Woman Cooper, Margaret

Disability Rights Activist and Social Worker

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

The daughter of a G.P. and a homemaker with a fiercely independent streak, Margaret Cooper was born in 1943 and grew up in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. After a family seaside holiday to Frankston when she was four, Margaret and her younger brother and sister came home unwell. The polio diagnosis was confirmed. Margaret's brother and sister and some of the neighboring children received an experimental vaccine being developed by Dame Jean McNamara and their muscle weakness disappeared. Margaret didn't receive the vaccine. The general view was that she was going to die, so treating her would be a waste of resources. Over sixty years later the doomsayers have been proven wrong. In 2012 Cooper is alive and well and continuing to play a leading role in advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities.

Cooper began her journey into advocacy at the age of ten by getting a good education, despite the obstacles that confronted children with disabilities at the time. She learned very early in life that there was a mainstream of thought that believed education was wasted on people with disabilities. She noticed how her own academic achievements weren't given the same recognition as those of her siblings. She fought tooth and nail against authorities who planned to turn her school (Yooralla) into a 'primary only' institution. Her experience of inequity at school set her on a political journey that she is still travelling in 2012. Tertiary training as a social worker at the University of Melbourne gave her the qualifications and helped her to develop the networks and framework that has made this journey effective.

Cooper's journey towards adulthood and enjoying the rights of full citizenship has involved personal struggle which has brought political change for those that follow. While laid up in orthopaedic wards, she watched the mistreatment of patients, and the courage of those who spoke out and succeeded in getting some things changed. It helped her to understand that even though you may have to work with a system, it doesn't mean you have to become a victim of it. 'You don't have to accept what is dished up…you have to be active' (Interview with Margaret Cooper). While living in hostels she met people who refused to be patronize and controlled. People like Helen McKeon, for instance, demonstrated by example what was possible. She was a member of the Communist Party, she had a boyfriend and she had sex - all behaviour that was way too independent for the hostel supervisor, who eventually asked Helen to leave.

But Cooper was inspired. 'It was fascinating to see what people could do', she said. Being confronted by the activism of others brought Cooper into activist circles herself. She was heavily involved throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, a time when the political and legislative framework was evolving and there was a real feeling that things were changing. A key activity in which she took part was planning for the International Year of the Disabled Person (IYDP) in 1981. Cooper was on the state committee, representing the Victorian Council of Social Services, and was involved in a variety of other committees engaged in organising activities for the year. It was a dynamic time and the planning was 'a very empowering process'. IYDP made a 'huge difference' to the lives of people with disabilities, because it demonstrated ... that they were capable of taking control of their own lives. A particular highlight was sitting at a table of twenty-five people with disabilities and their representatives, thrashing out the issues that needed to be addressed, making decisions for themselves. The first step towards leadership for Margaret Cooper was learning, and then teaching others, how to be leaders of their own lives (Interview with Margaret Cooper).

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Cooper never held a formal leadership position but started to build a reputation as someone who could. 'Men with disabilities sought me out and talked me into becoming involved in leadership positions', she said. Although she had no leadership training, and no one she would call a role model, as such, she was impressed by the way Rhonda Galbally operated. 'She was the first woman with disability who I had seen effectively challenging the thinking of the health and welfare systems' (Empowerment and Women With Disabilities).

Cooper became actively involved in Disabled People's International (DPI Australia), taking on the role of Vice-President (Policy). A combination of her work experience (as a social worker confronted by more and more cases of domestic violence) and the experience of gender inequality within DPI (Australia) led to some interesting discoveries about the particular advocacy needs of women with disabilities. 'During my time as Vice-President,' she said, 'I asked lots of questions and tried to share what I learned. We developed an affirmative action policy but no-one practised it. Frequently I was hurt and puzzled by personal attacks rather than criticism of my work. Some men would listen to what I said at a meeting then restate my concept in their own words and get the group's approval!' (Empowerment and Women With Disabilities). Simultaneously, it was impossible to ignore the emerging body of research which indicated that even though all people with disabilities suffered disadvantage, women with disabilities were especially disadvantaged. (The Status of Women With Disabilities). Cooper attended the (DPI) Asia Pacific regional assembly in Adelaide in 1984, and went overseas to the DPI World Assembly in the Bahamas in 1985. Women at these meetings insisted that they be taken seriously and, in 1985, Cooper was one of a large group of women who refused to participate in the conference unless their issues were discussed at length. Her leadership at this time placed women's issues firmly on the agenda of DPI (Australia). She was involved in the early committees that eventually led to the establishment of Women With Disabilities Victoria (WDV 1992) and Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA 1995).

The feminist 'collective' approach of these organisations appealed to her, in that they were structured in ways that enabled information to be shared. They were 'circular' in shape rather than hierarchical; with leaders more like 'spokes in a wheel', facilitating communication than figures sitting on high disseminating information as they saw fit. Cooper believed that good leaders shared their knowledge; they did not take ownership of it in order to advance their own position. She also found the collective model to be individually empowering as well as a model for sustainable organisations. 'Leadership involves discovering strength within oneself', she said, 'and using that knowledge to find skills and potential in others so that they may also lead' (100 leaders project). Leadership is about facilitating change and growth. With this in mind, in the late 1990s, Cooper scaled back her involvement in WDV and WWDA. If they were to be sustainable into the future, then she needed to step back from a leadership role. She did not want to be perceived as a 'Queen Bee', running the show in all women's advocacy groups. New blood needed to be injected and succession plans put into place.

In 2012 Cooper still maintains an interest in the activities of WWDA and WDV but keeps at arm's length from the organisations. She spends more time looking at issues that are confronting her at the moment, like the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and Telstra Disability Forum because 'the digital divide is real and it's an economic issue that inevitably impacts upon people with disabilities in discriminatory ways'. Very importantly she's concerned about issues affecting Attendant Care, a service she has used since 1966 and one that has been steadily deteriorating over the past decade, due to inadequate funding, training and changes in the general workforce. 'It's hard to get someone to help after 7:30 pm', she says, which means that's when she goes to bed these days. 'You can manage your own bank account,' she says, 'you can write a PhD but you can't choose the time you want to go to bed. We're back in the 60s' (Interview with Margaret Cooper).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Margaret Cooper interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women with Disabilities Network oral history project, 19 July 2010, ORAL TRC 6240/6; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


Book Sections

  • Henningham, Nikki, 'Margaret Cooper: Feminist and Disability Activist', 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. 261-273. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/fff/pdfs/cooper.pdf. Details

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Margaret Cooper interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women with Disabilities Network oral history project
19 July 2010
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection