There’s a familiar saying that if you can remember the sixties, then you weren’t really there. When many people think of Australia in the 1960s, they picture an era of protests, sexual exploration and counter revolutions staged namely by the baby-boom generation that began reaching maturity and exercising their influence against restrictive legislation, morals and social issues within Australian society.
While it was certainly a socially turbulent era of Australia’s history, consisting of large-scale protests and public demonstrations, this assumption that the 1960s social movements were largely organised by youth and student movements denies a wide variety of other demographics that played a substantial role in protesting social concerns. What many don’t associate with the Swinging Sixties is the thousands of mothers who left the security of their homes and entered the public sphere, publicly protesting Australian ant-conscription legislation.
This group of mothers called themselves ‘Save Our Sons’ (or SOS for short).
(Save Our Sons protesting in Melbourne, http://www.rmwebed.com.au/web_resources/y10history/vietnam_war/9.html)
SOS was founded as a non-political and non-religious movement in May 1965 by Joyce Golgerth of Sydney, who claimed the organisation intended to motivate mothers to discuss opposition to the Government’s conscription legislation that compelled twenty-year old males, not even legal allowed to vote, to serve overseas in Vietnam. The group successfully created monthly newsletters and staged various protests throughout the Vietnam War period, which included organised petitions and rallies, letter writing, peaceful demonstrations, silent vigils and the distribution of educational leaflets at Army Barracks or railway stations that promoted the rights of conscientious objectors and draft resistors.
(Save Our Sons holding a silent vigil in Sydney,
Throughout history, women have used their validity and status as both mothers and carers to protest issues of war and violence. During the 1960s several global organisations, bound by the notion of motherhood, attempted to successfully organise political campaigns, however to little avail. So, how did SOS successfully concise their campaign in Australia when no other global organisation was as effective?
(Another Mother for Peace founders with two Congressional Representatives,
The U.S. women’s organisation ‘Another Mother for Peace’ (AMP) largely consisted of middle-class mothers and successfully reached a height of over 20,000 members by the late 1960s. However, David Krieger argues despite their high membership numbers the AMP campaign remained unsuccessful due to their inability to ‘ignite’ and their ineffective means of only supporting letter writing as a means of protest. In contrast, Michael Caulfield’s The Vietnam Years describes the potency of the SOS protests as housewives ‘stood there in their hats, gloves and sensible shoes… brandishing their blue and white banners with slogans hand-printed on their aprons’. These mothers had left their homes in a new form of public protest that challenged both the status quo and threatened previously defined gender roles. While SOS also partook in letter writing, it was these public representations that SOS successfully brought an air of respectability and influence to civil protests that had not been seen before.
(Save our Sons silent protest outside Addison Road Military Depot, c. 1968,
The Mothers’ Union (MU), founded in Britain, was similarly identified as conservative, middle-class and mainstream in the sense that the organisation appealed to mothers because of the groups distance from political and feminist affairs. Despite the initial appeal, the failure of MU in Britain can be compared to the success and support received by the Australian Labor Party on the issue of conscription, without SOS maintaining any formal political attachments. SOS’s ability to promote an independent position strengthened the focus on member’s commonalities as women and mothers, without intentionally conflicting on any political or religious grounds.
The U.S. ‘Women Strike for Peace’ (WSP) were formed namely by white, middle-class, college-educated and politically informed women and mothers who maintained a strong and acctive public presence. Despite initially protesting the Cold War and nuclear warfare, by 1965 Amy Swerdlow (an active participant in WSP), confirmed the WSP retained solid opposition to conscription and began heavily protesting the drafting of U.S. soldiers. Although some WSP women utilised conventional sentiments of motherhood to influence social outcomes, many of whom had sons eligible to be drafted, their resistance to formal membership and radical critiques of a wide variety of social issues eventually led to a period of strong activity, followed by a state of little or no change eventually losing numbers and momentum as issues changed, were ratified or became irrelevant.
(Women Strike for Peace protest in New York, c. 1969,
John Murphy’s Harvest of Fear states SOS’s silent vigils, embroidered sashes, respectably dressed middle-class women and the women’s use of language faithful to liberal democracy and rational argument presented the SOS organisation as ‘distinctly genteel’. This strategy of coordinating a coherent image reveals significant awareness of the way SOS desired to be portrayed and was important in representing a modest yet determined use of public space that eventually drew positive and progressive television and newspaper reports from the media, successfully projecting the women as passive yet concerned mothers.
This successful use of language and symbols that distinctly reflected motherhood was integral to the success of the organisation. Despite the knowledge that SOS was by no means a universal experience, the organisation was able to succinctly transfer their own understandings of motherhood into the public sphere in order to form a powerful and resilient identity that successfully protested the male dominated issue of conscription.
Suggested Further Reading
Caulfield, Michael. The Vietnam Years: From the Jungle to the Australian Suburbs, Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2007.
Curthoys Ann. ‘Shut Up you Bourgeois Bitch: Sexual identity and political action in the anti-
Vietnam War movement’ in Damousi, J. & Lake, M. (eds) Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century, London: CUP Archive, 1995.
McHugh, Siobhan. Minefields & Miniskirts : Australian Women and the Vietnam War, Sydney: Doubleday, 1993.
Murphy, John. Harvest of Fear: A History of Australia’s Vietnam War, Sydney: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd, 1993.