Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War, by Carolyn Collins

Today, it seems incredible that there was a time not so long ago that an Australian government conscripted men too young to vote and sent them off to fight in a foreign war.  They were selected through a lottery based on their birthdates, and all of them lost their freedom while forced to undergo national service for two years.  They were sent to Vietnam, where some were killed, some were injured and some still suffer PTSD as a consequence. And what is even more extraordinary is that after Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser introduced conscription in 1964, they were re-elected in 1966 and in 1969.  Everyone who voted Liberal in those years, in my steadfast opinion, has blood on their hands. One of the earliest protest movements against this disgraceful episode in Australia’s history was Save Our Sons, founded in 1965 by a group of housewives from the Upper North Shore in Sydney.  It evolved until it was Australia wide, morphing from a very respectable and law-abiding movement to one which was involved in more radical and illegal activities, involving jail time for some of its members including the Fairlea Five. Carolyn Collins’ very readable and interesting history of Save Our Sons begins with the emergence of the movement throughout Australia.  Now, it seems very old-fashioned that they emphasised their domesticity and maternal instincts as elements in the morality of their campaigns, but in the 1960s it was newsworthy and powerful when in their first press release, the women denounced conscription as ‘morally wrong’, issuing ‘a distress call — SOS — to mothers everywhere. Their early forays were tentative, relying on peaceful, lawful and well established means of protests, including their signature ‘silent vigil’.  But as war and conscription dragged on, and the death and injury toll in Vietnam rose, many abandoned their genteel tactics and became more radical: scandalising Melbourne Cup goers in their scanty anti-war fashions; hijacking a Billy Graham evangelical rally; holding and publicising parties to fill in false conscription papers; refusing to pay their taxes; threatening to go on hunger strikes; padlocking themselves to Canberra’s Parliament House; and actively assisting young men to break the law.  In the 1970s they joined other protest groups to organise the moratorium activities and helped conscientious objectors and draft resisters avoid the authorities, moving them between a network of ‘safe houses’ they helped to establish. (p. xiii) The B&W photos, however, show peaceful protests of women in hats and gloves and sensible shoes — except for one, taken at the Ky protest in Brisbane, showing Queensland SOS secretary Vilma Ward and Norma Chalmers, with her stockings torn and a fractured heel after police dragged her along the ground.  Queensland was notorious at the time for the way it repressed dissent and SOS also became involved in the civil rights campaign for free speech and the right to assembly. Collins covers more of the movements in Sydney and Melbourne, mainly because more of their activities were documented. The Sydney group was more formal so there are minutes in the archives, while the Melbourne group was more loosely organised.  Collins was able to access ASIO files as well as newspaper coverage, and some members still living were interviewed. Chapter 8, ironically titled ‘Fan Mail’ shows that abusive commentary is nothing new.  Reflecting on their time in SOS, many of these women recount ostracism and worse: the abuse of their children; filthy letters and phone calls making violent threats; intra-family conflict; workplace hostility; and unsupportive husbands.  There was also surveillance and police intimidation, and the widespread accusation that they were communists and unpatriotic.    …SOS women, in their middle-class uniforms, created a conflicting and unsettling image, standing out at a time when the public image of women was domestic, maternal and passive, rather than political and active.  As women perceived to be acting outside their traditional domestic roles, they drew a strong current of disapproval that implied, both implicitly and explicitly, that they were ‘bad mothers’ and ‘neglectful wives.’ (p.209) It was their support for one another, and their sense of purpose and deep-felt belief that what they were doing was ‘the right thing’ that sustained them. According to Collins, there is some disagreement about the impact of SOS, with opinions ranging from the belief that their contribution was vastly underestimated to suggesting that they were just one of a number of groups involved in the anti-conscription campaign. But in the final analysis what matters to me is that they acted on a moral imperative and did what was within their means to do. I admire people who do that. This book is also reviewed at Inside Story. Author: Carolyn CollinsTitle: Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam WarPublisher: Monash Univ

Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War, by Carolyn Collins

Today, it seems incredible that there was a time not so long ago that an Australian government conscripted men too young to vote and sent them off to fight in a foreign war.  They were selected through a lottery based on their birthdates, and all of them lost their freedom while forced to undergo national service for two years.  They were sent to Vietnam, where some were killed, some were injured and some still suffer PTSD as a consequence.

And what is even more extraordinary is that after Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser introduced conscription in 1964, they were re-elected in 1966 and in 1969.  Everyone who voted Liberal in those years, in my steadfast opinion, has blood on their hands.

One of the earliest protest movements against this disgraceful episode in Australia’s history was Save Our Sons, founded in 1965 by a group of housewives from the Upper North Shore in Sydney.  It evolved until it was Australia wide, morphing from a very respectable and law-abiding movement to one which was involved in more radical and illegal activities, involving jail time for some of its members including the Fairlea Five.

Carolyn Collins’ very readable and interesting history of Save Our Sons begins with the emergence of the movement throughout Australia.  Now, it seems very old-fashioned that they emphasised their domesticity and maternal instincts as elements in the morality of their campaigns, but in the 1960s it was newsworthy and powerful when in their first press release, the women denounced conscription as ‘morally wrong’, issuing ‘a distress call — SOS — to mothers everywhere.

Their early forays were tentative, relying on peaceful, lawful and well established means of protests, including their signature ‘silent vigil’.  But as war and conscription dragged on, and the death and injury toll in Vietnam rose, many abandoned their genteel tactics and became more radical: scandalising Melbourne Cup goers in their scanty anti-war fashions; hijacking a Billy Graham evangelical rally; holding and publicising parties to fill in false conscription papers; refusing to pay their taxes; threatening to go on hunger strikes; padlocking themselves to Canberra’s Parliament House; and actively assisting young men to break the law.  In the 1970s they joined other protest groups to organise the moratorium activities and helped conscientious objectors and draft resisters avoid the authorities, moving them between a network of ‘safe houses’ they helped to establish. (p. xiii)

The B&W photos, however, show peaceful protests of women in hats and gloves and sensible shoes — except for one, taken at the Ky protest in Brisbane, showing Queensland SOS secretary Vilma Ward and Norma Chalmers, with her stockings torn and a fractured heel after police dragged her along the ground.  Queensland was notorious at the time for the way it repressed dissent and SOS also became involved in the civil rights campaign for free speech and the right to assembly.

Collins covers more of the movements in Sydney and Melbourne, mainly because more of their activities were documented. The Sydney group was more formal so there are minutes in the archives, while the Melbourne group was more loosely organised.  Collins was able to access ASIO files as well as newspaper coverage, and some members still living were interviewed.

Chapter 8, ironically titled ‘Fan Mail’ shows that abusive commentary is nothing new.  Reflecting on their time in SOS, many of these women recount ostracism and worse: the abuse of their children; filthy letters and phone calls making violent threats; intra-family conflict; workplace hostility; and unsupportive husbands.  There was also surveillance and police intimidation, and the widespread accusation that they were communists and unpatriotic.

   …SOS women, in their middle-class uniforms, created a conflicting and unsettling image, standing out at a time when the public image of women was domestic, maternal and passive, rather than political and active.  As women perceived to be acting outside their traditional domestic roles, they drew a strong current of disapproval that implied, both implicitly and explicitly, that they were ‘bad mothers’ and ‘neglectful wives.’ (p.209)

It was their support for one another, and their sense of purpose and deep-felt belief that what they were doing was ‘the right thing’ that sustained them.

According to Collins, there is some disagreement about the impact of SOS, with opinions ranging from the belief that their contribution was vastly underestimated to suggesting that they were just one of a number of groups involved in the anti-conscription campaign. But in the final analysis what matters to me is that they acted on a moral imperative and did what was within their means to do.

I admire people who do that.

This book is also reviewed at Inside Story.

Author: Carolyn Collins
Title: Save Our Sons: Women, Dissent and Conscription during the Vietnam War
Publisher: Monash University Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781925835960, pbk., 338 pages
Source: Bayside Library