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Williams, Katherine Mary Isabel (1895–1975)

by Zelda D'Aprano

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Katherine Mary Isabel Williams (1895-1975), unionist, was born on 23 April 1895 at Lara, Victoria, second of five children of Edward Crombie Chambers, an articled law clerk from Queensland, and his locally born wife Jane Miriam, née Harding. After attending Melbourne University High School, Kath graduated from the Melbourne College of Domestic Economy in 1915 and commenced teaching at Daylesford the next year. Reports on her teaching described her as bright, hardworking and reliable. On 31 March 1917 at Box Hill she married, with the forms of the Churches of Christ, Percy James Clarey, a young trade union leader. Kath supported and encouraged his political ambitions.

Devoted to the Australian Labor Party, Mrs Clarey became secretary of its Caulfield branch, president of the Women's Organising Committee and a member of the State executive. She stood as Labor candidate for the seat of Caulfield in the Legislative Assembly election of 1935 but withdrew before the poll. In December, with Maurice Blackburn and others, she was excluded from the A.L.P., having spoken at a rally organized by the Victorian Council against War and Fascism; contrary to the party's policy, she advocated that sanctions be imposed against Italy, after its invasion of Abyssinia. She was reinstated the following year. Her developing radical views and activities had strained the marriage; in 1936 she joined the Communist Party of Australia and she and Clarey were divorced in December. She was granted custody of their younger son.

Returning to teaching in 1938, at Portland, Kath transferred in 1942 to Wonthaggi, where she threw herself into local activities and supported the miners. On 11 August 1945 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, she married an English-born coalminer, Anthony ('Andy') Williams. The marriage was unsuccessful; she returned to Melbourne in 1948 and became an organizer for the Liquor Trades Union. She immediately took up the issue of equal pay for women. Her position on the State committee of the Communist Party (from 1948) enabled her to apply pressure on her trade union comrades. She presented the case for equal pay as union delegate to the Melbourne Trades Hall Council and, after the Australian Council of Trade Unions' congress of 1953 agreed to establish equal pay committees in each State, Mrs Williams was elected secretary of the Victorian committee. She also became a delegate to A.C.T.U. conferences. An observer at the first World Conference of Working Women, held in Budapest in 1956, she presented a paper on the campaign in Australia. When she returned, she wrote a booklet about the struggle, Equality Will Be Won (1956).

Kath Williams was the dynamic force behind the equal pay campaign in Victoria during the 1950s and 1960s. She organized meetings, conferences and street demonstrations, addressed gatherings, participated in deputations, and produced leaflets and circulars to be distributed to all unions. In 1963 she resigned from the C.P.A. and joined the new Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). Williams retired from her position as union organizer in 1967. Having seen equal pay become a reality for Australian women, she died on 17 April 1975 at Oakleigh and was buried in Springvale cemetery. The two sons of her first marriage survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Best, The History of the Liquor Trades Union in Victoria (Melb, 1990)
  • Z. D'Aprano, Kath Williams (Melb, 2001)
  • Recorder (Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. Melbourne Branch), no 76, June 1975, p 16
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Mar 1939, 12 Jan 1953
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 5 July 1963.

Citation details

Zelda D'Aprano, 'Williams, Katherine Mary Isabel (1895–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-katherine-mary-isabel-12034/text21587, accessed 21 November 2017.

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