The WRAP: International Women’s Day Edition

International Women’s Day!

A large group of women sitting and standing outside together from the Migrant Centre Hong Kong holding placards
Change Must Happen / Empowerment is Vital from UN Women Asia Pacific Asia

March 8 is a special day for women all over the world. It’s a day to celebrate women in all their political, cultural, generational, spiritual, physical, and economic variety which is quite a lot of celebrating, so it’s little wonder that in quite a few countries it’s a public holiday (hint hint).

We’re celebrating at MCWH with a special edition of the WRAP, from our executive director Dr. Adele Murdolo, followed by 60 seconds with her mum.

And speaking of strong migrant feminist role models, we hope that you’ve got your tickets to our special forum “Does feminism speak for all women?” on March 18th at the Melbourne Town Hall. We want you to be part of the conversation!

Wishing you an inspiring International Women’s Day,
from all the staff at MCWH

Two women standing on the Picket lines in the New York Shirtwaist Strike of 1909 in New York.

Well-behaved women do not make history

Adele Murdolo – Executive Director of Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health

Mae West had it right – well-behaved women do not make history. Indeed, for the most part we have badly behaved women to thank for our annual celebration of International Women’s Day. It’s a day that we commemorate the capacity of women all around the world to take political action on their own behalf and on behalf of others. We celebrate women who do not behave well in order to make the world a better and fairer place to live.

Of the many examples of women behaving badly in the early twentieth century that I could mention, there is one in particular that is lodged in my political consciousness (click the links for others). In the winter of 1909 in New York, women garment workers staged a general strike. 20-30,000 women workers, many of them migrant women, struck for 13 weeks in freezing temperatures for better pay and working conditions. These women were willing to loose their pay and jobs, even though they were often the family breadwinners. They were arrested and scape-goated by police, employers, politicians and the media. But still they persevered and through their perseverance, these brave, wise migrant women workers helped to pave the way for the long road toward much-needed legislative labour reforms in the US.

This extraordinary action has stuck in my mind—not because of its extraordinariness but because of its very ordinariness. At the time, these were ordinary sweatshops, ordinary working conditions for migrant workers, ordinary employers just making and selling clothes. Everybody was, according to the status quo, behaving well.

But behaving well does not lead to positive change, or even at times, to survival, especially for those most marginalised within in our globalised world. As Irma, a Filipina migrant woman working in California in the 1990s has put it:

We dream that when we work hard, we’ll be able to clothe our children decently, and still have a little time and money left for ourselves. And we dream that when we do as good as other people, we get treated the same, and that nobody puts us down because we are not like them…Then we ask ourselves: How can we make these things come true?” and so far we’ve come up with only two possible answers: win the lottery or organise.

Like the migrant women striking in the early twentieth century, when ordinary working women, tired of risking their health for occupational hazards, organise and take action, extraordinary things happen. And that’s when history happens.

But—there’s history and then there’s History. I certainly didn’t learn about this kind of history at high school. What I didn’t learn from history books, I first learned from my mum.  My mum worked at a factory in Moorabbin, where I grew up. And one day the women at that factory, most of them migrant women, dissatisfied with the exploitative pay and conditions at their workplace, went out on strike.

I can still remember how proud my mum was about this action, as we all were. There she was, sitting outside the factory with her co-workers instead of working inside with the smelly glue and timber and constant noise. She was so proud that they were actively taking a stand, supported by their union, not putting up with being treated like they didn’t have rights or needs.
After the strike, which was successful, mum brought home a photo that one of her co-workers had taken of the group, a thermos with steaming coffee taking centre stage as a symbol of the women’s strength and full intent to stay out there as long as it took.

I learned from this action, taken that week by my mum and her co-workers at their factory, and taken throughout history at other factories by someone else’s mum or daughter or partner. I learned how extraordinary ordinary women can be … and how absent from our history books they are.

It opened my eyes—once I started to look beyond the books I could see badly-behaved women everywhere! There were women workers going out on strike and confronting sexual harassers; mothers, aunts and grandmothers bringing up kids in peaceful and progressive ways (right in the midst of this war-making world); women against all odds seeking peaceful asylum; indigenous women protecting their own land and cultures; migrant and indigenous women speaking out about racism and sexism; queer and lesbian women unapologetically taking women lovers; women escaping violence from the men in their families, their churches and their schools.

All these badly behaved women are an inspiration. They make history and we need to make sure that their bad behaviour does not go unseen, unrecognised and unrewarded. So today is the day to remember the badly behaved migrant women workers—the commemorated ones of industrial New York, as well as the forgotten ones of sunny California and suburban Moorabbin. You may even know some badly behaved women. Today is the day to thank them.


60 seconds with Santina Murdolo

retired factory worker, maker of history, badly behaved grandmother of five


If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
I don’t want any super power I just want to be happy.

What talent would you most like to possess?
I would like to be able to sing romantic songs. I would like to sing old Italian songs like Volare and Rose Rosse – not those songs that scream like mad.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australian culture, what would it be?
To give herself or himself time to slowly get used to it. Australia is not that bad – it’s a good country – but you do need patience and time. Slowly you get used to it.

What’s your favourite word in the English language? Why?
The first English words I learnt were ‘never never’, but I didn’t know what they meant at the time! The words I like are care, love, help, be happy. There are so many things wrong with this world so these words are important.

What would your last meal be?
A plate of pasta of course! I wouldn’t exchange that with anything!

What would you work for instead of money?
We all need money. But I would work to be with other people, to talk. I enjoyed the time that I worked.  It was hard work, manual labour and dirty. But we could talk, laugh and smile. I was happy. It sounds funny but I enjoyed it. I went to work because I needed to get out of the house, because I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I had so much to do at home but I got much happier when I went out to work.

What’s your favourite possession?
I never really had a favourite possession. Except for my house. It’s not a beautiful house but it’s mine. I’m happy to say that if I put a nail up in the house nobody can tell me to take it down.

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
I enjoy it when I have my grand kids with me. I love to talk to them, cook for them, enjoy their company. Maybe they make more work but I wouldn’t change that for anything. I feel happy when they are there.