I’ve always loved anything to do with the 1960s, especially the fashions, music and the burgeoning feminist movement but I didn’t realise until I began researching ‘Suitcase of Dreams’, what a fascinating period it was here in Australia. The 50s and 60s were smack bang in an intense period of the Cold War. When I began researching communism and the trade union movement, I was amazed to find what a hothouse of intrigue this period was. Communism was rearing its head across the globe, threatening western democracies and instigating the widespread fear of ‘Reds under the Beds’. In Australia we had the Petrov affair and the Skiprov incident, diplomatic scandals that made me realise that we really were involved in the world of spies and conspiracy – James Bond, Maxwell Smart and Napoleon Solo – the man from UNCLE! (I love 1960s spy movies too)
This was a time when Australia really arrived on the world stage with our entry into the Vietnam War – democracy versus communism, the very heart of the Cold War. Our relationship with the USA became closer and stronger and we were no longer regarded as a provincial backwater. But the time of Australia’s innocence was over. Conscription of our young men, not yet old enough to vote, was mandatory arbitrary. The backlash against Vietnam rose with our increasing involvement in the conflict and the rising list of casualties.
Amidst the changing political landscape across the world and the effect this had on Australia, we experienced great social change, with a growing sense of social and political awareness. Women discovered that they had a voice too and the feminist movement was born. Although I’d known about the youth movement protesting the war, I hadn’t known about the ‘Save Our Sons’ organisation. These were often middle aged, middle class women who fought against sending our boys to Vietnam. They learnt how to navigate the political system; lobbying, writing letters, petitions, staging peaceful protests, educating themselves about the laws surrounding conscription and handing out leaflets and conscientious objection forms to mothers and young men of conscription age (eligible the year they turned 20) and even hiding young men in safe houses. This group came to national prominence in 1971 with the arrest of the ‘Fairlea Five’. Five prominent members of the group were arrested for trespassing on government property while handing out conscientious objection leaflets to young men and spent eleven days in Fairlea Women’s Prison. Huge vigils were held outside the prison as well as large rallies and protests and the situation received widespread media attention. In fact, many turned up to these vigils and rallies for the very first time, galvanised by the treatment of these women. The women of ‘Save Our Sons’ raised awareness of the war in Vietnam and paved the way for political activism by women through the 1970s and beyond.
I’ve only scratched the surface of Australia’s changing landscape during the period that Lotte and Erich were trying to find their feet and settle in their new home. I can only imagine the difficulties that migrants encountered at this time, making sense of a new culture, new ways and the many changes that were occurring. But migrants, often mothers, sisters and daughters, played a part in this change, doing what they could to make a better life for their children and grandchildren and along the way making Australia the country it is today, adding the richness and diversity that we now accept as part of who we are as Australians.