Women’s History Month: Helen McCulloch

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Helen McCulloch started her political activism at the University of Tasmania, drawing attention to apartheid in South Africa. When she moved to Monash, she got involved in the Labor Club there, including serving on the Club’s committee, and supporting the idea of sending non-specified aid to the North Vietnamese. Here, she discusses the importance of women being involved in the anti-war and anti-conscription movement.

Helen McCulloch interview


Alex: So I mean, as I said, I’m interested in the actions and the motivations of the women who were involved, partly because it is leading into quote, unquote, second wave feminism and those things. But it’s not, I guess, I’m not just interested about it as – from that perspective, but more as, as you said, at the start, you know, because women couldn’t be conscripted. There have been people that I’ve read from the time who are like, you’re not personally involved – their words not mine – so why do you care? 

Helen: I was personally involved. It was my friends who were threatened.

Alex: Yeah. So this is I guess what I’m trying to get at is, clearly it’s a personal and political issue. So – 

Helen: The issue is so – bites so much harder, if it is personal. But even if it’s not, you know, like the apartheid in South Africa, you still stand up for principle.

Alex: Do you think that it would have been different if women had not been involved in the demonstrations and the posting up of posters?

Helen: It may well have been – the cops might have hit harder.

Alex: Interesting. Do you think maybe women being present, there was still a little bit of chivalry? 

Helen: Yeah, there was a little bit of chivalry, you know, when we were caught sticking up posters – there were four of us – we took shelter in the car. The cops surrounded the car. They said, Out of the car, gentlemen; we all got out and said oh, one of them’s a girl. No, I think there was a little bit of chivalry still involved yes. 

Alex: Do you think there would’ve –

Helen: But they didn’t, they didn’t quite know what to do with it.

Alex: Yeah, I have wondered that. Because it feels – I mean, obviously the World War One women were involved then. But women hadn’t really been on the streets so much in terms of protest, really, until the ’60s with anti apartheid and so on. 

Helen: But there’s also appearance, you know, I think a lot of it – this was the time when the boys grew their hair long and their beards and dressed in bright coloured clothes. And the girls had long hair, they didn’t have beards, but they dressed in bright coloured clothes, too. So we all looked very similar to each other. And I think that’s a good thing, basically, because people don’t make this big distinction as much. You know, I’ve heard older people look at the hippies and say, Ah, you can’t tell who’s a boy and who’s a girl. But, you know, if you’re one of them, you know.

Alex: Do you think that there was a difference in the way the public saw the issue because there were women involved as well?

Helen: I don’t know. I don’t know. Jean McLean was the respectable end; she was saying save our sons. She was appealing to mother instinct, which you can always rely on mother instinct to tap. Yes. And we were talking about the justice or not attacking of Vietnam, which is a different question.

Alex: Do you think both of those were necessary or important in that time? 

Helen: Everything’s important to help get it done.

Alex: I think those are the questions that I had.

If you know a Melbourne woman who was involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

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