For Love or Money: First women's union

For Love or Money: First women's union
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This clip talks about the conditions that led to the Melbourne Tailoresses Strike of 1882 to 1883. Summary by Adrienne Parr.

By the 1870s industrialisation and the growth of textile and clothing manufacturing had brought women into the factories as cheap labour. Oppressive work practices or ‘sweating’ in the garment industry was common. By 1880 a group of tailoresses, led by Helen Lothan Robertson, had begun campaigning against the actions of employers. In 1882 Melbourne clothing manufacturer Beith Shiess & Co attempted to reduce the already low piece-rate wages. In response, Robertson and the tailoresses formed the Tailoresses’ Association of Melbourne, the first exclusively female trade union in Australia. A list of claims was drawn up and when no response from the manufacturers was received, a strike was called on 15 February 1883. Increasing prosperity, a relatively tight labour market and the support of The Age newspaper in garnering public sympathy resulted in most employers accepting the claims by March 1883.


For Love or Money synopsis

Using a vast array of historical footage, the film proposes a history of women and work in Australia, from 1788 to 1983.


For Love or Money curator's notes

A concurrence of initiatives arising from the 1977 Women’s Film Production Workshop and the 1978 inaugural Women and Labour Conference, resulted in four filmmakers – Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley – commencing a film history of Australian women at work. Meticulous research unearthed an extensive collection of material – feature films, home movies, news and newsreels, documentaries, television shows, commercials, photographs, radio shows, diaries, popular music, letters and interviews – dating back to the 18th century and showing women, of every decade and every background, at work in all its myriad forms. Over five years in the making, the film – an epic 109 minutes long – is set out in four parts: Hard Labour (1788-1914), Daughters of Toil (1914-1939), Working for the Duration (1939-1969) and Work of Value (1969-1983). A narration by Noni Hazlehurst connects hundreds of excerpts from hundreds of historical sources, painstakingly collected and reproduced. At a time when historical footage reproduction meant interpositives and internegatives, and costings per feet and frames, it’s almost impossible to imagine the methodical cataloguing and ordering of the material involved.

Released in the wake of films like The Song of the Shirt (UK 1979) and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (US 1980), For Love or Money was one of a new genre of historical documentaries, where young filmmakers took command of the archive and used its images (both those that had helped determine national histories and those that had been denied a contribution to these histories) to attempt to reformulate – or at least refocus – collective memories. Most of these films today, some 25 years down the track, stand the test of time. For Love or Money is no exception.

However, while a film like The Song of the Shirt investigated a particular moment in history and used it to expand into broader political debates, For Love or Money set for itself an extraordinarily ambitious project. Using almost totally historical material and including only small segments of new footage, it embarked on a history encompassing the role of all Australian women (young, old, Indigenous, colonial, modern, white, non-Anglo, middle class, working class, et al) in both paid and unpaid work, over a 200 year period. There was almost no choice but to funnel this massive compilation into a chronology – albeit one with three sides. On one side is the story of the struggle for equality and better conditions in the broad spectrum of the paid workforce. On another side is a proposal for a radical analysis of women’s work as mothers, carers, householders and lovers. And on a third side is a dialogue on feminism and history.

It was the project’s ambition, and the consequences of that ambition, that generated criticism at the time of its release – in particular the film’s attempt to unify its content, and produce a single position (the narration’s ‘we’) from which to both speak about the content and to move forward into the future. In their 1987 essay 'For Love or Money: A Work of Loving’ (included in Don’t Shoot Darling), Ann Curthoys and Susan Dermody pointed out that ‘the rewards of this approach can be great, as the film amply shows. But the accompanying dangers – closely related to the blurring and blending of modes of address and appeal in the voice-over – are also great. The film risks being seen as eliciting a kind of homogenising sentimentalism, one that counters the whole vast work of its analysis of history.’

A decade later, Felicity Collins, in her 1998 essay 'The Experimental Practice of History in the Filmwork of Jeni Thornley’ (included in Screening the Past, Issue 3), argued for a retrospective viewing of the film ‘in the light of a renewed interest, since the late 1980s, of feminist film theorists in questions of history’. Collins saw the image of female unity in For Love or Money as ‘fragmented into multiple reminiscences which work against the unifying voice of the narrator and against the linearity of historicist time’. She went on to add however that the film attempts to subsume these ‘multiple reminiscences’ into ‘one temporality’, in order to find an resolution – that is, to find a position from where a feminist future can begin. The attempt results in what Collins saw as multiple endings to the film.

Today, another decade later, it’s these multiple endings that most strongly articulate a particular problem for the feminist telling of history. They point to why, even by the time For Love or Money was released, significant numbers of younger feminists had begun looking for new modes of identifying themselves. This unresolved problem of feminism and history was explored, in varying degrees and to greater extent and effect, in later films made by the filmmakers individually: To the Other Shore (directed by Jeni Thornley), Breathing Under Water (produced by Megan McMurchy) and Shadow Panic and Vacant Possession (both directed by Margot Nash).

Following its release, For Love or Money was accepted into just about every international film festival on the map, picking up a swag of awards on its travels. A book, For Love or Money: A Pictorial History of Women and Work in Australia, written by the three of the filmmakers (McMurchy, Oliver and Thornley), was released in conjunction with the film. Published by Penguin Books, the book was edited by Irina Dunn, with Lyndall Ryan the historical consultant.

Notes by Adrienne Parr


Secondary curator's notes

For Love or Money is an interesting documentary that, through archival footage and photographs, attempts to give a feminist perspective on the role of women in Australian history. The inclusion of archival footage of Indigenous women in traditional, urban and rural settings within various periods of history, is somewhat tentatively placed. The inclusion of stolen generation issues, assimilation practices, blackbirding – or the theft of Melanesian people for cheap labour – was included with good intentions by the filmmakers, but to link the issues of Indigenous womanhood with white womanhood is somewhat misleading.

While the story of the Suffragettes, the fight for equal pay for women and the historical struggle for equality for women that continues into the present day is greatly informative, the issue for Indigenous women is one of racism as well as sexism, for the struggle for liberty of Indigenous women, like Indigenous men, is the struggle against racism. The rights and privileges of white womanhood for example, are not the same simply in that Indigenous women endure fewer rights than white women. Indigenous men also, arguably, have less rights than white women. The feminist framing of Indigenous womanhood suggests that the struggle of Indigenous women is aligned with white womanhood, when in fact, the struggle for Indigenous women is, like Indigenous males, one against racism as well as subjugation based on gender.

Secondary notes by Romaine Moreton


Education Notes

This clip shows etchings, newspaper headlines and archival photographs of individuals and women in factories that illustrate the history of women’s employment in late-19th-century Australia. The visuals are accompanied by a voice-over narration, readings of original texts and an avant-garde soundtrack. All these elements, together with the rapid change of images, dramatise the background to and beginnings of organised female unionism in Australia.

Educational value points

  • The clip refers to the Victorian Tailoresses’ Strike of 1882–83, a landmark event in Australia’s history because it was the first strike in Australia of a women’s union. In 1882, following sporadic, unsuccessful strikes against pay cuts, women in tailoring factories formed the Victorian Tailoresses’ Union. In February 1883 around 1,200 tailoresses went on strike. By the end of the month most employers had accepted the Union’s log of claims on hours and wages (although they were not bound to act on them). The strike raised public awareness of working conditions in factories.
  • The clip features women at work during the 1870–90 Australian manufacturing boom, which drew thousands of women into factory life and outwork, especially in Victoria. The number of clothing and textile factories in Victoria rose from around 70 to more than 200 by 1881, offering an alternative to domestic service for some women. The growth intensified competition, particularly from small operators, who, with fewer than 10 employees, were exempt from regulations concerning the employment of women and girls in workrooms and factories laid down in the 1873 Factory Act. The Act fixed the hours of work and standards of lighting, air space and ventilation for the factories and workshops, but could be petitioned against. Piece rates were then reduced in the factories in order to cut costs.
  • Helen Lothan Robertson (1848–1937), a pioneer of female trade unionism in Australia, is pictured in the clip. From a Scottish migrant family, Helen started her career in the clothing trade at 14. Responding to oppressive work practices, she helped form the Tailoresses’ Association, which later became the Tailoresses’ Union. She led a deputation to the Trades Hall, and obtained their support. Having helped lead the successful Tailoresses’ Strike of 1883, Helen became a foundation member of the Female Operatives’ Hall. She was an active member of the Eight Hours Committee from 1894 and was vice-president and then a member of the executive of the Federated Clothing Trades Union until 1925.
  • The movement from a 10-hour (8 hours on Saturday) to an 8-hour day, led by Melbourne stonemasons, is referred to in the clip. The stonemasons argued that an 8-hour working day was not only appropriate given the extremes of the Australian climate, but also allowed time for workers to improve their 'social and moral condition’. On 21 April 1856, an 8-hour day was introduced into the building trades in Melbourne and was a world first; 8 hours still constitutes a 'working day’ today. Australia’s Labour Day holiday commemorates this achievement.
  • The clip refers to the period 1850–1900, which saw the development of Australian trade unions. Transportation ended in the eastern states in 1853 and from 1851, with the discovery of gold, large numbers of immigrants arrived in Australia seeking a new life. Various craft unions were formed despite unions being outlawed in Britain, a decision that was not rescinded until 1870. The first union in Australia was the Stonemasons’ Union formed in 1850, which formed the backbone of the Eight Hour Day movement in Melbourne and Sydney.
  • The clip is from the award-winning documentary For Love or Money (1983) by Megan McMurchy, Margot Oliver, Margot Nash and Jeni Thornley.
  • Growing tension between professionalism on the one hand and radical feminist politics on the other characterised the period and the team that made For Love or Money. The tension led to splinters in the various women’s and feminist collectives of the day. The filmmaking team of For Love or Money embodied some of these differences. The fact that the film, book and study guide were completed and successful, both in terms of wide distribution and returns to the AFC, was a testament to the team’s ability to resolve differences and to manage film industry, trade union and community investors.
  • For Love or Money draws from a wide variety of archival sources, including home movies, newsreels, documentaries, diaries, popular songs and interviews. These are unified with a voice-over narration by actor Noni Hazelhurst. It also draws from more than 200 films made in Australia between 1906 and 1983 and has original music by Elizabeth Drake. The film won many awards, including the United Nations Media Peace Prize of 1985.
  • For Love or Money, produced in 1983, is an Australian archival compilation documentary. Other examples of this style of documentary from around the same time are The Song of the Shirt (UK, 1979), about women working in the clothing industry in 19th-century Britain and The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (USA, 1980), about women replacing men in US factories during the Second World War.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Flashback Films
A film by:
Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver, Jeni Thornley
Music by:
Elizabeth Drake

This clip starts approximately 18 minutes into the documentary.

A sequence of etchings, newspaper headlines and archival photographs of women in factories and in their homes display on screen as we hear narration and dramatised voiceovers of two fictional women from the 19th Century.

Narrator Trade unionism, the great workers’ movement of the 19th century. But the men who call for unity of the working classes exclude women and Chinese from their unions, scorning them as cheap workers.
Woman 1 (voiceover) If the leaders of the labour federation had truly at heart the welfare of their working sisters, they would allow women to be incorporated under to the men’s unions. 
Woman 2 (voiceover) Trade unions would dispute, or force out of sight, if possible, the right of women to enter the labour market at all. But women must have work, for there are thousands not depending on any man for support. 
Narrator(voiceover) In the clothing trade, conditions are desperate. Tailoresses take home hours of work after their long days in the factory, just to scrape a living. She must keep her mind on this work before her. She must stay here. She must not let her eyes wander. She must keep working. She must not think too often of the time. She must keep her eyes in focus. She must not think of where she would like to be. 
Woman 1 (voiceover) In the course of my rounds one day, I came upon a deserted wife left to support three children. She was struggling to make a living by making shirts for a factory at four shillings a dozen. She had worked all Sunday, had risen early on Monday morning and stayed up till midnight working continuously, except for the necessary interruptions of meals and of dressing and undressing her children. 
Woman 2 (voiceover, sneering) Oh, yes. ‘Mrs M. wore a magnificent dress’, the paper says. But it doesn’t tell how our faces are ground, how we are crushed to get the gold to pay its price. ‘Mrs M. was in rose coloured tulle. It set off her pretty complexion.’ The dye for the rose-coloured tulle, girls, is our blood! 
Narrator Single women in the factories and married women in their homes are pitted against each other. Middle men and manufacturers compete by cutting the women’s wages down to starvation level. 
Woman 1 (voiceover) Six weeks ago, we were getting four and eight-pence a coat, including an extra pocket. The firm tried to reduce the amount to four and tuppence, but we refused to accept it. They then took off thruppence. Then they said they’d take off another thruppence. And then we struck. 
Woman 2 (voiceover) We got some (inaudible) printed and in the darkness of night, two of us plastered the factories with them. The meeting that resulted was very successful and was really the starting point of our improvement.