Waratah Rose: Farewell to a gutsy socialist feminist

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On 22 June 2010 we lost a gutsy warrior for peace and justice. Waratah Rose Gillespie — who called herself Rosemarie when I first worked with her — was a mightily effective rabble-rouser who spent more than four decades on the front lines of the battle for a better world. She was 69.

An activist, author, filmmaker, lawyer, friend and mother, she made her mark fighting tenaciously for the liberation of all the oppressed. The capitalist media — of which she had a rather low opinion — reported her death, focussing on the times when her rebellious courage simply could not be ignored. In 1987, she was taken as a political prisoner during the first Fiji coup. In 1992 she broke the blockade of Bougainville, taking supplies to a beleaguered people fighting for their independence. Despite being shot at by Australian helicopter gunships, she defied the siege three more times. In 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, she went to Baghdad, where she drew attention to the plight of the Iraqi people by acting as a human shield during the worst of the bombardment.

While the media focused on her status as a grandmother and the daring nature of her actions, it rarely gave voice to her anti-capitalist ideas. But she found other ways to promote her views: publishing books, making films and speaking at community meetings and rallies. Like many others who shared her ideas, we were delighted to host Rosemarie at Solidarity Salon for a special screening of her film, Invasion of Iraq: An Eyewitness Account. Her 2005 pamphlet, About Aboriginal Sovereignty, was also a steady seller at the Solidarity Salon bookstore.

Rosemarie always got right to the point about the fundamental cause of society’s problems. On her web page she explains the cause of war: “Capitalism, because it is driven by greed and depends on the exploitation of people and nature, leads to wars over resources such as oil and minerals. It becomes a brutal form of international piracy, which causes great human suffering to innocent people, especially women, children and old people.”

Born in Melbourne in 1941 of mixed Aboriginal and European heritage, Waratah Rose fought racism her entire life. As a university student, she was active in challenging the White Australia policy, which prevented non-European immigration. Her advocacy for Indigenous rights continued until her death. She supported the work of the Indigenous Social Justice Association to stop deaths in custody. From day one she spoke out strongly against the intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. With her characteristic clarity, she cut through all the nauseating government spin to explain the real goals of the Intervention: “the speed with which the Intervention was imposed suggests John Howard was waiting for an opportunity to remove land rights to assist the mining industry, while at the same time giving the appearance of acting in the national interest.” Waratah was also great at metaphors, for example describing the Intervention as “a new wave of racism spread like excrement from an outhouse.”

Waratah had a great sense of humour, incredible energy and staying power. While the media reported the blockade busting and other activities, what I most admired was Rosemarie’s commitment — she was always there for the struggle, and you just knew that she could never be bought off.

Rosemarie also inspires me because she was such a strong socialist feminist. We worked together on the collective that organised SF84: Down to Business — a four-day socialist feminist conference held in Melbourne in March 1984. The hugely successful conference attracted more than 600 participants, united in the belief that the source of women’s oppression could be found within the capitalist system.

A single mother, Waratah Rose understood deeply how women’s oppression in broader society was tied to oppression in the home: “Women’s unpaid work as child bearers, child rearers and house workers can no longer be taken for granted. The former slave status of women, where marital rape was sanctioned, education in contraception was prohibited and married women were denied employment on the basis of their sex and marital status, are mere ghosts of the past. Women have realised that their unpaid work is essential to the running of households and the community. This essential service to the community should be recognised and compensated.”

In the 80s, Rosemarie was a leader in the Campaign for Economic Justice. This grassroots group organised protests every Mothers Day to highlight the appalling economic plight of single mothers and their children. In particular, these annual protests — supported by both Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women — challenged poverty traps.

In August 1990, Rosemarie travelled to Canberra to protest budget cuts to welfare spending. Dressed in her bright red cloak — an item of clothing that I well remember she favoured — Rosemarie used ankle chains to attach herself to a car park stairwell railing outside the federal Parliament building.

Waratah Rose was often described as an extraordinary woman. But she did not want to be seen as special — she wanted to be part of a massive crowd of people working alongside her in the fight for what is right. We need one, two, many Rosemarie Gillespies.

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