Woman Marginson, Melba (c. 1950 - )

c. 1950
Ethnic activist and Ethnic advocate
Alternative Names
  • de Guzman, Melba (Maiden)

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Melba Marginson is the Executive Director of the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Coalition, the peak body representing immigrant refugee women's organisations across Victoria and an organization she helped to establish in 1998. She provides organizational leadership, mentoring and advocacy for and on behalf of migrant and refugee women and has had a long association with migrant advocacy associations since her arrival in Australian in 1989. She has a Master's degree in Social Science and Public Policy and has developed a Women's Leadership Course tailored for migrant and refugee women which trained over 600 women since 2003 and is now an approved pre-accredited course offered in selected neighbourhood houses in Victoria. Her advocacy for immigrants and refugees was recognised in Victoria when the then Premier Steve Bracks appointed her as one of the first new Commissioners of the Victorian Multicultural Commission in 2000. In 2001, she was an inaugural inductee on the Victorian Women's Honour Roll.

Born in the Philippines in the 1950s, Melba Marginson is the oldest of six children born to parents of peasant origins who possessed 'adventurous spirits', and 'allowed her to be who she was' (Interview). That person was a highly motivated, competitive person who, in her own words, 'always felt the need to achieve and to challenge [her]self' (Interview). She did well at the Catholic girls' school she attended and was only 16 when she started at the University of the Philippines, in Manila, in 1970. An organiser from an early age - 'I was the bossy big sister' - it never occurred to her that her gender might frustrate her ambitions. 'I always believed I could do anything, she said. 'My mother was a very good role model.' Growing up in an extended family of entrepreneurial women, she recognised that Filipina women's power operated strategically. 'The women were always running the show in reality but would handover decision making to their husbands, for show. They let the men think that they were in charge' (Interview).

Melba Marginson (born de Guzman) was named after Dame Nellie Melba because her father wanted her to have an important name. Both her parents came from Central Luzon, the centre of peasant resistance and activism in the Philippines, but they moved to the capital, Manila, as soon as they could because they recognised that their economic future would be better served there. Her father studied art and eventually worked in advertising while her mother established a successful dry goods store. The family prospered and her parents could afford to send their daughters to school as well as their sons. Melba's education, along with her birth order, 'made it easier to acquire a deeper understanding of the issues of our time,' she says. 'I matured early' (Scutt, p. 117).

'The atmosphere was dynamic,' she says. Demonstrations against United States interference in Philippine affairs and President Marcos's leadership were a daily occurrence. There was a plethora of left wing student organisations to join as concerned students, mostly Catholic and influenced by liberation theology, participated in the nationalist struggle for democracy. Women's groups existed across the political spectrum as well. She joined the Student Catholic Action organisation, a militant, left wing group that was successfully recruiting more moderate students to the cause. She joined the mass demonstrations and worked with street theatre groups. Her involvement in street theatre protest was, however, short lived. When Marcos declared martial law in 1971, student organisations were banned and left-wing activists went underground. She returned to serious studies and graduated in 1975, although she and other drama students still managed to use theatre as a means of radicalising some audiences.

The imposition of martial law, however, did not stop her from joining the Communist Party in 1973 and she remained a member of the party until 1996, after she had migrated to Australia. Apart from what communism gave her as a political ideology, party membership taught her much about political organising on a broad scale, activating grass roots support, how to offer effective opposition to established networks of power, managing networks and the benefits of collective decision making. 'I could not have done the work I did in Australia without my growth in the Communist Party in the Philippines,' she says (Interview).

In 1976, Marginson accepted a position in a government school but her activism made her a target of continued surveillance and harassment, not only by the government but from right-wing colleagues as well. Despite the fulfilment she received from teaching students 'a nationalist view of their country' (Scutt, p. 119) she decided that she would leave school teaching to pursue more community engagement, through involvement in a trade union collective as an education officer. Once again, she became a target for surveillance by government security forces, which worried her parents who helped her go into hiding for a few months. She returned to teaching, and became much more involved in teacher's union politics and activities. In 1983, after opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated, protests became a daily occurrence again. She encouraged students to attend rallies and joined a militant teachers' union, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers. She was elected Secretary General of the Union in 1985 and resigned from teaching to devote herself full-time to the union.

It was while she was a union leader that her understanding of gender issues became more pronounced. Despite the large majority of members being women, the leadership was predominantly male and many men resented the attention that Marginson, a savvy media performer, drew along with her popularity amongst members. She spent the next four years preserving her position as Secretary-General and, after a concerted effort by a group of her male union colleagues to undermine her, decided to leave. Already engaged to an Australian academic, Simon Marginson, whom she had met in 1988 at a conference in Perth, Marginson decided that the time was right to move to Australia.

Arriving in 1989, Marginson almost immediately got involved in human rights activism. The first Filipino community event she attended in her new city, Melbourne, was a funeral; that of Gene Bongcodin, a so-called 'mail order bride' from the Philippines who had been strangled to death by her husband. This became the catalyst for her ongoing involvement in a campaign to bring to light the terrible domestic violence many Filipinas were subjected to in the Australian community, and the implicit racism that lay behind the lack of help and protection offered to those who were affected. Through her involvement with the Bongcodin family, she connected with other women to form the Centre for Philippine Concerns-Australia (CPCA), an organisation formed with men but mainly led by women. The women of the CPCA presented a case for investigating the extent of violence against Filipina women to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) in 1991. Support from the then Race Discrimination Commissioner, Irene Moss, led to formal research being done on the problem, the end result of which was the 1997 launch by criminologists Chris Cunneen and Julie Stubbs of the book, Gender, 'Race' and International Relations: Violence against Filipino women in Australia. The book provided a chilling analysis of the racialised violence to which Filipino women were subjected. Marginson's personal involvement in the advocacy that eventually led to the publication, and a better understanding of the nature and extent of the problem remains a source of great pride to her. 'Family violence is a public problem,' she insists, and she is very proud of the role CPCA played in getting the problem on the agenda, and how they changed the attitudes of junior bureaucrats at the time, including some in the Department of Immigration. She was also gratified to know that the media exposure that she and other Filipino women received, presenting a vision of strong, articulate women, has encouraged other migrant women in Australia to leave violent relationships.

Marginson's involvement in advocacy organisations has been acknowledged, but never particularly well rewarded financially. This is hardly exceptional and she thinks that her life course represents a familiar one for many talented immigrant women arriving in Australia, who commit their time and skills to voluntary work in the community sector as they try to obtain qualifications, bring up families and get decent jobs while striving towards equality and social justice through advocacy. Having worked in community advocacy for so long, however, she has no doubt that she has left her mark. Many migrant and refugee women who are now in important roles in the Victorian community and government sectors have been mentored by Ms. Marginson. She is proud to be a migrant woman leader who kept to her values of working with the grassroots, individually and in groups. ' Moving people towards a goal can involve walking behind or leading from the front,' she says, 'but the important thing is to be a voice representing the voiceless' (Millar, p. 9).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Melba Marginson interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 31 May 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/6; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • Cunneen, Chris and Stubbs, Julie, Gender, race and international relations : violence against Filipino women in Australia, Institute of Criminology Monograph Series, The University of Sydney: Faculty of Law: The Institute of Criminology, Sydney, New South Wales, 1997. Details

Book Sections

  • Marginson, Melba, 'Not for the Money - Experiences of a Filipina Activist, Melba Marginson', in Scutt, Jocelynne (ed.), Breaking through : women, work and careers, Artemis, North Melbourne, Victoria, 1992, pp. 115 - 132. Details

Newspaper Articles

Resource Sections

Online Resources