The Fairlea Five: Jail Birds or Freedom Fighters?

The year was 1965, the Menzies government introduced Australian conscription into Vietnam War and mothers were outraged for the lives of their sons. To be a conscientious objector was to condemn yourself to being ostracized; to be a woman protesting the war was to be a scandal against both ‘womanly’ behaviour and identity. Five brave women spoke out against the injustice of conscription, and were consequently jailed for their actions. May 5th 1971 marks the day that the five women, Jean McLean, Joan Coxsedge, Irene Miller, Chris Cathie and Jo Maclaine-Cross were arrested for handing out anti-conscription pamphlets on government property. The five women were part of the anti-conscription and anti-war movement Save Our Sons (SOS). The movement itself was made up of mothers fighting to protect their sons from the horrors of war. Save Our Sons was a peaceful movement that was created to protest against the war and conscription. They achieved their goals through many peaceful activities including: demonstrations, candlelight vigils, letters to politicians and handing out anti-conscription leaflets (SOS Newsletter, 1965).

Fairlea 5 - SOS protest

SOS Women – Silent Vigil 1968 – Pauline Armstrong

The Fairlea Five were named for their fourteen day prison sentence in Melbourne’s Fairlea Prison after being the first civilians charged by the Summary Offences Act of 1971. The Act aimed to limit the rights of protesters; including acts of obstruction and trespassing (gazette.slv.vic.gov.au/images/1971/V/general/28.pdf). Following the SOS tradition of distributing anti-conscription and anti-war leaflets, the Fairlea Five went to the Department of Labor and National Service to inform boys about the Vietnam War and the right to be contentious objectors. They were allowed to distribute their leaflets until a young man talked to the Fairlea Five and decided against enlisting. The Fairlea Five refused to leave and were eventually arrested by police and informed they would be required to attend court for willfully trespassing on government property and refusing to leave after being warned by authorised personal.

The Five were brought before a judge and sentenced to fourteen days in Fairlea Prison without the possibility of paying a fine. The jail sentence was shocking news to both the Five’s families and the Australian public (for not being given an option of paying a fine). The judge’s harsh punishment promoted hype in media and helped promote the SOS cause. After a spike in media attention, the women were offered an appeal; however, they were determined to stay the full prison term despite the harsh prison conditions. Historian Armstrong, in A History Of The Save Our Sons Movement Of Victoria (1991) expressed that the Five’s popularity over the jail sentence became evident when more than eight hundred men and women held a vigil outside of Fairlea Prison until the Five were released. Not only did the jailing of the Five inspire a vigil, people deliberately trespassed in public areas to show solidarity, the clergy preached about the women’s bravery, workers embargoed docks and newspapers continued to support the women. The Fairlea Five’s imprisonment inspired people to take action; to stand against authority based on principle.

Fairlea 5 - protest

Children of the Fairlea Five protesting their release – 1971. Pauline Armstrong.

Fairlea 5 - Children

Fairlea Five Families outside Fairlea Prison – 1971. Pauline Armstrong.

This type of demonstration against authority was similar to the principles of the ‘New Left’ movement that the Vietnam War strengthened. Historian Marks, in The New Left and Australian Nationalism (2011) claimed that the ‘New Left’ were opposed to “authoritarianism, paternalism, oppression, colonialism and imperialism”. In this respect, the Fairlea Five conformed to ‘New Left’ ideology in regards to opposing authority, paternalism and oppression. However, from a feminist perspective, ‘New Left’ radicals were mainly engendered towards masculine politics, confrontation and violence, which the Fairlea Five were completely against.

Fairlea 5 - Release

The Fairlea Five – upon their release in 1971. Pauline Armstrong

So, what do the Fairlea Five tell us about the Save Our Sons Movement? Their actions show the fierce determination that women had for their cause and reflect the type of actions and ideologies that were involved in the SOS. These women were not only fighting against the Vietnam War and conscription, they were synonymously fighting in the name of feminism. The 70s began Women’s Liberation which moved away from feminism that focused on civil rights, and moved towards changing society as a whole. The Fairlea Five are key examples of women who tried to change social ideology with their prison sentence. Both newspapers The Australian and The Herald (1971) wrote about the injustice of the jail sentence, stating that as mothers, they shouldn’t be condemned in such a harsh manner. The women, however, were committed to their convictions. Although the media wanted mercy for mothers, the Fairlea Five rejected this as an act of opposing government law. If they had left prison on the basis of being mothers, their cause would have been weakened. From a Women’s Liberation perspective, this action moved towards educating the public on social inequality. If the gender roles were reversed, a father would not have been offered an appeal based on being a father for the same offence. Through their actions, the Fairlea Five showed the patriotic aims outlined in the SOS Movement, the peaceful activism that the ‘New Left’ lacked and revealed the type of empowered women that were contributing to the Women’s Liberation Movement for social change.

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One comment on “The Fairlea Five: Jail Birds or Freedom Fighters?

  1. miikkaela says:

    Reading this has illuminated my view of the significance of the Women’s anti-war movements at this time. I particularly like that these five women were non-violent and demonstrated not only their convictions to the cause but also how it highlights the gender inequalities at the time. It was a a lovely and interesting piece to read! Well done!

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