A women’s organisation in Brisbane called a meeting at the School of Arts to support the compulsory recruitment of men into the armed forces to fight in Europe. It was 1917.
Margaret Thorp, a 25-year-old Quaker pacifist, rose to reject conscription and point out the futility of this attempt to overturn a recent national referendum that had voted against compulsory army service. She didn’t get a chance. Her comments “precipitated an uproar”, a woman tried to force her out of the room, she was set upon by others, and “the gathering resolved itself into a seething mass of struggling women”.
Thorp gamely struggled on to the platform but other women surged up and knocked her down. She was rolled on the floor, kicked, punched and scratched, finally thrown out of the hall. Undeterred, she returned with a policeman who said she had a right to address a public meeting, made two more attempts to speak but was pushed out again as the national anthem chimed in above the uproar. Once more she reappeared but was still unable to get a hearing. The resolution of the Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League was carried, conscription advocates “hurling the vilest insults at the ‘antis’”. An undaunted Thorp called for three cheers for no conscription and finally withdrew from the meeting.
This lively public episode speaks volumes about these tough, sometimes dangerous political times, the fears and strong feelings of families whose menfolk were called on to join the armed forces and face the gruesome dangers of the war in Europe, just as it recalls the courage and tenacity of conscientious objectors trying to bring about the end of war (sadly as far away now as ever).
There was almost a civil war in Australia about whether men should be forced to join up or not. “Patriotic women saw it as their duty to compel all eligible men to enlist, and were encouraged to ostracise those who failed to answer their country’s call”, Hilary Summy writes. White feathers were handed out to “shirkers” as a sign of cowardice. The controversy split churches, community organisations, even families.
This historical period also sums up Thorp’s character and her dedication to causes. When asked not to make YWCA girls disloyal to King and country, she retorted her goal was “to make them supremely loyal to the Kingdom of God!”
Margaret Thorp was born in England into a Quaker family, members of the traditionally pacifist Society of Friends. She had an early introduction to extreme poverty because the family home was adjacent to a very poor district of Liverpool where her father, a physician, worked at a medical mission and where as a teenager Margaret conducted weekly discussions. She attended The Mount Quaker girls’ school at York, and later studied peacemaking at Friends’ Woodbrooke College in Birmingham.
Early experiences led Thorp to become an ardent lifelong believer in social equality and socialism, although she condemned the violence of some revolutionary movements. In an active life she joined many organisations working for peace, social justice, women’s rights, and against racism, while retaining an interest in music and living a full life, with a number of male admirers.
She was even married for a time to Arthur Watts, who at one stage worked in Russia for the Save the Children Fund but she did not share his enthusiasm for Soviet developments and after six years or so these differences forced them apart. Summy’s lively book includes a photograph of Thorp at the age of 82 in 1974 dancing the Pride of Erin at Sydney Town Hall with the Sydney Lord Mayor when she was named New South Wales Pensioner of the Year.
The Thorp family arrived in Australia in 1911 when Margaret was 19, her parents having undertaken a two-year mission to support Friends’ anti-conscription struggle here and in New Zealand.
This was a period of great social upheaval and the young woman was soon in action on equal pay for women, trade union conflicts about control of the means of production, as well as anti-war and conscription issues. It was a rough, often brutal, time. On “Black Friday”, during the Brisbane General Strike of 1912, women led by suffrage activist and anti-war advocate Emma Miller (later a close associate of Thorp and whose statue stands in Brisbane City Square today) were attacked by mounted police brandishing batons directed by the Police Commissioner himself during a procession to Parliament House.
Then came the 1914-1918 Great War and the birth of the Women’s Peace Army in 1915, not only opposed to war but also campaigning for adult suffrage, equal pay for equal work, legal equality, improved child welfare laws, better educational standards, penal and other reforms. The English activist and her colleagues had a full agenda.