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Shirley Andrews

(1915 to 2001)

Shirley Andrews

Source: Courtesy Alison Holland

'Our ancestors have left us an unpaid debt to these people, and we must make a special effort to carry out our responsibilities, not with any spirit of "doing good", but as a duty long neglected.' Shirley Andrews.

Shirley Andrews became Honorary Secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights in Victoria in 1952. Over the next 16 years she worked both in this Council as well as in the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) to pressure governments to repeal discriminatory legislation. Her campaigns not only pointed out to white Australians the racism evident in such laws but encouraged political activism.

In an interview in 1996 Shirley spoke of one of the strategies:

Barry and I went up to a conference in Cairns which Joe [McGinness] invited us to, and we just paid our own fares you know, because we were interested in it. I think that was the time Gordon and I put over a bit of a stunt really. I can't remember who the other woman was, whether it was Kath Walker. I don't think it was Faith because I think it was before she was active but the female members of the group anyway put on their best and we went to a rather posh hotel, you see, went into the lounge and ordered drinks and we got thrown out which is what we expected and Gordon and I, you know, had it all teed up. He rang up his pet journalist and it was on the front pages of some of the newspapers. I enjoyed that.

When she became Secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights she was 37 years old, and working as a research biochemist at Royal Park Psychiatric Hospital. Andrews was a member of the Communist Party of Australia, the only political party with a policy on Aboriginal affairs in the 1950s.

As a young woman studying science at the University of Melbourne, Shirley Andrews had experienced sexual discrimination in the male-dominated world of science. She later attributed the widening and sharpening of her understanding of other forms of discrimination to this experience. Andrews worked to counteract discrimination by showing the illogicality of such thinking and the social damage it caused. She argued that, just as it was the responsibility of men as well as women to present the case for equal wages for women (her own wage was 54 per cent of her male counterparts), so it was the responsibility for white as well as black workers to argue for equal wages across the racial divide.

She recalled being shocked by hearing about the control over the wages of two young stockmen:

I remember when I went to the one [conference] at Cairns, being so interested in meeting these two young stockmen who came to the conference and were telling us that they didn't get any wages, they got five dollars or something to spend when they went on an outing. And that was where I heard the story too about another - the policemen up there were often the protectors, so called, and ridiculous rules like they [Aboriginal workers] had their own money in their bank accounts but they couldn't draw it out in the normal way. They had to go and get it through the policemen and I was very affronted to hear this story about this lass. She was a late teenager, had to go and ask the policeman to buy, she wanted to buy another petticoat and he said she had one; that was enough. And you know, I was really shocked at that and it was her own money and what did he think she was going to wear when the petticoat was in the wash?

Andrews helped to establish the Equal Wages for Aborigines committee of FCAA in 1963 and was responsible for much of the planning and conduct of the 1962-63 national petition campaign for a referendum to amend the Australian Constitution to empower the federal government in Aboriginal affairs. She produced what was probably the first state by state comparative chart demonstrating the various ways that Indigenous human rights were infringed by state Aboriginal acts. Shirley Andrews' writings provided a rational, principled basis for why Aboriginal Australians should be equal members of the Australian community, why any form of discrimination was wrong, and why it was pointless to campaign for measures to improve Indigenous lives without addressing economic disadvantage.

Reflecting later on the wages campaign, however, she thought that some critical factors had been missed:

One of the mistakes, you know I always feel bad about, was feeling that you had to get equal rights and that wasn't what was wanted. Because I always felt on the question of wages, you see, that we made a mistake pressing just for equal pay on the cattle stations because we should have realised that what was needed was something different where the Aboriginal people, a whole group of them, you know were paid en masse or something and then they decided what was to be done with the money. Because what happened was that they [the pastoralists] got rid of everyone except their very skilled workers, when they were required to pay better pay but it was always very bad to see that situation where this great big industry with people like Lord Vestey making a fortune and paying twenty pounds income tax or something you know it was all done with Aboriginal labour and skilled labour and dangerous jobs you know, so that always seemed a real sort of sore on the face of the continent more or less that something should be done about. But unfortunately, also as we got better pay, or the unions got the better pay, the cattle industry just happened to strike a downturn as well so it was a disaster in a lot of ways. You know, you can sometimes think you're doing the right thing and you don't understand all the factors being so much more complicated particularly for city slickers you know.

In 1994 Shirley was awarded an OAM.

Source: The extracts on this page are from an interview with Shirley Andrews conducted by Sue Taffe and Leanne Miller on 26 September 1996

Further reading

Jennifer Hibben, Shirley Aldythea Andrews, Obituaries Australia, 2012

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