Here is a question which might offend some readers. Do any of you think that working wives are a threat to the stability of family life?
It might seem an old-fashioned question—certainly not PC and not one you’d ask today when both partners usually work.
In fact it’s a question that is only 40 years old and comes from a survey of Conference members in 1977. You may be interested to learn that most Society members did think just that—that working wives were a threat to the family (53 per cent agreed while 33 per cent disagreed).
How attitudes change. ‘To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often’, said Cardinal Newman, and in that sense the Society is very perfect! To work in our archives is to see how our members’ attitudes have often changed, sometimes in a big way.
Some changes are obvious; for example, attitudes to the membership of women or non-Catholics, or attitudes to the balance of charity and social justice.
But some other changes are less obvious. Take, for example, attitudes to public recognition and Honours. Originally, members of the Society were a bit shy—we preferred anonymity to public recognition. Our very first annual report (1883) put it like this: ‘The Society does its work, unostentatiously and without publishing the names of the members more than can be helped’.
In the same vein, members of the Society were reluctant to accept Imperial honours for their work (Imperial honours were phased out in Australia after 1975). No member of the Society appears to have received an honour for their Society work until the mid-1930s when a couple of our leaders were awarded the MBE.
Attitudes changed. Honours were no longer considered a worldly distraction but a means of advancing the Society’s profile and therefore its work. The late Ted Bacon, National President in the 1970s and as humble and holy a person as ever graced the Society, was awarded both Imperial and Australian honours.
Our attitudes to government have changed too. In our early days the Society was happy to cooperate in something like a lord mayor’s appeal for a special cause, but no more. Here, for example, is a Queensland politician, TJ Byrnes, addressing a St Vincent de Paul fundraising concert in Brisbane in 1896. He would ‘regret to see the day’, he said, ‘when the Society would stoop to accept government aid; then its soul and life would be gone. State charity could not have the same beneficial effect as that which came from the heart’.
Fifty years later, when the post-war welfare state was emerging in Australia, some of the Society’s leaders greeted it reluctantly, for the same reason. Charity should come from the heart, they thought. Government assistance was good but it wasn’t personal like the assistance provided by the Society.
Attitudes changed. During the Depression in the 1930s we would not provide the government with personal information about the people we assisted. We now accept government funding and report to government on our work in providing emergency relief.
Perhaps the most striking example of a change in attitude is in the way we view poverty. In the early 1900s many of our members thought that Australia was so prosperous that there wasn’t much for Conference members to do. Here is what our National President said in 1905: ‘Happily in this young country the amount of local poverty is not unseldom too little to tax the energies of our Brothers’. And the Society in Adelaide reported in 1910 that there was little work for the Society ‘owing to the era of prosperity which Almighty God has blessed us with in this state’.
None of us would think like that today. We’re very much richer now than we were a hundred years ago but there is need everywhere. Our predecessors must have seen poverty in much starker terms than we do. For example, in the same year that the National President found too little poverty to tax the Society’s energies, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Conference in Randwick NSW reported that its members had great difficulty visiting people in need because most of them lived in humpies in the bush between Randwick and La Perouse, several kilometres away.
So how else might our attitudes have changed since the 40-year-old survey? Here are some of its other findings: 78 per cent were in favour of the Society speaking out more on social issues; 56 per cent agreed that women would sometimes make better Society presidents than men (20 per cent were undecided); 71 per cent agreed that non-Catholics could be good conference members; and 67 per cent felt that the Society should be open to change. ‘Moral intervention’ by our members was a good thing, according to 44 per cent of respondents, but 51 per cent thought it was a bad idea. Surprisingly, the response to the question of whether poverty was a social injustice was a 50/50 split; 69 per cent felt that ‘dole bludger’ was an unjustified term (20 per cent were undecided); 60 per cent were in favour of the government spending more; and finally, 67 per cent believed that single parents didn’t get a fair deal.
How interesting it would be to repeat that survey today. Would Cardinal Newman’s dictum still hold?
Michael Moran is the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia Archivist.