State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 15 April 1975


Muriel Heagney — Labor Activist for Over Fifty Years*

In 1971 the La Trobe Library was fortunate to acquire the papers of Muriel Heagney. Miss Heagney, in whose work for women there has been a revival of interest since her death in 1974, was a life-long battler for the labor movement and particularly women workers. For most of her 89 years she worked tirelessly towards industrial justice through writing books and pamphlets, conducting surveys and publicising the results, organising pressure groups and expounding her views at every opportunity. Muriel was a believer in the ‘proper channels’ — in presenting a well-researched and forcibly argued case to employers and arbitration or wage-fixing authorities and pressuring them relentlessly rather than taking direct action through strikes and demonstrations (though she had no objections to these methods as a last resort).
If her methods were not particularly new or radical many of her ideas were. In 1953 she proposed a complete overhaul of the Australian arbitration system and at a time when females were paid little more than half of the male rate she argued for full equal pay to be implemented at once.
Muriel Heagney was born in Brisbane in 1885. Her grandparents were Irish and had migrated to Australia at various times during the nineteenth century for political and economic reasons. Her maternal grandfather had been a miner on the Victorian goldfields and a friend of Peter Lalor. Muriel felt that her ‘interesting and talkative’ Irish grandparents were an important influence on her life. ‘From them and my parents’, she wrote about 1954, ‘I acquired a facility for forming opinions — not always conventional but always inherently independent — as to “what is past and present and what is yet to be” as well as a persistent awareness of the world in which we live.’
Her, father, Pat Heagney, was a carpenter who came to Queensland in the 1880's. He was an early A.W.U. member, taking part in the strikes of the 1890's and contributing to the Worker and the Sydney Bulletin. Muriel's early years were spent at Jundah near the Barcoo river where she was impressed by the courage and energy with which the people of the area endured the hardships of life in the bush.
Just before the turn of the century the family moved to Melbourne where Pat Heagney became involved in Labor politics. He was a founder of the first Political Labor Council branch in Richmond in 1902. In 1904 the P.L.C. was made independent of the Trades Hall Council and Pat Heagney was appointed secretary of the Central Executive — a position which he held until he resigned because of over-work in 1910. The Heagney home became a centre and meeting place for the labor movement. Muriel recalled later: ‘we knew all the leaders of that time as family friends. When Ramsay MacDonald and his wife visited Melbourne in 1907 they came to dinner with us as did many other distinguished visitors from other states and overseas.’
After a varied schooling at state and convent schools Muriel trained as a primary school teacher. She taught, in between trying other occupations, until about 1915. Although she found the experience of teaching in different areas rewarding, she was not greatly attracted to the profession. In 1906 she joined the Richmond branch of the A.L.P. and in 1909 was appointed a delegate to the Women's Central Organising Committee. She represented a union member at the first Victorian Labor Women's Conference held in Melbourne in 1909.
During the war she worked as a clerk in the Defence Department — receiving equal pay as at that time there was no ‘female rate’ for the job. At the same time she took an active part in the 1916 and 1917 anticonscription campaigns. Her street-corner speeches on this issue led to questioning from Defence Department officials but no action was taken against her.
In 1919–1920 she was an investigator for the Federated Unions of Australia in their submission to the Royal Commission on the Basic Wage. This involved a detailed survey of the cost of living in different Australian cities. Although the recommendations of the Commission for an increase in the basic wage and automatic cost of living adjustments were rejected by the government, the information gathered was used by the unions in 1921 in a submission to the Federal Arbitration Court for increases in the basic wage. Muriel spent 1921 helping to prepare the case. She was a delegate to the historic 1921 socialisation conference of Australian trade unionists.
At the same time she was campaigning for equal pay and improved conditions for women. The Trades Hall Council, of which she was an executive member, had planned to appoint her full-time organiser of women workers. Other activities intervened however; in December 1921 Muriel, representing the T.H.C., became secretary of a committee to plan and co-ordinate fund-raising for the relief of Russia. She held this position until June 1923 and found the work rewarding as it provided her with the opportunity to meet leaders of commerce and industry as well as people from other sections of the community.
In 1923 it was suggested that Muriel visit Europe to see the relief work at first hand so in December she set off with £100 which had been raised as an honorarium for her. She spent two years in Europe visiting many countries including the Soviet Union. She worked hard all this time, meeting trade union and labor party leaders in each country.
Among other activities she attended several trade union conferences, worked for two months on the staff of the International Labor Organisation in Geneva and conducted a survey of infant and child welfare facilities in London. She gleaned a great deal of information from her experiences abroad and on her return to Australia was employed by the A.L.P. to give a series of lectures on labor conditions overseas.
She was soon closely involved again in the labor movement and spent the next few years preparing briefs for Arbitration Court hearings. In 1928 she represented the Victorian Labor Women and the Melbourne and Sydney Labor Councils at the first Pan-Pacific Women's conference in Honolulu.
During the depression she organised the Unemployed Girls' Relief Movement which assisted 10,000 unemployed girls and women. Later she carried out an extensive survey of women's work in Victoria which was published in 1935 as Are women taking men's jobs? In this book Muriel defended the right of women to work and to receive a rate of pay based on the nature of the job rather than on their sex.
In July 1937 the Council of Action for Equal Pay was formed in Sydney where Muriel was now living. She and George Weir were the first joint-presidents. Although employed full-time in a variety of jobs, Muriel held office in this group and worked tirelessly for it until she returned to Melbourne in 1949. The Council, which was supported by trade unions and women's organisations, sought to publicise the equal pay case. Leaflets and booklets were produced, submissions were presented to wage-hearings and members debated and addressed public meetings.
During the second world war the Council held conferences on women and children in industry in wartime. The war provided a boost for the equal pay movement as the shortage of male workers gave women the opportunity to show they could handle jobs traditionally done by men. The energy and effectiveness of the Council were unfortunately reduced by bitter conflict with women's organisations, especially the United Association of Women, which believed that equal pay should be phased in gradually rather than introduced at once. In 1941 the Women's Employment Board fixed women's wages at 90% of the male rate. While this represented an improvement in the wages of most women, it was a great disappointment to the Council.
In 1941 Muriel Heagney was appointed by the Australian Government as unofficial advisor to the Australian delegation at the International Labor Organisation conference in New York. She felt that her appointment was an indication of the growing recognition of the importance of the equal pay issue.
While attending to all these activities in
her spare time, Muriel had been working as a travel organiser for the Queensland Tourist Bureau in Sydney (1936–1942) and in various forms of war work until 1943 when she became women's organiser for the Amalgamated Engineering Union. She held this position until 1947.
After this she continued to carry out organising work for various unions and in 1949 prepared and presented a submission on equal pay to the full bench of the Arbitration Court during the basic wage case. In 1950, exhausted by years of hard work, she returned to Melbourne and devoted herself to research and writing. In 1953 she published Arbitration at the crossroads which was a survey of the Australian arbitration system based on research and her own long practical experience. She concluded that the arbitration system was undemocratic and cumbersome and should be completely reorganised. This booklet was to have been the first of a series by which she hoped to give other workers the benefit of her experience but unfortunately she was unable to finance any further publications.
She continued to be active in the Australian Labor Party. She was involved in her local branches at Prahran and South Yarra and in the Women's Central Organising Committee. She was a member of the Victorian Central Executive in 1956–1957. In 1956 she worked with the W.C.O.C. to conduct another survey of the cost of living in Victoria.
In 1957, now aged 72, she suffered a heart attack and was not well for the next three years. Rest and skilled medical attention brought some improvement and she began work on a history of the Australian labor movement. In 1961 she applied for a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant to assist her to complete this work, arguing that her lifetime of experience in the movement made her especially well-qualified to write its history. She was refused a grant, however, and the book was never finished.
Though her last years were dogged by illhealth and poverty, she remained remarkably alert and was a keen observer of the current political scene. In 1966 she was able to participate in the fiftieth anniversary of the defeat of the conscription referendum for which she had fought one of her early battles. She had fought many battles since then and had seldom won an outright victory, but she was never discouraged. Concluding an account of her life in the late 1950's she wrote ‘My faith in the unity of labor as the hope of the world is unshaken.’ Her contribution for and on behalf of the labor movement will perhaps never be fully recognised.
The Muriel Heagney papers held at the library unfortunately represent only a proportion of those she collected in her lifetime. Several cartons of papers of unknown value were pawned in times of financial stress and were destroyed when she could not afford to redeem them. The preservation of those papers which survive is due largely to Mrs. Bertha Walker, a staunch friend of Muriel Heagney who rescued the papers when their owner was forced to enter a nursing home, and to the Hon. Sam Merrifield who provided Muriel with financial help at various times and had a keen appreciation of the historical value of her papers.
Two sets of Muriel Heagney's own notes on her life story are included in the papers and provided the basis of the account above. These and a selection of her private correspondence provide some indication of her personality, showing her to be generous, hardworking and a shrewd observer of political events.
A large volume of notes for various publications survive but these are difficult to use effectively as most are untitled, undated and consist in the main of sections of drafts rather than complete manuscripts. They have been arranged by subject as far as possible. There are large sections intact of Muriel's proposed history of the Australian labor movement written in the late 1950's.
A substantial section of the papers deals with trade unionism and arbitration. This includes records of her work as women's organiser for the Amalgamated Engineering Union, 1943–1945, including a log-book of her day-to-day work which involved visiting factories and writing reports on the conditions of women workers. Extensive notes and drafts for Arbitration at the crossroads and
its proposed successors in the Ex Libris series survive.
Records of Muriel Heagney's involvement with the A.L.P. in the 1950's are fairly complete and include papers of the Prahran Municipal Campaign Committee and the Victorian Women's Central Organising Committee. Papers and statistics collected for the 1956–1957 survey of the cost of living in Victoria conducted by the W.C.O.C. are included.
Papers on women's issues include papers relating to the Australian Federation of Women Voters and notes on the history of women in the labor movement in Australia. Muriel Heagney always took an interest in women in politics and collected leaflets and other papers on women parliamentary candidates. An almost complete set of minutebooks and correspondence of the Council of Action for Equal Pay is included together with much other material on equal pay and women in industry. This includes printed pamphlets, roneoed circulars and original correspondence and notes.
As well as the main body of Muriel Heagney papers, the Library holds a tape of a talk delivered by her in 1962 in which she speaks of the 1921 socialisation conference in Melbourne. Recorded when she was 72 years old, this tape reveals something of her compassion, her political vision and her considerable ability to present a mass of detailed information with logic and coherence. The tape is one of a series of recordings of figures in the Australian labor movement collected by Sam Merrifield. A complete descriptive list of the Muriel Heagney Papers has been drawn up and is available at the La Trobe Library.
Elisabeth Jackson
Heagney, Muriel. Papers. Australian Manuscripts Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria.
Most sections of the papers were used especially ‘Muriel Heagney; Labor activist for over fifty years’ and ‘Rough notes on the life story of Muriel Heagney’
Reid, Elizabeth. ‘The Women we Ignore’, Refractory girl, Autumn 1974, pp 9–12.


This title is the one which Muriel Heagney gave to an account of her life which she wrote in the 1950's. This and another account, ‘Rough notes on the life story of Muriel Heagney’, which she wrote about 1954, form the basis of these biographical notes.