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Joyce Stevens (1928–2014)

by Jack Mundey

from Hummer

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Joyce Stevens was a prominent Sydney socialist feminist activist and writer and a leading member of the Communist Party of Australia.  She was an historian of the Women’s Movement (authoring three major publications[1] as well as writing countless leaflets on diverse issues over the years) and an inspiration to a whole generation of feminists. The obituary printed here is Judy Mundey’s eulogy delivered at Joyce’s funeral in May 2014.

 In July 2014, a Memorial for Joyce was held at Glebe Town Hall. Proceedings of the Memorial were recorded on sound and video tape, and are held at the Jessie Street National Women’s Library at 523-525 Harris Street, Ultimo NSW 2007, (02) 9571 5359.

Joyce Stevens was born on the 6th January, 1928 and was in her 87th year when she died on 6 May, 2014.

She was the third child in a family of four children, with two older brothers and a younger sister, Lorna, who survives her.  Her father was a railway fettler and her mother had been a nurse.

The family lived in country NSW and Joyce enjoyed some of the pleasures and freedoms of country children.  In her contribution to the 1993 book, Glorious Age, edited by Jocelynne Scutt, she talks of “wild ramblings in the bush” and elsewhere of this “undisciplined freedom of the bush”.  This freedom was truncated somewhat when the family moved to Casino and Joyce began school at the age of 6.

She moved to Sydney with her mother and two of her siblings when she was 14.  Her parents had, by then, separated.  In Sydney she attended the selective and prestigious North Sydney Girls High.

Joyce did not enjoy life at the school and decided to leave as soon as she could rather than pursuing her early goal of becoming a teacher.

She began her working life in an office and later spent a year in the Land Army and then became an organiser for the Eureka Youth League.  Jim Stevens, whom she later married, was also very active in the Eureka Youth League.

Joyce’s mother, Lucy Barnes, had been in the Rail Union’s Women’s Auxiliary in Casino and had been active in the ALP and the CPA and the Union of Australian Women.  In Sydney, Lucy worked for the Australasian Book Society which published books by Australian writers, usually with a left wing bias or flavour, at a time when publishers for such literary works were thin on the ground.

Joyce absorbed her mother’s progressive politics.  From an early age she developed a strong commitment to social justice and human rights.  In her youth she became involved in the socialist movement, joining the Australian Labor League of Youth which later became the Eureka Youth League.  At that time, the League’s major focus was on supporting the war effort to, as she said, deal a blow to fascism.  Many of the people in the League she most admired were members of the Communist Party and, impressed by their politics, she joined the Communist Party, later on working full time for the Party and later still, for Tribune, the Party’s paper.

Despite the bankruptcy of the Soviet form of socialism, Joyce never lost her idealism and commitment to a more just, egalitarian and democratic society free from the oppression of working people and free from racism and war and the particular oppression of women and for a society that provided opportunities for all.

In a piece she wrote for the Working Women’s Group of Women’s Liberation she commenced by stating:  “People can be free only in a society where human needs, rather than profits, determine the structures of society”.  She went on in that document to write about the special oppression of women but Joyce was never one dimensional and went on to state that the struggle for the liberation of women “is one part of the movement for the liberation of all people”.

I got to know Joyce in 1965 when I began working for the Communist Party.  Joyce was already working there.   At that time she was married to and living with Jim Stevens and their two children, Jamie and Jennifer.

We worked on and were involved in the various political issues of the day.

Then in the late 1960s some literature about women’s rights began to appear from the United States. It was exciting and liberating and we were gripped by the ideas.

We had been heavily involved in campaigns such as the ban the bomb movement, for improved living standards, support for industrial activity, for emerging environmental issues,  against nuclear testing in the pacific,  against uranium mining, against the Vietnam war.  We’d protested to the Soviet Union about the gaoling in 1967 of Soviet writers, Daniel and Synyevski, for expressing dissident ideas, we’d been delighted by the renewal of socialist ideas expressed by Alexander Dubcek in the Prague Spring and devastated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 crushing that renewal.

But somehow, in all of our campaigning, many issues of specific importance to women were at best peripheral.  It was not that there were not lots of strong women in the Communist Party but somehow other issues assumed priority and many issues of importance to women were not raised in polite society.

But things were about to change.  Other women were reading this emerging literature as well and in 1969 we attended the first meeting of Women’s Liberation in Glebe Point Road, Glebe.

At that time there was no sex discrimination or equal opportunity or sexual harassment legislation, there were no women’s health centres or refuges, domestic violence was a taboo subject, abortion was illegal, there was very limited access to knowledge about fertility control, women had few opportunities for promotion at work and were denied access to many occupations, women were paid less than men, even for the same work, there was no paid maternity leave and if women returned to work after having a child, then child care was their problem, homosexuality was illegal and it was some six years away from Lionel Murphy’s no-fault divorce legislation.

Joyce was like a force of nature in this new movement for the liberation of women.  She was enormously energetic, inspired and inspiring.

I just mention a few projects in which she played an important or leading role.

— The establishment of Women’s Liberation House, with the first premises being in Alberta Street, Sydney.

— The establishment of Control, a contraception and abortion referral service, run from Women’s Liberation House, which helped women to obtain contraceptive advice and which referred women for safe abortions, helping to lead in time to a change in the law.

— The publication of a free educational booklet designed to provide women with self help in fertility control called What Every Woman should Know.  It included a section on abortion rights and became quite controversial when it was distributed to senior girls in high schools.  This brought howls of protest from the shock jocks of the day but it further publicised the issues and received some positive as well as negative media feedback.  For some years progressive women teachers ordered copies and made the booklet available to senior female students.

— There were the yearly International Women’s Day marches.  These succeeded in mobilising large numbers of women and some supporting men and assisted to promote and provoke community debate about women’s issues.   Joyce wrote the following piece for IWD 1975:

 Because We’re Women[2]

  • Because our work is never done
  • and under or unpaid or boring or repetitious
  • and we’re the first to get the sack
  • and what we look like is more important than what we do
  • and if we get raped its our fault
  • and if we get bashed we must have provoked it
  • and if we raise our voices we’re nagging bitches
  • and if we enjoy sex we’re nymphos
  • and if we don’t were frigid
  • and if we love women its because we cant get a real man
  • and if we ask our doctor too many questions we’re neurotic and/or pushy
  • and if we expect community care for children we’re selfish
  • and if we stand up for our rights we’re aggressive and unfeminine
  • and if we don’t we’re typical weak females
  • and if we want to get married we’re out to trap a man
  • and if don’t we’re unnatural
  • and because we still cant get an adequate safe contraceptive but men can walk on the moon
  • and if we cant cope or don’t want a pregnancy
  • we’re made to feel guilty about abortion
  • and for lots and lots of other reasons

we are part of the women’s liberation movement.”

— There were the conferences, commissions and seminars in which Joyce’s ideas were always influential and her organising ability was often instrumental in the successful outcome.  These conferences identified issues like that of domestic violence, and needs, such as for women’s refuges.

It was following one such Women’s Commission in Sydney that a group of women began the hard but successful and rewarding work of turning a small property at Glebe in Sydney into Elsie, the first women’s refuge in Australia.

Another such issue identified was the need for the particular problems of women’s health to be addressed and this led to the establishment of the Leichhardt Women’s Health Centre in 1974 and the Liverpool Women’s Health Centre in 1975.  Joyce was not only an organiser of that conference but was a leading member of the group that was instrumental in establishing the centres.

— There was also the Working Women’s Charter, following a conference at the Tom Mann Theatre for which Joyce wrote a marvellous document setting out a comprehensive list of needs of working women.  Women’s employment issues had been at best marginal to the trade union movement up to that time but the ACTU Congress agreed to adopt the Charter albeit with the deletion of a number of the claims but it was an important start.

— Women’s Employment Action Centre/Campaign – which fought for better wages and working conditions and quality of life, especially for underprivileged women.

Joyce’s work was directed towards raising the status of women’s issues, empowering women to reduce their vulnerability and to redressing inequality.  She knew that women had to take responsibility to campaign, fight for and win changes for themselves.

She helped produce the first Women’s Liberation newspaper, MeJane, and the first socialist- feminist magazine, Scarlet Woman.

She was also an historian of the movement.  In 1985 Joyce wrote A History of International Women’s Day, published by IWD Press; in 1987 she wrote Taking the Revolution Home – Work Among Women in the Communist Party of Australia – 1920-1945 published by Sybilla Press; in 1991 Lightening the Load: Women at Work – A History of WEAC 1982-1989, published by WEAC and she was involved in documenting and writing a history of the first ten years of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Her contribution, influence and impact were enormous.

She was also involved in setting up a Register of Women in Non-traditional Jobs.  The reason I want to mention that is that Joyce’s daughter was one such woman.  Joyce was enormously proud when Jennifer became the first woman in Australia to break through into work as a television broadcast engineer.  Jamie already worked in television, as a floor manager, and Jennifer then became a trainee television engineer, the first woman to gain such a position.

Joyce didn’t always find it easy to express affection and could be a little direct at times, even with those closest to her, but she loved her children dearly and was delighted when she was presented with grandchildren of whom there are now four:  Jamie, Tristan, Lachlan and Lucy.

In her personal life, Joyce separated from Jim when she was 42, not long after joining Women’s Liberation.  Her dearest and most enduring relationship after that was with Margot who continued to visit and support and love Joyce through her later years when she was not well and could no longer live at home.  Margot, along with Jenny, was with Joyce on her last day.

In 1996 Joyce was awarded an Order of Australia for service to social justice for women as an activist and writer.  Joyce said afterwards that the thing she was most impressed with was that so many of her friends thought it was worth nominating her or supporting the nomination.  In typically modest fashion she referred to the common struggle everyone had been involved in.  But Joyce’s involvement was much more than this and it was a truly merited and deserved Order of Australia.

The Order of Australia was not her only award of public recognition for the work she did.  After moving into her Housing Department flat at Newtown, she became active in the Sydney Region Public Tenants Council and was, for a time, President of the Council.  In 1999 and 2001 Joyce received Certificates from the Council recognising her ongoing time, determination, valuable input and exceptional efforts to the organisation and to fellow tenants as well as for her encouragement of the expansion of public housing.

In 2002 Joyce received the Edna Ryan Award, created by the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

Despite the busyness of her own life she made time for other things, like visiting her father.  He had been gassed in the trenches and taken prisoner of war in the First World War.  By this time he was living in Bourke and Joyce made regular visits, driving to Bourke to see him, with the dog, and sometimes with Jenny, but usually all the way by herself with just the dog for company.  When her father died, she continued to travel to Bourke to visit Myrtle, her father’s wife, to give Myrtle what support and assistance she could.

She was a creative quilter, making quilts from small octagonal pieces of material.

She was a creative jewellery designer.

She was an enthusiastic gardener.

She had a lovely singing voice and could be induced at social events to sing a lovely Irish ballad as well as songs from the EYL days.

She was also a very good friend and during the worst time in our lives, Jack’s and mine, when we lost Michael, Joyce was there and helped to organise the funeral.

Joyce was loved by many, she was deeply and widely respected, she was entirely ethical, had enormous integrity, she was always dignified, she was self effacing and above all, she was inspiring. She achieved so much and made such a difference to the society in which she lived.

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Citation details

Jack Mundey, 'Stevens, Joyce (1928–2014)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012