Tuesday 8 March marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate how far we have come with regards to women’s rights, but also to reflect upon the next steps of the journey.
In many developing nations women still live in dire poverty (read Half the Sky for an eye opening insight into this), and even in modern cities like Sydney, women still suffer from domestic violence and discrimination, albeit not as obvious as thirty or forty years ago.
International Women’s Day is also a day for us to remember influential women – women who have made important contributions to the world. No doubt on this centenary we’ll see the newspapers publish lists of the greatest sportswomen, female scientists, human rights campaigners, actresses and politicians. But sometimes the women who have had the greatest influence on our lives are very personal. They’re our mothers, grandmothers and teachers. Though most of them won’t make the newspaper lists, it’s important to reflect upon their influence on our lives, and where we can, acknowledge them.
One such woman was my Nanna.
Doreen McClelland (1915 – 2008) was the centre of my family. She was variously known as ‘Doreen’, ‘Mrs Mac’,’Nanna’,’Nanna Doreen’ and ‘Mum’ throughout her life. But names aside, who was she?
She was a helper and supporter of colleagues and friends – particularly in times of need. She was an inventor, a campaigner for women’s rights, a garden enthusiast and a passionate supporter of social justice.
She was an amazing woman.
Nanna Doreen was born at Erskineville in 1915 and was the 2nd of 4 girls. Her family moved around Sydney and the South Coast frequently, as her father’s work as a train driver demanded this. Sometimes my eldest son, who has been fascinated by Thomas the Tank Engine since he was two, dreams of being a train driver when he ‘grows up’. Of course he’ll probably end up being something totally different, but it’s nice to tell him about his great, great grandfather.
In spite of attending many schools, Nanna loved school and had wanted to be a teacher. But family demands pushed her into the workforce after completing her Intermediate Certificate at St George Girls High. It’s wonderful that we have progressed for such an occurrence to be a rarity now in Australia. Girls are encouraged onto the Higher School Certificate and beyond.
Despite finishing school after the Intermediate Certificate Nanna’s level of self education was incredible. She was a keen learner and reader throughout life, developing skills in the work place and staying on top of current affairs. Nanna’s knowledge of the world, and her canniness at analysing current affairs, would put many a university graduate to shame. She embraced education in its real sense. She embraced a love of learning, and respected the power of knowledge.
Nanna and Grandad were teenagers during the Great Depression, and experienced the impact of World War Two during their late 20s. As a result, they had an appreciation of the value of everyday items. Even in her 90s, Nanna would carefully fold and save plastic bags, rinse and save jars or aluminium pie plates for later use. She would re-use margarine containers for storing dinner left-overs. It would probably raise our recycling rates today if everyone had life experiences such as those of the 1930s and 40s. I carry with me, the value she saw in everything. It’s an important and different way of looking at the world.
Nanna enjoyed being at home raising her two children; Robert, born in 1941, and Susan (my mum), born in 1945. Nanna returned to work in the early 1950s so that Grandad could undertake university studies in Social Work. In this respect I admire Nanna, for the work that she put in to give my Grandad that opportunity. And I admire both of them, for having a go at trying something different in life, and wanting to contribute to society in really meaningful ways.
Nanna held various clerical and secretarial positions in her working life. One position she undertook was the Secretary for the Real Estate Institute. Over time, her role at the institute became increasingly important. With the rising responsibilities, beyond that of a standard secretary, Nanna asked for a pay rise. She was told that if they were to raise the status of the position in this way, they would require it to be filled by a man, and not a woman. Nanna resigned on principle. Subsequently, the position was upgraded, and a man was appointed to it. It’s stories like these that we need to be reminded of on this day – we need to know we’re we’ve come from. But we also need to think about where we’re going.
Nanna’s last 10 years in the workplace were spent doing clerical work in schools, which she enjoyed. She spoke fondly of her years at Endeavour High. During this time, she was very active in the Public Services Association, working to improve the position of Clerical Assistants in Schools.
Nanna was a woman of principles, and a woman willing to stand up for what is right – a value I try to take into my own working (and general) life. I find her a real inspiration to reflect of lately in my own battle against what I believe to be some discriminatory policies to women in my work place.
In retirement, Nanna became an inventor, working keenly on a child booster seat, initially to ensure her grandchildren travelled safely in cars. The ‘Cumfy Safe Seat’ was so useful that it was able to be marketed successfully and it was sold for several years, only ceasing to be sold when ‘Safe and Sound’ took it over and removed it from the market. In that period, Nanna and Grandad had their first overseas trip, with the support of the Australian Trade Commission, to exhibit the seat at the 1985 Hanover Trade Fair. Nanna was very proud of their achievements with the seat and was also proud to be a member of the Inventors Association. Nanna saw great value in groups that brought people together to give power to their cause.
In 1996 my Grandad passed away. His death hit nanna quite hard. But after a difficult year or two she picked up. It was during this time that she became an active member of the Caringbah Garden Club, exhibiting plants at their shows and doing floral arrangements, and developing a real love and appreciation for all kinds of plants, flowers and foliage. Nanna kept up her gardening and flower arranging even when battling Ovarian Cancer. Nanna was in her 90s, undergoing palliative chemotherapy to help manage her cancer, and still tending her garden, baking cakes and making jams to sell at the Garden Club fairs. Add to this her active membership of the ALP (a proud life member) and you start to see the enormous contribution she made across recreational, political and caring roles.
Her endurance and will to lead a normal life during her illness was sometimes astounding. When she was having a difficult time with her illness, she asked her neighbour to take her down to casualty at Sutherland. After calling Gai and Jim, she made sure that she ‘dressed the bed’ before Jim drove her to the hospital. Most people wouldn’t give two hoots if the bed was made before they took themselves off to casualty. But for Nanna it was just something you do. Putting on a hat, coat and gloves to go out was in the same category.
Nanna took great pleasure in seeing her five grandchildren – Keith, Donna, John, Karen and myself – grow up. She took great pride in each of us and our partners, and always offered her support when it was needed. When my brother Keith was deployed with the Australian Army to East Timor, and later to Iraq, she made sure she regularly prepared and sent comfort packages to him. She would also consistently report on all her grandchildren’s achievements to her many correspondents and in the ‘Maitland Clan’ newsletter.
Nanna was equally as proud of her eight great grandchildren: Anthony, Alexander, Joshua, Erik, Holly, Mia, Dominic and Kaya. She took much delight in cooking and mashing up vegetables when any of the little ones visited – ensuring they had both a nutritious and delicious lunch. She was delighted by their smiles and gurgles as babies, seeing them crawl, totter, and ultimately race down her hall and charge around her back yard. She would carefully pick out picture books for their birthdays and at Christmas time. She cherished the presence of her great grandchildren in her life. But she also cherished being able to see her grandchildren become parents, aunts and uncles, and her children become grandparents. She saw each of us blossom in these new roles. She missed meeting her most recent grandchild, Geordie ‘Mack’, but I know she would have been as besotted with him as the others.
I’ve thought a lot about death lately. Friends have been dealing with the loss of loved ones, and my cousins in Melbourne are facing the death of their dad, my Uncle. I don’t have a whole heap pf insights to offer, but I do have the conviction that one of the best ways to help us deal with death, is to think about our loved ones contributions to life – to think about legacies. To think about the meaning their lives had, but most importantly, to think about what we can DO, to make that meaning live on.
Nanna Doreen was a courageous and compassionate lady. Everyone who knew her was blessed by the strength of character she brought to our lives. Through her own convictions, and personal strength, she helped us all become stronger in turn. I feel blessed to follow in the path of such an amazing woman. And I know that if I can be half the person she was in her life, and teach my children the ethics that she showed us, that we will be living a socially responsible life. We will be treating others with respect, justice and dignity.
Nanna is sadly missed by us all, but we honour her memory everyday, when we live our lives responsibly, and with conviction.
‘Doreen’, ‘Mrs Mac’,’Nanna’,’Nanna Doreen’,’Mum’ – we love you. We miss you.
Thank you for being such a special part of our lives.
Who are/were the special women in your lives?
How are you honouring their memory or thanking them for their role in your life?