marie was Infants Mistress at Wahroonga Public School.

Feminist

The Department of Education decided to amalgamate the infants and primary promotions lists. Under the system, teachers could not transfer from running an infants’ school to running an equivalent primary school, even though the roles were comparable.

But infants mistresses were all women and primary principals were mostly men. The department intended to amalgamate the promotions list and put all infants mistress at the bottom of the primary list, rather than rank them by date of acceptance on the list.

This systemic discrimination against women was too much for Marie.

With the support of the Teachers Federation, in 1982 Marie began a class action with Marie Breen and others before the Equal Employment Opportunity Tribunal. The tribunal found in her favour, declaring that the department had engaged in systemic discrimination against women.

Marie was invited to speak at professional and union meetings about the class action. At one meeting, Marie was referred to as a “menopausal lesbian”. Marie voiced her objection to being called menopausal, but said being called a lesbian had not offended her.

There is a saying: “Well behaved, polite women seldom make history”. Marie was always respectful and she was always polite, but she did speak up and she did make history.

Following the class action in 1982, Marie was appointed principal at Granville South Primary School, where she stayed until she retired.

Granville South was a disadvantaged school: 75% of the school population was from a migrant background with the majority from Middle Eastern countries.

Many of the parents found it difficult to believe a woman could be the principal. This did not perturb Marie: her sense of equality and fairness kicked in.

She formed a Mother’s Club and for three years ran the New Opportunities for Women (NOW) course at the local TAFE college, which educated women about many things. Marie always believed that with education comes empowerment and choice.

Marie loved music, saying it gave her great joy and comfort. She played the piano, sang constantly and was renowned for getting up at any event and singing or leading the group in song.

Marie used to participate in music classes with all students.

Once, close to Anzac Day, Marie chose Bob Dylan’s "Blowing in the Wind" for a Year 5 class to sing. She talked about the song’s meaning, trying to explain the futility of war. She told the class that governments declare war on another country, and soldiers go off and fight soldiers from another country who they don’t even know.

One boy put his hand up and said: “Mrs Muir, that’s stupid.” Marie thought she was getting somewhere.

But then the boy went on to say: “It’s much better to fight someone you know than someone you don’t know”. Clearly, she had more work to do.

In 1983, Marie stood for deputy president of the Teachers Federation, as part of a team with Max Taylor. The National Civic Council campaigned against her and she lost the election.

She was upset, not so much because she lost, but because she lost to a group of candidates who had never even attended a union meeting.

Fighter

Marie retired in 1985 and in 1986 attended the World Congress of the International Year of Peace in Copenhagen. In 1987, she attended the Women’s International Congress in Moscow. That same year, she and Ken attended the Close Pine Gap demonstration in the Northern Territory.

In 1991, she attended the Women’s Voices in the Pacific conference in Vanuatu, which was addressing the problem of Pacific countries serving as atomic testing grounds.

Later in 1991, Marie and Ken went to El Salvador as election observers. There, she witnessed oppression and poverty and US aid being used by the Salvadoran army to control the drug trade.

Marie said she found the women of El Salvador courageous. Some had been thrown into jail for opposing the regime, where they were gang raped and released without charge.

In San Salvador on International Women’s Day, Marie joined the march even though the streets were lined with soldiers with guns. The march ended at the town’s square outside the church where Archbishop Romero had been shot and killed.

People were asked to speak and Marie jumped up and said: “Greetings to the women of El Salvador from the women of Australia.”

Marie also joined a study tour of Vietnam with APHEDA-Union Aid Abroad. On returning to Australia, her submission for aid funding for a Women’s Union was successful.

In 2004, Marie returned to Vietnam and visited the Women’s Union which, partly because of her work, had grown into a substantial group.

For her last 15 years, Marie was an active member of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library.

Marie was a warm and inclusive person, with the ability to lift anyone’s spirits. She instilled in all who knew her a sense of worth, wisdom, happiness and the ability to go out and enjoy life to the fullest.

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