Tribute to Jeannie Martin
This tribute to Jeannie
was spoken by her long-term partner, Peter Bryant,
at Jeannie’s farewell service held in Glebe Town Hall, Sydney, on 10th January, 2015.
This is a sad day. And it’s a day that brings to an end a partnership which lasted almost 45 years. I met Jeannie a few times before we became “an item” as they say nowadays. I met her—it must have been in 1969—at a flat in Milsons Point1 where gay activists John Ware and Chris Poll were setting up the Campaign Against Moral Persecution—or CAMP—and laying out the pages of the first issue of CAMP-INK as it was known. After that, and more indelible in my memory, I was in the State Public Library (I was then a mature age student at Sydney University) and I saw Jeannie walk into that great temple of learning wearing two enormous gold earrings, a shock of red hair, and as I recall it a fairly short skirt.
Under her arm she was carrying a thick tome which I later learnt, after asking her about it, was a work by Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology. Jeannie was then also at Sydney University, studying psychology and anthropology. That was the first occasion when I recognised that I was with someone who had a very sharp mind, who was also politically astute and politically engaged and had a great sense of humour (or of the absurd).
It must have been only a short time after that that we met at a party held by Wendy Bacon and Darcy Waters, famous figures of the Sydney Push, and from that time on we were “an item,” living together initially at Jeannie’s flat in Darlinghurst Road, then later in Harrington Street in The Rocks2 where I was a caretaker for a waterside worker friend of mine who was then living elsewhere.
I learnt from Jeannie that she had lived in Paris between 1962 and 1964. How she got there was unusual. She left London on a train to go to Rome but got on the wrong carriage which was left behind at Gare de Lyon in Paris. She never got to Rome. But she soon found her way in Paris to left groups who were engaged at that time in supporting the Algerian revolution headed by the FLN3. Jeannie marched with FLN supporters down the Champs Elysees. She was introduced to Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the cafe Deux Magots, who took kindly to her probably because they had an exotic view of inhabitants of the South Sea islands and she was, after all, from New Zealand.
I’ve always thought that Sartre’s existentialism was an important intellectual influence on Jeannie. There are many messages one may get from Sartre, not all of them agreeable to Jeannie. But it was a kind of anarchist message: people’s responsibility for their political actions cannot be left to some outside power or God. On the contrary, people must commit themselves in terms of their personal, individual responsibility if they want to change the world for the better. It was a precept she lived by. Beyond this, Jeannie was the only person I know who not only owned a copy of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, but had actually read it all the way through.
In Sydney in the mid-sixties she took an active part in the anti-racist movement (she had done the same earlier in New Zealand) and in the movement against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. We marched together in the September 1970 Moratorium4. Later, on a trip to the country, we were befriended by an Italian farmer in Leeton5 where we arrived late in the day, and he took us around to the local RSL6, to the only place in town where we could get a meal, but were refused entrance because Jeannie insisted on wearing her oversize Moratorium badge pinned on a rather hippie-looking semi-transparent dress. She never resiled from openly declaring her position on anything, anywhere. From one of the many tributes on her Facebook page, I noted that someone referred to Jeannie’s “spiky irreverence.” I thought “Yes, that’s it exactly.” “Spiky irreverence.” That’s Jeannie. She was not noted for her tact.
Jeannie was active in the feminist movement and in ethnic rights organisations with a particular focus on the rights of migrant women in industry. This was an enduring interest of hers, and an enduring political commitment. Her work in support of migrant women in the workforce eventually took her into the migrant branch of the Communist Party of Australia which, since 1972, had embraced Eurocommunism which made it much like a social democratic party only a lot more radical and militant. It was the only party, then or since in Australia, which took seriously the plight of migrant women in the workforce.
1972 was also the year Jeannie graduated and when she began an academic career as a tutor in the Sociology Department at the University of New South Wales and later at Macquarie University, in Anthropology. She wrote on racism, immigrant women and work, and on multiculturalism—the subject which became the focus of her post-graduate research culminating in her PhD awarded in 1986. She managed to do all this while taking the greater part of the burden of child care—of raising our two daughters Anna and Katie. By the early ‘80s our domestic life became very fraught as I spent most weekends hammering and sawing away as part of a long saga of home renovation, while Jeannie tended to the more traditional housewifely things. This is my mea culpa moment I guess. Anyway, everything came to a head one day when I walked into our bedroom to find, written on the wall in very large letters in indelible black marker pen, the words: “A gender-based division of domestic labour is the main weapon of the patriarchy.” For many years later—I didn’t dare remove it—I saw those words staring at me as I woke up each morning.
By 1985 Jeannie was appointed lecturer in Humanities at UTS (the University of Technology in Sydney) and was there until she retired. Reading the many heartfelt tributes addressed to her recently on her Facebook page, from former UTS colleagues and from her students, what came across to me was not just the great respect everyone had for Jeannie’s intellectual contribution, but for her inspiration as a teacher and as a mentor to many students. She supervised and mentored many PhD students, some of whom went on to become academics themselves. Jeannie saw teaching as the primary form of scholastic activity for academics. She felt that very strongly.
Later, she extended the activist side of her academic life when she became the founding director of the UTS Shopfront in 1996. It continues today. The Shopfront brought together academics and students from various faculties to undertake community-initiated projects and research. It provided pro-bono skills of the University to disadvantaged groups within a justice and equity framework. Here was the university engaging with the wider social world as part of academic work. Some of these Shopfront projects, I’ve taken at random from the late 1990s when Jeannie was the Director, were: interior design for the Dubbo7 Aboriginal Artists Group, immigration research for a Sudanese Human Rights organisation, a facility building for the Addison Road Community Centre. And she was pretty good as a negotiator, getting funding out of some important places, like the $100,000 grant the Shopfront received from the New South Wales Department for Women in 1999 for funding community fellowships and projects across the state.
After Jeannie retired from UTS in 2003, her research interests returned to studies of “daily life”—the active rituals and routines of daily life, particularly in suburban main streets. Her thoughts and observations on daily life fill several notebooks in her study. She walked up and down Beamish Street Campsie8 many times, while I walked with her photographing garish pictures of meals advertised in the shop windows of Asian restaurants.
She was a participant observer on Sydney buses, noting the rules and manners of seating, standing and exiting behaviour, and how transgression of these rules is dealt with. One of her subjects on a bus she called the “werewolf.” He was normal in every way and broke none of the unwritten rules about entering the bus, taking a seat and so on. But periodically he would lift his head and start baying at the moon. He was left alone because he broke none of the rules of bus etiquette. Not so the Hobo who broke all the rules and disgusted everybody.
Reading through the notes Jeannie kept on her “daily life” thoughts and observations, I was reminded of the writing of Walter Benjamin—in One-Way Street for example. And like Benjamin, she had an interest in experimental writing—writing which was better suited to influence active communities than formal academic writing.
So I was very pleased, and certainly she was too, that despite her illness, Jeannie managed to finalise a piece of writing that she had worked on for some time and which reflected her enduring interest in migrant women in the workforce and her wider concerns with inequalities of racism, class and gender. This piece, entitled “Missing Histories: this is what you told me back then” was published in the most recent issue of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies where she was on the Editorial Collective and later, an Advisor.
It’s written in a “stream of consciousness” style, like an interior monologue, of a migrant woman who has worked for umpteen years in a factory—on the line in a biscuit factory. Jeannie had me check her writing many times for its verisimilitude since I had the misfortune long ago to work in a biscuit factory. For this migrant woman, in all those years working in the factory she also did domestic duties and raised a family in a standard “Aussie” home. Culturally, she felt herself in a desert, yet she remembered times past when she was like a goddess, a fighter, and she dreams again of being much more than just a factory hand. Therein lies her dignity. She was more than just a hapless victim of sexism, racism, and exploitation.
I could of course say much more about Jeannie’s life as I knew it. But I have spoken about the things that were most important to her, and which defined her as an individual person. She was very modest about her achievements, and very private.
If I were to take the measure of Jeannie’s life, I would say that it was a life fulfilled and a life made good by the only things that matter in the end: love and creative work. She loved her family and her friends. For many she was one of the most interesting persons they ever met. Her challenging and mentoring mind inspired many. People felt alive in her company and enlivened by it. She engaged in meaningful, personally creative, and public endeavours. She was an incomparable partner to me and as a mother to Anna and Katie and to our grandchildren, Oscar, Alex and Otto.
I never imagined that Jeannie would die before me. And now I cannot imagine that I will ever see anyone quite like her again.
1A suburb of Sydney.
2 Darlinghurst Road, Harrington Street and The Rocks are places in inner-city Sydney.
3 Front de Libération Nationale, founded in 1954 in Algeria to fight for independence from France.
4 A loose organisation set up in the 1960s to oppose Australian and US involvement in the Vietnam War.
5 A major New South Wales country town.
6 The Returned Services League of Australia.
7 A major New South Wales country town.
8 Main street in a major western suburb of Sydney which has many Asian (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai) restaurants.