The heroic woman who took a stand for Australia's war widows

Book Cover Many Hearts One VoiceA few years ago, Melinda Tognini responded to a small ad seeking a writer to complete a history of the War Widows’ Guild of Western Australia.  And so, this small book, Many Hearts One Voice, first an MA thesis, was started. And while the book is small it is an important story, telling the tales of ordinary women who did extraordinary things because they became war widows and cared about others.

The book is a collaborative effort from the author, friends and family of guild members and the author, guild members and librarians and archivists across Australia. There are many letters and photos in the book, quite a number of these from private collections. While the focus is on Western Australia, other state and the national body feature.

To my surprise, the War Widows Guild was not started until 1946, after World War 11. Jessie Vasey, the widow of Major General George Vasey, was an instigator of the movement for the foundation of a war widows’ support group, taking up the challenge given to her by her husband on his last visit home, when he said to her, “Look after the war widows.”

The group which was founded existed for advocacy for and support of war widows and their children. It was important to the war widows that their pension be seen, not as welfare, but as compensation for their loss. The Guild strongly advocated against the clause that could remove a widow’s pension if she was not deemed of ‘moral’ character. This was discriminatory as soldiers could claim for defacto wives. The clause was removed after fierce campaigning. Another area that required quiet persistence was recognition of war widows at marches and ceremonies such as those on ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day.

Support for widows took many forms and required money to finance their activities. Craft groups, especially weaving were set up in Perth to provide skills, companionship and income for the Guild. The Kiosk Esplanade became a meeting place and revenue raiser through the provision of morning and afternoon teas, lunches and rooms to rent. Meetings provided simple companionship. As time went on the Guild provided accommodation and facilities for health care for its aging membership.

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The details of the provision of these are probably more of interest to members of the Guild than to the general public, as is the list of office bearers and the details of the moves of the organization and the renovations of its headquarters.

What is of interest to the general public are the personal stories. The women became widows in different ways – in prisoner of war camps, from ‘friendly fire’, in accidents while in the services, in plane crashes, in battle.

I will choose just two names, Jessie Vasey and Marjorie Learmoth, as examples of women who worked tirelessly for others despite their own grief. These women were not afraid to take on politicians or the press and found themselves stepping outside the roles assigned to women of the 1950s to further their cause. I must point out that some women who worked for the organization have been honoured with OBE or CBE.

Sadly the work of the Guild will continue. One of the last photos of the book is of a young woman and her toddler son, whose husband had died serving in Afghanistan.

My congratulations to Melinda Tognini for bringing this remarkable story to light in such a readable way and to Freemantle Press for the review copy.

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Many Hearts One Voice by Melinda Tognini

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