by Kerry Cue
Fifty years ago on 31 March 1965 Merle Thornton* and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the Regatta Hotel bar rail in a strategic and planned protest for women’s rights.
The protest was aimed at lifting the marriage bar whereby women were forced to resign from the public service when they married. Merle had not informed her employer, the ABC, of her marriage, but when she fell pregnant she was forced to resign.
Merle and Ro staged the protest in a hotel opposite the ABC buildings in Brisbane in time for the evening news. Their husbands handed out leaflets and both news reporters and the police turned up. Following the publicity that ‘the wives of two well know university lecturers’ had staged a protest, both Merle and Ro received death threats and abuse over the phone but also some support.
Questions asked in the Queensland parliament included: ‘Where were their children?’, ‘Should the children be put in care?’ and ‘Should their husbands be psychologically examined to see if they are fit to be academics?’
Merle and Ro went on to form The Equal Opportunities for Women Assoc, the first in Australia and possibly the world. Neither the unions nor the political parties were interested in lifting the Marriage Bar.
After much lobbying Bill Hayden, a member of this association and a federal member of parliament introduced a private members bill to lift the ban. An emergency Cabinet meeting was called, followed by an announcement that the ban would be lifted under a Commonwealth Act.
In August 1966, 18 months after Merle and Ro’s bar protest, the lifting of the marriage bar was signed into law along with the introduction of the first accouchement leave or (unpaid) Maternity leave.
We, the Sibyls, salute Merle Thornton and Ro Bogner for their strategic brilliance, gutsy determination and political nous. We also thank them for kick-starting the 2nd Wave Feminist Agenda 50 years ago to the benefit of all Australian women.
*Merle is the mother of well-known actress Sigrid Thornton. In 2014, the Regatta Hotel named a bar after Merle Thornton.
TV interview Merle Thornton and Ro Bogner, ABC, aired 10 April, 1965.
The National Library of Australia
Photo Source: DYIDESPAIR Website