Woman Lowenstein, Wendy Katherin
- Author and Oral historian
Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne
Wendy Lowenstein was a pioneer of oral history, giving a voice to the ordinary people who lived history. Lowenstein was also an activist who engaged in a life-long fight for social justice.
Wendy Katherin Lowenstein (née Robertson) was born in Kew, Victoria, on 25 June 1927. She was the fourth child of Douglas and Rita Robertson. Her mother's family were Quakers, overseas missionaries and Fabian socialists; her father's were Presbyterian ministers, bush missionaries and choir masters. Her father was a romantic Australian nationalist whose family went from prosperity to dire poverty after drought, business folly and the depression of the 1890s but were readers and musicians. Her mother was artistic and musical but in revolt against her wealthy Bendigo family.
Lowenstein grew up in Melbourne, winning a scholarship to attend Box Hill Grammar School in 1939. She attended her first political meeting - a discussion at the League of Young Democrats about the Spanish Civil War - with her sister Shirley that same year. At the age of fifteen Lowenstein joined Shirley and her brother in Melbourne's New Theatre and the Eureka Youth League. The New Theatre was associated with the Communist Party and the emphasis was firmly on the class struggle. Through these leftist groups she discovered radical writing, theatre, art and class politics. It was also through the New Theatre that she met her future husband Werner Lowenstein, a child refugee from Germany The couple married in 1947. They had three sons, Peter, Martie and Richard, who they raised in the then working-class suburb of Prahran.
Lowenstein's first job was as a journalist with the Radio Times. She worked briefly as an editor for the Eureka Youth League magazine Youth Voice and also proof-read communist publications. She enrolled in a part-time journalism course at the University of Melbourne. However, offended by an English professor who acknowledged 'with modest pride' that he knew nothing about Australian literature, and feeling out of place in the student culture, Lowenstein left the university. After joining the Communist Party she was directed to take a job at a butter factory. Although, with her husband, she left the Communist Party in 1956, following the revelation of the Stalinist atrocities and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Lowenstein nevertheless remained active in left-wing politics. She eventually completed BA at the University of Melbourne, with graduate studies in teaching and librarianship. She subsequently worked for many years as a teacher and teacher-librarian, until a Literature Board grant enabled her to become a full-time writer.
Lowenstein was influenced by the largely left-wing revival of folk culture in England and the United States. With Professor Ian Turner. She co-founded the Victorian Folk Lore Society in 1952. The folk movement provided an avenue to continue her involvement in left-wing. Lowenstein collaborated with Turner and June Factor in studies of children's play rhymes during the 1960s. For fifteen years she edited their magazine Gumsucker's Gazette, later renamed Australian Tradition. Factor later wrote that 'the influence of Australian Tradition is hard to overestimate. It connected, encouraged and gave a platform to often isolated musicians, singers, poets and collectors, brought overseas developments to their attention and was a significant contributor to the folklore revival of the 1960s (Factor, 2006). In 1965 Lowenstein helped organise the first Port Phillip Folk Festival. It grew in popularity year by year and evolved into the enormously successful National Folk Festival, today an annual Easter event in Canberra.
In 1969, Lowenstein and her family spent a year travelling throughout Australia during which time she recorded folklore and tales of working life. Her first published book was the self-published compilation of children's playground rhymes Shocking, Shocking: the improper play rhymes of Australian Children in 1974. Ian Turner showed her a copy of Hard Times (1970), Studs Terkel's oral history of the Depression in the USA, which served as an inspiration to Lowenstein to begin work on an Australian equivalent. Weevils in the Flour involved a further five years travelling and interviewing across the country, but no publisher would accept the work until after the success of her second oral history, The Immigrants (1977), co-written with Morag Loh. Aimed at secondary school students, The Immigrants was a best-selling book of interviews with non-English background migrants. Weevils in the Flour was finally published in the following year. In 1980, Lowenstein was a co-author of the revised edition of the collection of children's rhymes, Cinderella dressed in Yella, first published by Ian Turner and June Factor. Having decided to become a full-time writer and oral historian she spent the next six years travelling widely interviewing ordinary Australians. Her manuscript, 'Dead men don't dig coal', based on South Gippsland coal miners, was commenced after interviews from Weevils in the flour were used by her filmmaker son, Richard, in 1980-1981 in the making of Strikebound, a film about the 1937 miners' strike at Korumburra for which Lowenstein produced the screenplay. The book was, however, never completed despite being listed in the film credits. Difficulties with finding publishers prompted Lowenstein to set up Bookworkers Press in 1982, resulting in the publication of Under the Hook: Melbourne waterside workers remember: 1900-1980, co-authored with 'wharfie' Tom Hills (revised edn 1998).
From 1996-1998 Lowenstein published a Collection of children's rhymes, Never let your dingle dangle: songs my mother never sang me. She also collaborated with Kathleen Dunlop and Marjorie de Saint-Ferjeux on an RMIT internet database: Gondwana to gold: a chronological history of Australia (1996); and Weevils at Work: What's happening to work in Australia (1997). Lowenstein was a founding member of the Victorian Branch of the Oral History Association of Australia in 1982. She continued to be active in the Association for many years, contributing generously of her time and experience through workshops, talks and conferences. She was made an honorary life member of the OHAA in 1999. She was a writer-in-residence at Victorian and interstate universities, conducted workshops and was a guest speaker at numerous conferences and events until 2002.
A life-long activist, Lowenstein was involved in countless campaigns. Her son Richard recalled being taken to his first demonstration, an all-night candle-light vigil outside Pentridge Gaol, at the age of seven. They protested the execution of Ronald Ryan, the last man to hang in Australia. From then on it was a blur of marches, meetings and picket lines; May Day, Hiroshima Day, Vietnam Moratoriums, Save Our Sons, People For Nuclear Disarmament, International Year of Peace, Arts Action For Peace, Palm Sunday, Miscellaneous Workers Union marches, Save Our Schools (Kennett years), Save Albert Park (Kennett again), Hands Off Our Libraries (still more Kennett), wharf strikes, miner's strikes, teachers strikes and dental mechanic strikes. The union movement's slogan of 'Solidarity Forever' ran deep within her veins. Lowenstein adopted the motto, 'Nix Illigitamus Carborundum' or 'Never let the bastards grind you down', handed down to her by her brother John.
Lowenstein died in Melbourne, on 16 October 2006, aged seventy-nine. Lowenstein Lane in Canberra is named after her. Her vast collection of oral history is in the National Library in Canberra.
Additional sources: Communists and the Left in the arts and community oral history project, 19 April 1992 - 6 July 1995, ORAL TRC 3111; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection; Folklorist Ron Edwards interviewed by Wendy Lowenstein, 6 June 1991 - 3 July 1991, ORAL TRC 2785; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection; Papers of Wendy Lowenstein, 1918 - 2003, MS 9968; National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection; Wendy Lowenstein 1930s Depression Collection, 1973 - c. 1976, ORAL TRC 246; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection; Wendy Lowenstein Australian folklore and social history collection, March 1968 - June 1972, ORAL TRC 2915; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection; Video memorial to Wendy Lowenstein produced by her son Richard Lowenstein: Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqx8r4FZU0w Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M41DOcaqons [accessed 4 May 2013].
National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection
- Papers of Wendy Lowenstein, 1918 - 2003, MS 9968; National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection. Details
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- Communists and the Left in the arts and community oral history project, 19 April 1992 - 6 July 1995, ORAL TRC 3111; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
- Folklorist Ron Edwards interviewed by Wendy Lowenstein, 6 June 1991 - 3 July 1991, ORAL TRC 2785; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
- Melbourne waterside workers collection, 1978 - 1980, ORAL TRC 1957; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
- Wendy Lowenstein 1930s Depression Collection, 1973 - c. 1976, ORAL TRC 246; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
- Wendy Lowenstein Australian folklore and social history collection, March 1968 - June 1972, ORAL TRC 2915; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
State Library of Victoria
- Collection of Australian folklore and social history on tape, 1969 - 1973, Accession no(s) MS 9240 - MS 9241; State Library of Victoria. Details
- Arrowsmith, Robyn, 'Obituary: Wendy Katherin Lowenstein (1927-2006): Journalist, Teacher, Oral Historian, Activist', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 23, no. 55, March 2008, pp. 3-4. Details
- Factor, June, 'Dedicated worker with words', The Australian, 27 October 2006, p. 14. Details
- Lowenstein Family Collection, http://www.wendylowenstein.com. Details
- 'Biographical entry on Wendy Lowenstein on Reason in Revolt', in Reason in Revolt: Source Documents of Australian Radicalism, http://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/biogs/E000622b.htm. Details
- 'Lowenstein, Wendy Katherin', The Australian Women's Register, National Foundation for Australian Women, http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE0103b.htm. Details
- Wendy Lowenstein Memorial - Part 2, 12 November 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M41DOcaqons. Details
- Wendy Lownestein Memorial - Part 1, 12 November 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqx8r4FZU0w. Details
- Lowenstein, Richard, 'An Ear for the Ordinary Folk', The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 2006, p. 22, http://www.smh.com.au/news/obituaries/an-ear-for-the-ordinary-folk/2006/10/25/1161749186478.html. Details
- National Library of Australia Guide to the Papers of Wendy Lowenstein, MS 9968, http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms9968. Details