Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2021

Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War, by Carolyn Collins

Today, it seems incredible that there was a time not so long ago that an Australian government conscripted men too young to vote and sent them off to fight in a foreign war.  They were selected through a lottery based on their birthdates, and all of them lost their freedom while forced to undergo national service for two years.  They were sent to Vietnam, where some were killed, some were injured and some still suffer PTSD as a consequence.

And what is even more extraordinary is that after Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser introduced conscription in 1964, they were re-elected in 1966 and in 1969.  Everyone who voted Liberal in those years, in my steadfast opinion, has blood on their hands.

One of the earliest protest movements against this disgraceful episode in Australia’s history was Save Our Sons, founded in 1965 by a group of housewives from the Upper North Shore in Sydney.  It evolved until it was Australia wide, morphing from a very respectable and law-abiding movement to one which was involved in more radical and illegal activities, involving jail time for some of its members including the Fairlea Five.

Carolyn Collins’ very readable and interesting history of Save Our Sons begins with the emergence of the movement throughout Australia.  Now, it seems very old-fashioned that they emphasised their domesticity and maternal instincts as elements in the morality of their campaigns, but in the 1960s it was newsworthy and powerful when in their first press release, the women denounced conscription as ‘morally wrong’, issuing ‘a distress call — SOS — to mothers everywhere.

Their early forays were tentative, relying on peaceful, lawful and well established means of protests, including their signature ‘silent vigil’.  But as war and conscription dragged on, and the death and injury toll in Vietnam rose, many abandoned their genteel tactics and became more radical: scandalising Melbourne Cup goers in their scanty anti-war fashions; hijacking a Billy Graham evangelical rally; holding and publicising parties to fill in false conscription papers; refusing to pay their taxes; threatening to go on hunger strikes; padlocking themselves to Canberra’s Parliament House; and actively assisting young men to break the law.  In the 1970s they joined other protest groups to organise the moratorium activities and helped conscientious objectors and draft resisters avoid the authorities, moving them between a network of ‘safe houses’ they helped to establish. (p. xiii)

The B&W photos, however, show peaceful protests of women in hats and gloves and sensible shoes — except for one, taken at the Ky protest in Brisbane, showing Queensland SOS secretary Vilma Ward and Norma Chalmers, with her stockings torn and a fractured heel after police dragged her along the ground.  Queensland was notorious at the time for the way it repressed dissent and SOS also became involved in the civil rights campaign for free speech and the right to assembly.

Collins covers more of the movements in Sydney and Melbourne, mainly because more of their activities were documented. The Sydney group was more formal so there are minutes in the archives, while the Melbourne group was more loosely organised.  Collins was able to access ASIO files as well as newspaper coverage, and some members still living were interviewed.

Chapter 8, ironically titled ‘Fan Mail’ shows that abusive commentary is nothing new.  Reflecting on their time in SOS, many of these women recount ostracism and worse: the abuse of their children; filthy letters and phone calls making violent threats; intra-family conflict; workplace hostility; and unsupportive husbands.  There was also surveillance and police intimidation, and the widespread accusation that they were communists and unpatriotic.

   …SOS women, in their middle-class uniforms, created a conflicting and unsettling image, standing out at a time when the public image of women was domestic, maternal and passive, rather than political and active.  As women perceived to be acting outside their traditional domestic roles, they drew a strong current of disapproval that implied, both implicitly and explicitly, that they were ‘bad mothers’ and ‘neglectful wives.’ (p.209)

It was their support for one another, and their sense of purpose and deep-felt belief that what they were doing was ‘the right thing’ that sustained them.

According to Collins, there is some disagreement about the impact of SOS, with opinions ranging from the belief that their contribution was vastly underestimated to suggesting that they were just one of a number of groups involved in the anti-conscription campaign. But in the final analysis what matters to me is that they acted on a moral imperative and did what was within their means to do.

I admire people who do that.

This book is also reviewed at Inside Story.

Author: Carolyn Collins
Title: Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War
Publisher: Monash University Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781925835960, pbk., 338 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. “Everyone who voted Liberal in those years, in my steadfast opinion, has blood on their hands.” Hear, Hear! I attended many speeches by SOS women in those years and was arrested with them one Saturday handing out leaflets (“publishing material against the war”) on the steps of the Melbourne GPO and subsequently spent a pleasant afternoon crowded into the cells – stone dungeons really – beneath the old Magistrates Court.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve been there too, bailing out a protestor clinging to the bars while a bunch of Chinese gamblers played fantan in the background. It was quite ‘educational’ but not quite as educational as sitting through the subsequent court case.
      I became friends with one of the Fairlea Five through a mutual friend many years later, but though of course they and other people I know are named in the book, I haven’t named any of them in case this is something they’d rather not revisit now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These women and the growth of the moratoriums in Sydney were so important in my own political growth. As a young mother of four I could not participate but cheered them all the way. I agree with your assessment of those who voted those Liberal governments and feel the same and even more so through this horrid time of Australian politics from the same team. What a disgrace.

    Like

    • What makes me more cross than anything else is how careless people are with their vote. They’re not interested in politics, they say, without considering how the welfare of other people is affected by who wins and who doesn’t.
      It doesn’t take much time or effort to be familiar with the main policies.

      Like

  3. My brother was in the last year of the draft in the US. He probably wouldn’t have been taken – his birthday was assigned something like #262, and he had physical things that would have prevented his being taken if he’d had a lower number. But the thing is, because me, my sister and I had consecutive social security numbers, and my brother and my sister had the same birthday, only two years apart, plus the same middle initial, they somehow thought they had duplicate cards and pulled brother’s card from their files when they were pulling all the female ones from previous years, so he never signed up for the draft. He was therefore pardoned by President Carter among all the other people who just never registered or didn’t know they had to!

    Like

    • Just chance…
      And for others, it was just chance the other way.
      I don’t know that any pardons have ever been issued here in Australia…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gough pardoned us all as soon as he was elected in 1972

        Like

        • Are you sure about that? Correct me if I’m wrong….Our PM doesn’t have the same powers as an American President, and any formal power to pardon would have been restricted to anyone convicted under Commonwealth legislation, but not state law. And if Draft Resisters and Conscientious Objectors were pardoned, what about all the protestors convicted of this and that, some of them under the Commonwealth Crimes Act and others under state laws of trespass, affray, etc?

          Like

          • Well yes, I don’t suppose the offences confected by the state governments to hinder protests were pardoned, and the Commonwealth didn’t offer me my fine back for publishing a document to encourage a breach of the law (handing out pamphlets). But the major offences relating to failure to participate in the conscription process were.

            Like

            • One thing I do know: a law student protestor convicted under the Commonwealth Crimes Act could not practise law, and I bet certain other ‘sensitive’ occupations shut their doors as well. Whether this unfairness was ever redressed I don’t know.
              And isn’t it interesting that we still don’t know? Is anybody researching this history of Vietnam protests?

              Like

  4. My goodness – I don’t think I had any idea that young men were conscripted from Australia to fight in Vietnam… However could that be justified with America being as you say a foreign country??? Was Australia not still part of the commonwealth???? I confess my terrible ignorance here, but this seems very shocking…

    Like

    • Ah, well, it’s a bit of a long story, and it goes back to the Fall of Singapore…
      Australia then realised that Britain was not an ally that could be relied on for help. In fact, historically, it’s been the other way round. As in the Boer War and WW1, Australia sent soldiers to help Britain from the outset of the WW2, but when the war in the Pacific began and we needed them for our own defence, Churchill refused to send them back from Burma and our PM John Curtin had to put up a staunch fight for them.
      So Australia turned to the US and although we’re still part of the Commonwealth, the US is our most important ally. Thus we have ever since, not always wisely, joined in America’s ventures (in the possibly deluded belief that if we support them, they’ll support us when we need it). A defence expert would know more about this than me, but I think that although there would be an American in overall charge, e.g. Macarthur in WW2, our soldiers always deploy under Australian command and in our own units, and in particular under our own Rules of Engagement (because we don’t approve of theirs).

      Liked by 1 person


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