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Heagney, Muriel Agnes (1885–1974)

Muriel Heagney, one of the pioneers of the women's movement in Australia and an important figure in labor history, died on April 14.

In 1935 Muriel Heagney published a book entitled "Are Women Taking Men's Jobs" and dedicated it to: "the women of all lands whose aspirations and organisation for equal status, equal pay and equality of opportunity are embodied in the reports quoted in this survey of women's work".

The book detailed the conditions of work undertaken by women in Victoria and received considerable verbal support and praise from Labor politicians, women's organisations and trade unions. For its time, the book was quite revolutionary. It argued for an "open door" policy against restrictions on women in many occupations. Given that this was a period of great unemployment, Muriel Heagney, and other feminists, directed much of their argument to men in the labor movement.

Vida Goldstein, one of many who contributed statements to the book, wrote, for example: "The information compiled by Muriel Heagney should be a strong incentive to women to work vigorously for an equal status with men in any activity they wish to enter, and to destroy the false valuation they have allowed custom and prejudice to place upon themselves and their work. Women do not seek to restrain men from becoming dressmakers, milliners, etc. If men's genius and artistry enable them to take precedence of women in these callings, well and good, but let equal tolerance and justice be exercised towards women".

Muriel Heagney was long associated with the labor and trade union movements but her pioneering work found little response. It is only in recent times, primarily because of the development of the women's movements for liberation, that advances have been made in the spheres to which Muriel Heagney devoted her energies and great talent.

Her passing was almost unmarked in the daily press but Elizabeth Reid, special adviser to the Prime Minister, wrote the following words of tribute in a letter to the editor of The Age:

"Muriel Heagney, whose father was a founder of the Australian Labor Party, was at times during her life a clerk in the Defence Department, a waitress in a Melbourne hospital, a worker at a Leeton cannery, a school teacher, a trade union organiser.

"She attended the first Pan Pacific Women's Conference where she represented the Labor Women's Committee of Victoria and New South Wales. In 1923 she represented the Australian Labor Party and the Victorian trade unions at the British Empire Labor Conference and stayed on in Europe to work for a few years in the ILO office in Geneva. In 1931 she contested the Booroondarra seat and like many women candidates in impossible electorates polled an increased number of votes for the Labor Party. At different times she carried out investigations into the clothing trade and into conditions of women workers, in the iron trade.

"The debt that the women of Australia and the Australian labor movement owe her arises from her lifelong work into all problems affecting women both in and out of employment. However, her particular fight was for equal wage rights and her slogan was: Equal pay, equal status and equality of opportunity. In 1937 she prepared and presented her own submission on equal pay to the Arbitration Court. The chief judge summed up against her: 'The results would be calamitous the male wage may have to come down'.

"She lived to see the decisions of the 1972 and, more particularly, the 1974 national wage cases, but, sadly, her fight by then had been forgotten."

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Citation details

'Heagney, Muriel Agnes (1885–1974)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/heagney-muriel-agnes-6620/text35062, accessed 22 August 2019.

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