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Irene Adelaide Greenwood (1898–1992)

by Catherine Horne Fisher

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Irene Greenwood, c.1940

Irene Greenwood, c.1940

Murdoch University

Irene Adelaide Greenwood (1898–1992), feminist, peace activist, and broadcaster, was born on 9 December 1898 at Albany, Western Australia, eldest of five children of Victorian-born Henry Driver, storeman, and his South Australian-born wife Mary Ann, née Hicken. Later in life Irene would state that her birth coincided with the year that Western Australian women were enfranchised. Her mother had been a notable figure in the early Western Australian women’s movement through her involvement in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Women’s Service Guilds of Western Australia, and the Australian Federation of Women Voters; her feminist activism was a significant influence on her daughter. Having attended Albany State School (1905–12) and Perth Modern School (1913–17), Irene studied arts at the University of Western Australia (1917–18) but did not graduate.

Working as a secretary for the Department of Agriculture (1918–20), Driver met her husband, Albert Ernest Greenwood (d. 1964), an accountant. They married at the Anglican Church of the Annunciation, Broome, on 18 June 1920. The couple then lived in Broome, where Albert was employed as a legal clerk, until 1925. Observing the plight of some local Aboriginal women, Irene made use of her husband’s position to try to help them sue for maintenance from the white Australian men who had fathered their children; she was unsuccessful.

After the family returned to Perth, Greenwood became active in the local women’s movement, following her mother into the Women’s Service Guilds and developing an extensive network, which included the feminist leader and Guilds’ co-founder Bessie Rischbieth. In 1931 she moved with her husband to Sydney and joined the United Associations (later the United Associations of Women), becoming a council member (1932–34), honorary secretary (1935), and vice-president (1934–35). Working closely with Linda Littlejohn and Jessie Street in the debating team and on the broadcasting committee, she gave radio talks in support of the organisation’s aims. She later credited this experience as formative for her feminist activism and her broadcasting career.

In 1936, having moved back to Perth, Greenwood began a series of weekly talks on the Australian Broadcasting Commission radio network entitled ‘Women in the International News’ which she continued periodically for twelve years. They were well received by women in Western Australia, particularly those in remote areas. She also gave international short-wave broadcasts (1940–41) aimed at building domestic support in the United States of America for the Allied effort before that country entered World War II. Despite this contribution to the war effort, she was a committed peace activist and sympathised with internationalist left-wing politics. A member of the Communist Party of Australia from 1942, she was periodically under surveillance by the security services; she later allowed her membership to lapse. Although she was sometimes asked to censor material in her ABC radio talks owing to their pro-Soviet Union messages, she became adept at navigating editorial policy while still promoting her agenda.

From 1948 until 1954 Greenwood hosted her own women’s session, ‘Woman to Woman,’ on the commercial 6AM radio network in Perth, which provided her with greater control over programming and considerably expanded her audience. Following her retirement from broadcasting in 1954 she continued to be involved in feminism and peace activism. She became president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, State president (1966–69) of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and edited the monthly journal Peace and Freedom for ten years. Through these roles she was involved in the WILPF’s campaigning for nuclear and general disarmament, and was scathing of Australia’s continued export of uranium to countries with the potential to build nuclear weapons. As an Australian delegate, she attended the 1965 golden jubilee conference of the WILPF in The Hague, Netherlands. An active participant in the protest movement against conscription and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, she wrote letters to newspapers, addressed meetings and rallies, and marched in street demonstrations. Her feminism bridged conservative and progressive organisations; when asked why she was involved with the Women’s Service Guilds, she is said to have replied ‘I know they are conservative, but they would be so much worse without me’ (Giles 1999, 62).

In 1974 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed Greenwood to the National Council for International Women’s Year 1975. She was appointed AO in 1975, and received a Queen Elizabeth II silver jubilee medal (1977) and a United Nations Association of Australia Silver Peace Medal (1982). She was made a life member of the State branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (1975), a life vice-president of the Women’s Service Guilds of Western Australia, and a life vice-president of the Western Australian branch of WILPF. In 1981 Murdoch University conferred on her an honorary doctorate.

Greenwood described her appearance as ‘blue-eyed, high colour, typical north-European,’ and placed special value on her red hair, which she believed indicated a ‘fiery and impulsive’ temperament, prone to ‘acting out of the ordinary’ (1992, 108–9). She had a ‘cultured and friendly voice’ (MUL QU 305.42 MUR), the result of elocution training from the speech therapist Lionel Logue early in her career, which endeared her to her radio audience and gave a respectable veneer to her often controversial left-wing broadcasts.

Survived by her daughter, Greenwood died on 14 April 1992 at Claremont, Perth, after a stroke in 1989 had left her disabled and in nursing home care; she was cremated at Karrakatta cemetery. She left to Murdoch University an extensive collection of papers that provide a rare and comprehensive insight into the Western Australian women’s and peace movements, as well as her role as a pioneer of women’s broadcasting. The Western Australian Coastal Shipping Commission (Stateships) named its vessel Irene Greenwood in her honour in 1984.

Select Bibliography

  • Giles, Patricia. ‘Irene Greenwood: A Hero of the Feminist Movement (Keynote Address).’ Papers in Labour History. No. 21 (1999): 56–69
  • Greenwood, Irene. ‘Chronicle of Change.’ In As a Woman: Writing Women’s Lives, edited by Jocelyn A. Scutt, 107–20. Melbourne: Artemis Publishing, 1992
  • Greenwood, Irene. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 9 March 1976. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Murdoch University Library. QU 305.42 MUR. Irene Greenwood Collection
  • Murray, Kaye. Voice for Peace: The Spirit of Social Activist Irene Greenwood (18981992). Perth: Kaye Murray Productions, 2005
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119/2750
  • National Library of Australia. Papers of Irene Greenwood 1912–1981
  • Richardson, John Andrew. ‘The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954.’ Honours thesis, Murdoch University, 1988
  • West Australian. ‘Honour for Feminist (81).’ 24 March 1981, 5

Additional Resources

Citation details

Catherine Horne Fisher, 'Greenwood, Irene Adelaide (1898–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

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