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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Dawn Olive Gietzelt (1926–2015)

by Dale Gietzelt

In the mid-20th century, when female roles were far more proscribed, many women took a rear seat to support their husbands and raise their children.

Yet this did not stop women such as Dawn Gietzelt from achieving a great deal in their own right.

Dawn Olive Haslam was born in Melbourne on June 21, 1926, the second daughter of Bob Haslam, a bookmaker, and his wife, Muriel (nee Tilley).

Bob’s income disappeared in the Depression and the family had to move.

They settled near Parramatta when Dawn was five, but they were very poor.

The family was politically oriented. Dawn attended large rallies with her parents, protesting about the mass unemployment and the rise of the far-right New Guard.

Dawn finished primary school as dux, and, although she hated study, was strongly urged by her parents to go to high school.

She went to Parramatta High School and, at 16, passed exams in French run by the Alliance Francaise.

As a teenager Dawn joined the Australian Labor League of Youth (known as ALLY). 

When she was 18, she noticed groups of mainly young lads lounging around Granville station.

Then she saw a story in the local paper that the council was prepared to fund any worthy scheme that would take youth off the streets.

She hatched a plan and presented her idea, that the council buy an old shop and turn it into a community centre, at a council meeting.

Her presentation made the front page of the paper but unfortunately not the council’s plans.

Dawn’s first job was in a factory painting boards for tanks and planes during Wold War II.

It wasn’t long before she landed in the first of many heated battles over work and pay conditions and learned the value of being in a union.

Within a couple of years, she had a clerical job in the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction then transferred to the department’s library. 

She flourished there and eventually completed formal training to become a qualified librarian.

In the 1940s, Dawn regularly went to the Speakers’ Corner in the Domain on Sundays, stood on a soapbox and lectured on politics.

Her father said, ‘‘Throw a stone into a pack of wolves and the one that yelps is the one that’s hurt. You’re getting to those right-wing louts. Keep it up!’’ And so she did.

Her research and library skills landed her roles as a librarian in what is now the CSIRO, then the National Standards Library and later the Australian Medical Association.

In 1948, Dawn was introduced to Arthur Gietzelt by a mutual friend and their first date was the Rockdale RSL sub-branch annual ball.

During their courtship, Arthur would play the piano to Dawn over the phone.

They married in 1949.

Early in their married life, Dawn and Arthur looked after a nine-year-old indigenous boy, Cecil Graham, who was in an old men’s home and hospital in Liverpool, away from his family in western NSW, for medical treatment. Dawn and Arthur arranged to collect Cecil for visits and took him on outings, such as to Cronulla, where he saw the ocean for the first time.

The Gietzelts supported the congresses organised by the Australian International Co-operation and Disarmament Committee. 

They would set off together around their local area with Ban the Bomb petitions, and later marched together on the front line at large peace rallies.

In the early 1950s, Dawn joined the Miranda branch of the ALP.

Near the end of her first branch meeting, Gough Whitlam asked if there was any other business. 

That was her cue to start a passionate speech about banning atom bombs, and suggest it should be discussed at the upcoming ALP conference.

Her motion was passed unanimously, but Whitlam later deflated her hopes when he informed her it wouldn’t make it past the Federal Electoral Council.

She was learning the realities of grassroots democracy.

Around this time, Whitlam stood for the first time for the federal seat of Werriwa, and the Gietzelts ran the Sutherland Shire portion of his campaign.

Dawn catered all day for the helpers – a mammoth task for a new mother with a young baby.

The day after Whitlam’s victory, he came over to thank Arthur – Dawn was not amused that he did not thank her.

The mid-1950s also saw Dawn join a committee for a local primary school in North Caringbah.

She organised a petition and walked the untarred streets with her new daughter in a pram and three-year-old son Lee in tow, collecting signatures.

The school was built and in 2005/06 she was proud to take part in its 50th anniversary celebrations.

When their newly built home in North Caringbah was about to be surrounded with factories with a change in zoning, Arthur stood as a councillor on Sutherland Shire Council and was elected in 1956, and got the industrial zoning limited to areas away from homes.

Arthur became [president] in late 1960, and it wasn’t long before Dawn was opening flower shows, sports events and speaking at women’s functions.

She became patron of International Women’s Day, the first in the shire, and stayed patron for a decade.

She also became a long-term patron for Guide Dogs Australia.

Dawn’s anti-war activities continued in the mid-1960s, when she gave up being a librarian at the Australian Medical Association to establish a library for the Australian peace movement.

She was arrested in the late 1960s for urging young men not to register for National Service. The charge against her was eventually withdrawn.

She also worked to achieve a Yes vote in the 1967 referendum that gave the federal government specific power to make laws regarding Indigenous affairs.

The Gietzelts were at the centre of the 1970 bicentennial celebrations, and were presented to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

Dawn often joked that during the procession from Engadine to Kurnell, many people waved to her, thinking she was the Queen.

In 1971, life was even busier – in March, their house was bombed, in July, Arthur became a senator, and in August they adopted five-week-old Adam.

Dawn gave up work to care for Adam because Arthur was in Canberra for several days almost every week.

Dawn was Arthur’s chief supporter but also his chief critic.

She was his political sounding board and would provide insights for him within the ALP and beyond.

Many of their Labor friends benefited from her, and Arthur’s, thoughts and ideas.

In 1994, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke presented Dawn and Arthur with life membership of the ALP at a dinner at the Tradies (the local trade union club that Arthur was instrumental in establishing). 

They were also presented with life memberships to the club.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Dawn stayed active as a volunteer in council-run childcare centres.

In 2013, the Gietzelts’ health deteriorated and they moved to an aged care facility. 

Arthur died of cancer in early 2014. Recently, Dawn was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer. Shortly afterwards, she died of a stroke.

Dawn Gietzelt is survived by children Lee, Dale and Adam, their partners and grandchildren Tom, Jarrah and Skye.

Original publication

Citation details

Dale Gietzelt, 'Gietzelt, Dawn Olive (1926–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/gietzelt-dawn-olive-33771/text42274, accessed 26 May 2024.

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