Wednesday, March 07, 2018

MUA Centenary CD – With These Arms

Wharfie Tom Hills with Wendy Lowenstein – Authors of Oral History 'Under the Hook'
Centenary CD – Songs and Poems of the MUA
Molly Hadfield (front right during the 1998 waterfront dispute. Cheerful crusader for the community
SMH Obituary by Melissa Marino 19 December 2012

14-7-1922 — 10-11-2012
It's hard to do justice to Mary Catherine ''Molly'' Hadfield's life in an obituary because while Molly loved and worked with words, her real power came from turning those words into action. And Molly was a woman of action.

She took words - and ideas - off the page and into the streets. Into committee rooms. Into the ears of politicians and commissioners, aiming to change things for the better.

She was an activist and a humanist, working tirelessly and largely voluntarily for social justice right to the end of her 90-year life. Better conditions for women, the aged, and those experiencing housing stress were among her chief concerns.

Anne Sgro, president of the Union of Australian Women, of which Molly was a member for more than 50 years, said Molly was a determined and skilled negotiator. "She had a way of finding common ground," she said.

In 2006 Molly was recognised formally for her work, awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to aged care, community health and youth. She was inducted on to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in the same year.

Molly achieved all this largely without the benefit of a formal education. Born in 1922 in Balldale, New South Wales, to an Irish farming family, she had an idyllic early childhood, playing hide-and-seek in the moonlight as visitors talked unions and politics with her parents.

But her family's plans for their curious and intelligent oldest child to continue her schooling were thwarted by the Great Depression and a personal tragedy. Her mother died when Molly was 10. Molly's childhood was effectively over: she had to assume a greater responsibility for her two younger sisters, and by 14 had left school.

Her first job soon followed at an uncle's farm nearby, caring for their baby along with twin cousins. At 16 she was working in Wahgunyah as a nursemaid, waitress and barmaid, all the time listening and observing the social conditions around her.

It was the social conditions she witnessed two years later, when she moved to her aunt's house in North Carlton that really began to radicalise Molly. Through jobs at factories and in sales she saw dreadful working conditions and heard workmates talking of their struggle to raise children in poverty.

But amid the hardships, Molly also knew how to have fun and, while she worked hard by day, she loved dancing the night away with her cousins. At one of those dances, she met Fred Hadfield, who in 1942 went AWOL to marry her. He would be her husband for 61 years until his death.

Through the 1940s and 1950s, hard times ensued for the couple, who had two children, Susan in 1948 and Robert in 1952. They worked in a variety of businesses and by the time they bought their first home in Chelsea Heights in the 1960s, the family had lived in at least 10 different houses. They had also been evicted twice.

Molly's experiences had taught her about the struggles of working people and hardened her resolve to be a part of improving conditions, especially housing security. In her first act of political activism, soon after moving to Chelsea Heights, she campaigned successfully for a bus service to help children get to school.

Not only did the bus help the children, it provided an opportunity for women to do their shopping, access services and have a life outside the house. Molly joined the local progress association and was immensely proud of her role helping to create a community in her fledgling neighbourhood, working to acquire land for parks and improving infrastructure.

Buoyed by this success, she embraced the peace and women's movements, taking part in many protests and marches. By the 1970s, in the decade she turned 50 - when she always said her life "began" - she had really hit her stride. Landing her ''dream job'' at the International Bookshop, where she worked into the 1980s, she was in her element and her activism flourished.

Among her many achievements, largely to do with empowering women in her community, she was instrumental in establishing a community health centre, play groups, and the 50 and Over Get Up and Go Group. She was a foundation member of the Older Persons Action Centre (OPAC) and helped establish the Housing for the Aged Action Group (HAAG) - on whose committee she served for 29 years, until her resignation just months ago.

Molly's activism may have started with obtaining a bus, but perhaps her most memorable was stopping a train at the docks at the height of the 1998 waterfront dispute. There Molly was photographed, arm in arm with her dear friend Edith Morgan, leading a charge of women in an image that became synonymous with the dispute and that has been republished several times.

In fact, Molly had a knack for courting the media. She was the face of the 2005 Victorian Seniors Festival and the subject of many articles highlighting the issues that concerned her. She was also frequently photographed at protests, the most recent at a rally during Seniors Week in October, where she was campaigning for pensioners, fist pumped and waving a placard, just weeks before she died.

Perhaps it was due to her formidable sense of style, for Molly always stood out in a crowd, with beautifully coloured co-ordinated clothes, hats, scarves and jewellery put together on a meagre budget. "We may be feminists but that is no reason to be sloppy," she would say.

Molly never let the political get in the way of the personal. She was a protective and loving mother, an inspirational and devoted grandmother and a delighted great-grandmother. She was a loyal, fun and fantastic friend. She liked people and people liked her. This was key to her success as an activist.

She engaged with people, listened to their stories, found out what their needs were and went about getting them met. She was, as HAAG co-manager Jeff Fiedler said, "the best networker I have ever seen".

Molly's motives were always genuine and it helped her get results. She would contact people from all levels of government after decisions were made on issues she was campaigning about, often with positive feedback. This in turn led to her being appointed to ministerial and other advisory committees.

The farm girl with no formal education beyond the age of 14 had gained the inside running and influence in the political process thanks to old-fashioned manners, an intimate knowledge of her subject, a genuine interest in people and a passion for the issues that affected them. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her. She will be deeply missed, but her legacy will live on.

When the MUA Centenary CD above was released Molly proudly kept a copy by the bedside and referred to it as "My CD"

Molly died peacefully, surrounded by family, at St Vincent's after complications from a heart attack.

Melissa Marino is Molly Hadfield's granddaughter.

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