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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Noreen May Hewitt (1920–2012)

by Adrienne Truelove

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Noreen Hewett's causes were many: the 1949 miner's strike, the wages and conditions of working people and pensioners, the Save Our Sons campaign, which she co-founded, and the Older Women's Network (OWN). Throughout her life she lived by the dictum, "Don't get angry, get organised!"

Noreen May Emerson was born on May 6, 1920, the fourth of five children to George Emerson and his wife, Alice (nee Gilroy). George came home from World War I with what today would be called post-traumatic stress disorder and Noreen spent many of her early years with relatives around Sydney because George was drinking. He committed suicide in 1934.

Alice's mother taught Noreen to read and write before she began school and she soaked up books and ideas despite often moving schools. After George's suicide, 14-year-old Noreen completed a secretarial course and joined the Repatriation Department.

In 1941 a door-knocker persuaded her to buy a copy of Tribune, the Communist Party newspaper. She must have responded with enthusiasm, because he suggested that for a little more money she could join the party. She was 21 and joined ''because it was illegal''.

Noreen found her perfect partner in Sydney Hewett, a widower with a young son, Roy. They married in 1944 and the following year she had another son, Rex.

After World War II, Hewett joined the Miners' Federation as assistant editor of its journal, Common Cause, and was involved in reporting the coal miners' strike of 1949. Seeing that the miners' wives needed a voice, she revived the Miners' Women's Auxiliaries, which supported the campaigns of the miners, and became a political force for developing women's policies within the male-dominated federation.

In the late 1950s Hewett was elected national secretary of the Union of Australian Women and spearheaded national campaigns for adequate childcare, increased child endowment and price control of basic foods. She was a regular factory gate speaker on equal pay and better working conditions for women and helped to establish the union's Working Women's Group.

In 1959 Hewett went to China to cover celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. She was the first Western female journalist to visit post-revolutionary China, and she forged lasting relationships with the leaders of the Chinese Women's Movement.

In 1964 the Menzies government enacted new laws on conscription. Hewett's son Rex was in the first ballot for men to fight in Vietnam, along with his cousin Les Emerson. Rex became a conscientious objector, and Les was forced to fight. Hewett decided to mobilise against conscripting young men and against the war.

In May 1965 she and Joyce Golgerth, also the mother of a conscript, founded the Save Our Sons group in Sydney. It quickly grew to become a nationally recognised voice in the conscription debate, holding almost daily demonstrations. In 1966 Hewett was also instrumental in organising the Caravan Against Conscription, which took the message to rural NSW.

In 1970 Syd Hewett retired, and he and Noreen moved to Nelson Bay, where she immediately became involved in a successful community campaign to stop a developer building apartment blocks on the foreshore.

Back in Sydney in the early 1980s, Hewett took up the cause of pensioners' rights and became a spokeswoman for the Combined Pensioners Association, later Australian Pensioners and Superannuants Federation.

In the 1990s, she was joint founder of the Older Women's Network and remained active in the network up until the end of last year. During the waterfront dispute in 1998, at 78, Hewett joined the Maritime Union of Australia picket line at Botany and was interviewed by a 2GB reporter.

Through OWN, Hewett met Dorothy Cora, who wrote Noreen Hewett: Portrait of a Grassroots Activist (2010).

Only in 2009 did Hewett give up independent living and move into a hostel. She still completed the Herald cryptic crossword every day, always in less than an hour.

Hewett suffered a stroke in January and starved herself to death with her usual calmness, clear knowledge and determination after refusing all life-prolonging care.

Noreen Hewett is survived by sons Roy and Rex, daughters-in-law Bev and Helen, granddaughters Karla, Robyn and Peta, and the Emerson and Rogers families. Syd died in 1987.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Adrienne Truelove, 'Hewitt, Noreen May (1920–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012