Many things can get a girl down. How she looks. How much she earns. Whether she climbs the corporate ladder. Whether she cares for her children herself. Whether she has children. Whether she is married, single, divorced, separated, uninterested, uninteresting (or so she thinks).

For men? Just vary the variables. Modern life, full of choices and options, can be confounding. It can frazzle. Confuse. Disappoint.

Kathleen Ciwa Browne Rushton didn’t have the luxury of choice. I know this because, last week, I interviewed her daughter, Tricia Rushton.

In the late 1960s, Kathleen was working in a factory in Sydney to support her invalid husband, Meurig, their two teenage daughters, and Meurig’s mother, who was also an invalid. Both Kathleen and Meurig had grown up in Fiji and survived dramatic World War II experiences before migrating to Australia.

‘In Fiji, after the war, there was an attempt to reimpose a very hierarchical colonial structure, and my father in particular would not have that,’ says Tricia. ‘He really loved Indian people. He wanted to maintain his Indian and Fijian friends and equality, and they thought if they moved to Australia, it would be a less racist place.’

Even though Tricia’s parents were quite wealthy when she was a baby, they lost all their money due to health and other disasters. That is how Kathleen came to be making tin cans at the Gadsden-Hughes Factory in Five Dock, Sydney.

Poster 'Can it' from Richard Hughes Pty Ltd
Used with Permission Canada Bay Connections

The factory was full of migrant women. Kathleen was a migrant too, but unlike her co-workers, English was her first language. (She also spoke Fijian and Hindustani.)

‘My mother was earning 75% of what the man next to her earned, because she was a woman and there wasn’t equal pay. A guy called Halfpenny was around’- John Halfpenny was a powerful figure in the trade union movement -‘and my mother was angered at the high level of strikes and that the migrant women were being fooled; they did not understand why they were being asked to put up their hands.’

Dwell for a moment on the the picture of a factory worker, a woman paid 25% less than a man in the same job, a woman so ordinary that it might be hard to tell her apart from all the other women. Factories around the world are full of such women. Bangladesh. Vietnam. China.

Now think of two vocal, forceful men confronting her, men important enough to be brought in from interstate, men accustomed to speaking before crowds, men tackling the big issues of pay and work rights and conditions, men perhaps prepared to use whatever means necessary to reach their goal.

Sit down, they say.

No, she says.

Shut up, they say.

No, she says.

It’s enough to put the steel back in my backbone and rub the self-pity off my educated face. But wait. Kathleen was different to the other women.

‘She was blind. She had sight in only one eye and became very old and there was nothing particularly attractive about her except her love and warmth and she just used her persistence and sense of obligation in the community to make things right.

‘I think I have been shaped by her. If anyone thinks that I am half as effective as what my mother was – with all privileges she sacrificed to give me university degrees, and a senior executive career and all that – I would be incredibly proud.’

‘Right up until her deathbed,’ continues Tricia, ‘she was writing to the council, writing to people about things that weren’t right. For instance, when Medicare was first introduced in Australia, it was called Medibank in those days, she noticed that there was a gap. She was a pensioner by then. The Medibank gap inhibited people from going to the doctor. One day she received a phone call from the Commonwealth Minister for Health. “Neal Blewett here. What can I do for you?” She explained the gap problem. And they fixed it.’

Fixing. Lots of things need fixing. There is a lot to do, regardless of one’s employment status, one’s marital status, one’s parenthood status (I think I just coined that phrase).

Perspective. Kathleen’s story gives me perspective. I am part of a larger narrative.

Laughter. I hear the laughter and energy in Tricia’s voice and ask myself, when I am dead and gone, what is it that I have done today that will matter?

I feel like inserting an expletive here, directed at the little pesky problems that get me down. Generally speaking, I don’t swear. However, I want to very forcefully say that I’m not going to let those &*%$! things get the better of me. You know what I mean.

Next Friday: Magpies and me. Warning: it’s not a pretty story.