Theme Peace Movements 1960 to 2000

Peace Movements

Written by Suellen Murray, RMIT University

Since the 1960s, there have been two main focuses of the Australian peace movement-the Vietnam War and the (second) Cold War of the 1980s. Women have been central to both these anti-war movements. They were active members of women's and mixed-gender peace groups as well as acting as individuals to protest against war. In these actions, they were engaged in both agitating for the elimination of the existing violence and also working towards the prevention of future violence or, as we have seen in the earlier decades, both negative and positive peace. During these latter decades of the 20th century, there was also further analysis of what 'war' and 'violence' could mean, and this informed what it was that this generation of women in the peace movement protested about, and how they went about it.

There was a range of motivations for women's peace activism during the latter decades of the 20th century. As Malcolm Saunders and Ralph Summy have noted, these reasons included a belief in pacifism, or the rejection of war generally, a refusal to support particular wars, opposition to particular aspects of war such as uranium mining, nuclear testing or conscription, and a commitment to the elimination of exploitative behaviour and to the just resolution of conflict which came to be understood, by some, as the elimination of patriarchal violence (Saunders & Summy, 6).

The concerns of the movement of the later 20th century were shared by some of the organisations behind earlier women's peace movements, but what made the later movement particularly distinctive was its concern with the wider issue of violence against women. However, the idea that war and the status of women were linked was not unknown to earlier activists. In her writing for the Woman Voter and the Socialist during World War I, Adela Pankhurst made connections between war, capitalism and the oppression of women, and most early women peace activists based drew on maternalist values to justify their anti-war stance (Lake, 1999, 63-65). These maternalist values continued to imbue many women's views about peace in the latter decades of the century.

At the same time, while many involved in the women's peace movement of the 1980s would not have claimed to be radical feminists, the politics of radical feminism was influential through protests not only against war but also against other forms of what were considered to be patriarchal violence. Radical feminists preferred women-only organising and supported feminist lesbianism, both as acknowledgement of what were considered to be shared understandings among women and as challenges to male domination (Murray, 2006, 81-2). By the 1980s, there was a diverse mix of women's peace groups-from the long-established Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, to the state-based feminist-led groups who came together under the umbrella of the national Women for Survival organisation.

A bridge between the radical feminism of the 1980s and the maternalism of earlier decades, Save Our Sons (SOS), established in 1965, was a women's peace group primarily concerned about conscription for the war in Vietnam. First set up in Sydney, and later in many other Australian cities, some of its earliest membership was drawn from the leftist Union of Australian Women, established in 1950. Over time, the membership was to be much more diverse, reflecting the widespread concern about the war (A. Curthoys, 316, 319, 324; McHugh, 205, 231-2). SOS was well organised and politically astute in its approach. Its organisers and leaders pitched their campaign at swinging seats and lobbied both major parties. Members collected a petition of 17,000 signatures, which was the largest to that time presented to parliament. SOS was also disciplined and had an agreed policy to conduct its protests with dignity and in a respectable manner. Members targeted national service call-up centres with anti-conscription banners and leafleted information about how to avoid conscription (Curthoys, 322-5; McHugh, 205-10, 215-18, 221-4). In 1971, in Melbourne, five SOS women, including two who later became members of the Victorian parliament, Joan Coxsedge (Heywood, AWR) and Jean Maclean (Francis, 'Maclean', AWR), were imprisoned for leafleting at a call-up centre. They became known as the Fairlea Five, named after the women's prison where they were interned (McHugh, 223-4).

Protests against the Vietnam War radicalised a generation of Australians and, as noted by Lake (220), many of the new recruits to Women's Liberation were politicised by the new left movements associated with the anti-conscription campaigns of the Vietnam War. But not all women were new to politics. In the 1950s, there was muted concern about the threat of nuclear war, at least partly because of the close association of the peace movement with the far left of politics through the Australian Peace Committee. Women who had been part of this movement, such as Joan Williams (Tallis, 'Williams', AWR) in Western Australia, were to continue their protests during the 1960s against the Vietnam War and again in the 1980s against the second Cold War (Hopkins, 81-3; Williams, 1999, 16-31). In the 1980s, women were to flow from the women's movement into peace groups.

The names of the various Australian state-based groups that existed in the 1980s to some extent reflected the focus and interests of their members: for example, in Western Australia, Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament (WAND); in South Australia, the Feminist Anti-Nuclear Group (FANG); and in NSW, Women's Action Against Global Violence (WAAGV). Collectively these groups were known as Women for Survival, which was to organise two women's peace camps in 1983 and 1984 at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, and Cockburn Sound, south of Perth, respectively. Hundreds of women from across Australia attended these camps (Murray, 2006; Murray, 2010; Williams, 1992).

The camps themselves and their women's peace organisations were run largely as collectives with consensus decision-making, in an effort to share power and to promote the maximum engagement of members. These approaches were consistent with a feminist approach that valued participatory democracy and saw the potential for disempowerment (and violence) in hierarchical organisations. Thus, they eschewed the traditional model of a single leader or small group of leaders who had greater access to power within their organisations and were responsible for making decisions (Murray, 2010, 7-8). Despite this commitment to egalitarian organising, individuals were responsible for initiating these organisations. In Sydney, Lauri Buckingham and Lee Rhiannon, now a Greens Senator and previously a member of the NSW parliament, were instrumental in setting up WAAGV (Buckingham, 25ff; Murray, 2011, 235-6). With Biff Ward (Bereny, AWR), then living in Alice Springs, and with the support of others in Central Australia and elsewhere, they established the Pine Gap camp. In Perth, Gail Green, Joan Williams and Geraldine Stevens were central to the establishment of WAND, and later involved in organising the Cockburn Sound peace camp.

The women's peace organisations, as well as organising the peace camps, were engaged in a range of other protests actions locally, often imaginatively using street theatre and artwork, and communicating with the wider community in more traditional ways for the time through newsletters and public meetings (Murray, 2006; Murray, 2010). A vast amount of women's volunteer labour was harnessed to run the various offices of these women's groups and to spread their anti-war and anti-violence messages.

One of the inspirations for the women's peace camps was the Greenham Common women's peace camp at the gates of the US airbase in Newbury in the United Kingdom, which was to be in existence in some form or other from 1981 for almost two decades. The camp began as a march of female and male supporters walking 125 miles from Cardiff to Greenham to protest against the proposed installation of cruise nuclear missiles there and the possibility that these weapons would be used to fight a nuclear war in Europe. The missiles were later installed at Greenham, by which time a women-only peace camp was well established. Over time the focus of the women's motivations for participating in the camp shifted from one that was more maternalist in orientation, that is, concerned with the protection of the community-sometimes expressed as concern for children and future generations-to one that was radical feminist, or concerned with militarism as a form of patriarchal oppression (Roseneil). As we have seen, both these motivations were also evident in the Australian women's peace movement (Bartlett).

Former Western Australian senator for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, and later Greens Western Australia, Jo Vallentine (Francis, 'Vallentine', AWR), like others in the peace movement past and present, linked her activism to motherhood. Her daughters were the reason she 'dared to stick her neck out to work for peace and social justice' (Vallentine, 69). Australian-born, US-based Helen Caldicott (Francis, 'Caldicott', AWR), former president of the International Physicians for Social Responsibility, was involved in initiating this organisation in 1978. In the mid-1980s, it had a membership of over 30,000 medical practitioners. She too, linked her commitment to the anti-nuclear cause to motherhood and her desire to protect children from its harms (Caldicott). The women's peace movement also foregrounded the rape of women and children as actions of war, as others had done on Anzac Day, and drew attention to the violence experienced by women during visits by US military personnel (Howe, 302-08).

Women were also active in mixed peace groups. People for Nuclear Disarmament was formed in 1981, bringing together older organisations and forming the major coalition in each state. PND's major event each year was the Palm Sunday rally as well as many smaller actions based on local events. In 1985, 350,000 people marched across Australia to protest for peace (Cairns, 244). Into the 1990s, protests continued but they had shifted from a focus on the threat of nuclear war to nuclear testing.

A poignant event at the Cockburn Sound women's peace camp in 1984 was the celebration of Irene Greenwood's 85th birthday there. Greenwood (Tallis, 'Greenwood', AWR), was a renowned Western Australian journalist and radio broadcaster who had campaigned for peace and women's rights over many decades. She was a long-term member of the Australian Federation of Women Voters and of WILPF, of which she was state president from 1966 to 1969, and had been awarded a United Nations Silver Medal for her contribution to peace and international human rights. Greenwood was also a supporter of the women's peace camp. Her presence highlighted the long history of women's leadership in the struggle for peace (K. Murray).

The women's peace movement was to diminish significantly after the break-up of the USSR in the late 1980s with an apparent decline in the threat of nuclear war (Burgmann, 166). Since then, women have protested against wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere but without the sense of continuity and focus that occurred in relation to the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Bomford, Janette, That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1993. Details
  • Burgmann, Verity, Power, Profit and Protest: Australian Social Movements and Globalisation, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 2003. Details
  • Caldicott, Helen, Dr Helen Caldicott: A Passionate Life, Random House Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996, 402 pp. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999. Details
  • McHugh, Siobhan, Minefields and Miniskirts: Australian Women and the Vietnam War, Doubleday, Sydney, New South Wales, 1993. Details
  • Rasmussen, Carolyn, The Lesser Evil? Opposition to War and Fascism in Australia 1920 - 1941, The University of Melbourne: Department of History, Melbourne, Victoria, 1991. Details
  • Roseneil, Sasha, Disarming Patriarchy: Feminism and Political Action at Greenham, Open University Press, Bristol, England, 1995. Details
  • Saunders, Malcolm and Summy, Ralph, The Australian Peace Movement: A Short History, Australian National University (ANU): Peace Research Centre, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1986. Details
  • Sawer, Marian and Simms, Marian, A Woman's Place: Women and Politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1993. Details
  • Young, Pam, Daring to Take a Stand: The Story of the Union of Australian Women in Queensland, Pam Young, Brisbane, Queensland, 1998. Details

Book Sections

  • Buckingham, Lauri, 'Mobilisation of Women Leading Up to the Pine Gap Action', in Roache, Micheal J. and Curthoys, Anne (eds), Not the Bicentennial: A Collection of Essays on Australian History, New South Wales Institute of Technology, Sydney, New South Wales, 1988, p. 25 off. Details
  • Cairns, Brendan, 'Stop the Drop', in Verity, Burgmann and Lee, Jenny (eds), Staining the Wattle: A People‚Äôs History of Australia since 1788, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, Victoria, 1988, pp. 243 - 253. Details
  • Curthoys, Ann, 'Shut up you bourgeois bitch: Sexual Identity and Political Action in the Anti-Vietnam War Movement', in Damousi, Joy and Lake, Marilyn (eds), Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1995. Details
  • Cuthoys, Barbara, 'Union of Australian Women', in Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998, pp. 507 - 508. Details
  • Gowland, Patricia, 'The Women's Peace Army', in Windshuttle, E (ed.), Feminist Perspectives on Australia 1788-1978, Fontana Books, Auckland, New Zealand, 1980, pp. 216 - 234. Details
  • Howe, Adrian, 'Anzac Mythology and the Feminist Challenge', in Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake (eds), Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1995, pp. 302 - 310. Details
  • Murray, Suellen, 'Lee Rhiannon: A Lifetime of Political Activism', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 232-247. Details
  • Vallentine, Jo, 'A Tapestry of Passion and Peace', in Joan Eveline and Lorraine Hayden (eds), Carrying the Banner: Women, Leadership and Activism in Australia, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 1999, pp. 69 - 79. Details
  • Williams, Joan, 'Women Carrying Banners', in Joan Eveline and Lorraine Hayden (eds), Carrying the Banner: Women, Leadership and Activism in Australia, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 1999, pp. 16 - 31. Details

Journal Articles

  • Bartlett, Alison, 'Feminist Protest and Maternity at Pine Gap Women's Peace Camp, Australia 1983', Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 34, no. 1, January - February, pp. 31 - 38. Details
  • Hopkins, Lekkie, 'Fighting to Be Seen and Heard: A Tribute to Four Western Australian Peace Activists', Women's Studies International Forum, vol. 22, no. 1, January 1999, pp. 79 - 87. Details
  • Murray, Suellen, '"Make pies not war": Protests by the Women's Peace Movement of the Mid 1980s', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 37, no. 127, 2006, pp. 81 - 94. Details
  • Murray, Suellen, 'Taking the Toys from the Boys: Feminism and Australian Women's Peace Activism in the 1980s', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 25, no. 63, 2010, pp. 3 - 15. Details
  • Williams, Joan, 'A Significant Event: Cockburn Sound Women's Peace Camp, 1-15 December 1984', Papers in Labour History, no. 10, 1992, pp. 25 - 34. Details


  • Murray, Kay, 'Irene Greenwood: A Voice for Peace', PhD thesis, Edith Cowan University, 2002. Details

Online Resources