“The steelworks just dominated the place,” says Lou-anne, a protagonist in the new documentary Women of Steel (2020), directed by Robynne Murphy and produced by the Jobs for Women Film Producers Group.
Lou-anne is referring to the Port Kembla steelworks. Owned by BHP/AIS, during the 1980s, it was the major employer in Wollongong. These steelworks were also the site of the historic antidiscrimination campaign documented in Women of Steel.
Lou-anne arrived in Wollongong in 1980, accompanied by three other young socialists: Robynne (the film’s director), Louise, and Diana. Their goal was to organize women workers in heavy industry. As they soon discovered, the Port Kembla steelworks’ domination wasn’t just economic — it was visible across the whole city. “With the steam coming out . . . it was like a sort of inferno.”
No Jobs for Women
Wollongong, an industrial city with a strong organized labor movement, was a prime target for socialists who aspired, in the late 1970s and ’80s, to bring their politics directly to workers. “I think there’s only been one time that a Liberal candidate has entered Parliament here,” a representative of the Working Women’s Charter tells the filmmakers. “He slipped through the net.” A large population of recent migrants from postwar Europe also called Wollongong home, attracted by the promise of industrial jobs.
Soon after arriving and applying for jobs at the steelworks, the aspiring socialist organizers discovered that BHP systematically discriminated against women. The company typically offered men a job soon after applying but only hired women to work in the canteen. Many women applying for jobs at BHP had migrated from Soviet bloc countries where it wasn’t unusual for women to work in heavy industry. In Wollongong, they often languished on the employment-office waiting list for years.
The young organizers saw an opportunity to mobilize around the demand that BHP hire women, and the Jobs for Women campaign was born. Beginning with a “tent embassy” on Wollongong’s main road, the campaign quickly gained momentum, eventually leading to a historic antidiscrimination court case. As the campaign grew, its scope broadened beyond jobs and began to tackle the broader problem of gender discrimination at work.
“We started to realize that discrimination wasn’t just a personal thing, it was a systemic thing,” says Robynne. This is one of the film’s strengths: by uniting the personal and systematic dimensions of sexism, it persuasively weaves the story of the Jobs for Women campaign into the broader landscape of late twentieth-century Western feminism.
To the credit of the filmmakers, Women of Steel does not focus solely on the organizers as the architects of the campaign. Rather, it showcases their voices and stories alongside those of the migrant women who made up the campaign’s rank and file. These women were not just passive participants in the campaign itself. As Lou-anne points out, it was their idea to organize a public demonstration to increase the pressure on BHP.
This was a powerful strategy. Two days before the demonstration, BHP caved, giving jobs to all thirty-four of the women who had registered as complainants under antidiscrimination legislation. “I feel in life, you have to fight,” says Alicia, one of the complainants. “If people say, you are going to fight against a giant, I don’t care. I have to do it.”
There’s Only One Form of Membership in the Union
One of the most striking aspects of Women of Steel is its portrayal of the solidarity that grew between the young Anglo-Australian organizers and the migrant women of Wollongong.
The linguistic and cultural barriers to solidarity were real. To overcome them, campaign organizers ensured that leaflets were printed in sixteen languages and that interpreters were present in meetings. This highlights the broader question of anti-migrant racism. While most of the women featured in Women of Steel would today be considered white, at the time they were subjected to racism, as were many Europeans who came to Australia in the twentieth century.
This anti-migrant racism was endemic at BHP. Footage from a protest outside an annual general meeting shows a BHP shareholder telling news cameras that “all these people have got the same type of face. They’re foreign, and I’m sure if you went in among them, half of them wouldn’t know how to speak English.”
This didn’t matter to members of the Jobs for Women campaign, who became friends and comrades through their shared experience of struggle. Indeed, the beating heart of Women of Steel is its moving portrayal of this experience.Campaigners built solidarity sleeping in the tent embassy together on the coldest night of the year, or by raucously taking over an entire train carriage on the way up to Sydney for court hearings. “It was a good experience, I reckon,” one of the campaigners tells a news reporter. “We all stick together, we understand each other, support each other.”
The campaign also won international solidarity, including from a delegation of Cuban women visiting Australia. “One of the Cuban women got up [at a dinner] and she said, ‘You’re going to win!’” Robynne recounts. “And I’ll never forget that. Because it was great solidarity, and I think we really needed that.”
Solidarity also flourished between the women who were eventually hired at BHP and their male colleagues. There were instances of sexual harassment, and some men were skeptical of the “feminist types” hired as a result of the Jobs for Women campaign. Despite this, the male Port Kembla steelworkers soon recognized their common interest with the women, in part because of their strong tradition of unionism.
Robynne tells the story of her first day at work in 1981:
Everyone came up and they said, Oh, you’re one of the women! You beat the company! . . . And within a few weeks, I was asked to be a delegate.
We Created Such a Force
Although Women of Steel focuses on a struggle against sexism led by women, it is really a testament to the power of working-class politics to fight misogyny with solidarity. Indeed, Jobs for Women was a significant step towards advancing and solidifying the union movement’s commitment to universalism.
This was powerfully demonstrated in late 1980. Soon after BHP backed down and gave the initial complainants jobs, steel profits slumped, and industrial employers began laying off workers. In response, the unions of the Illawarra organized a protest march and meeting to discuss their strategy.
One member raised the possibility of retrenching married women first — a typical practice at the time. A leader of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association replied: “There’s only one form of membership in the union, and it has nothing to do with whether you’re married, single, male, female, black or white, whatever.”
Shortly after, the women who’d been hired at BHP were retrenched under the “last in, first out” rule, wherein the newest hires are the first to lose their jobs. In response, the Jobs for Women campaigners took their case to the Equal Opportunity Commission. This became a historic test of antidiscrimination legislation, spanning many years and multiple appeals.
The women’s substantive case rested on antidiscrimination legislation. But this was only one part of their broader strategy, and in fact the bureaucracy of the legal system was often more of a hindrance than a help.
For example, legal aid services initially refused the women’s application for support because some of them owned houses or had husbands whose salaries placed them above the income threshold. It was a farcical illustration of the problem with means-tested welfare. In response, the women had to run a sixteen-month campaign demanding access to legal aid. Once again, a strong sprit of collectivism was the Jobs for Women campaign’s greatest source of power.
Today, the industrial landscape has changed significantly. With union membership at historic lows, many workers see legal instruments as their sole protection against harassment, discrimination and unfair treatment. In this context, Women of Steel is a potent reminder of the importance of solidarity and building collective power at work.
“It was the tenacity of all the women together,” Robynne says. “What happened when all of us came together, and we created such a force.”