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Gibson, Dorothy (1899–1978)

by Nita Murray-Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Dorothy Gibson (1899-1978), teacher, communist and peace activist, was born on 4 July 1899 at Malvern, Melbourne, younger child of John Moir Alexander, a manufacturer's agent from Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Ellen Mary, née Forbes. John was a successful vigneron and wine merchant, and a committed socialist. Dorothy was educated at Korowa girls' school—for which, despite her disapproval of private schools later in life, she retained the deepest affection—and at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1920; Dip.Ed., 1924).

For the next ten years she was involved in new education. In 1924-28 she taught at the Rev. John Lawton's experimental school, St Andrew's College, Kew. She travelled to England twice to pursue her interest in progressive education. Her teaching experience at the school for the children of Soviet Embassy and Trade Legation staff in London in 1933 led to her being invited to teach at the Anglo-American school in Moscow in the following year. 'A miracle has been achieved there', she wrote of the Soviet Union; her uncritical devotion dated from this experience, and was reinforced by her visits in 1953, 1962, 1967 and 1971.

Europe in the 1930s had an immense effect on Dorothy. The Depression, the rise of fascism and the threat of war affirmed her pacifist stance, which she had acquired from her father during World War I. On her return from Moscow in 1935, she abandoned plans to start a school and directed her energies to the anti-war movement and to friendship with the Soviet Union. It was at this time that she turned to Marxism, which came to her 'like a flash of light, an illuminating truth'. She was an executive-member of the Victorian Council Against War and Fascism, and then joined the International Peace Campaign, of which she was Victorian assistant to the secretary, Constance Duncan. Dorothy served as vice-president of the Friends of the Soviet Union and in 1936 joined the Communist Party of Australia which, she stated, 'gave direction and hope to my life'.

On 4 October 1932 at the registrar's office, Collins Street, Melbourne, she had married Donovan Charles Clarke, a 24-year-old teacher; they were divorced in 1936. At the office of the government statist, Queen Street, on 16 March 1937 she married Ralph Siward, son of William Gibson and brother of Alexander Gibson. Ralph was a scholarly man who became a leading communist theoretician and orator. Their devotion to one another lasted almost forty-one years, until Dorothy's death. They had no children.

At the outbreak of World War II Mrs Gibson worked for the temporarily illegal C.P.A. before holding the post of secretary to the Australian-Soviet Friendship League. During the Cold War period her skills came to the fore. She was an executive-member and full-time organizer of the two main peace organizations initiated by the communist movement: the Australian Peace Council, established in 1949, and its successor, the Congress for International Co-operation and Disarmament, set up in 1959. She organized congresses, petitions, marches, meetings, leaflets and pamphlets, and wrote letters to the press and to peace groups.

A self-effacing woman, Gibson was successful in broadening the peace movement by involving people of diverse backgrounds, political affiliations and faiths. She worked closely with the three 'peace parsons', Frank Hartley, Alfred Dickie and Victor James. Her enthusiasm inspired the young, especially during the campaigns against conscription and the Vietnam War.

Unswerving in her political loyalties, Gibson did not allow the revelations of Stalinist atrocities, the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or the Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968 to shake her confidence in communism and the Soviet Union. Although she regretted the large exodus of party members in those years, she continued to woo them into some activity; few could resist her persuasion. Her handsome face beamed at the minutest success, and she infused people with both optimism and admiration.

Gibson's political zeal was tempered by her love for her Australian and Scottish family, and by the pleasure she took in her garden and the Australian bush. She admired books, films and paintings of the heroic, uplifting kind, but could be critical of art that served no ideological purpose. She dreamed of a socialist Australia and a world free from war. To achieve these ends she worked tirelessly, even while debilitated by arthritis and angina. Survived by her husband, she died on 6 January 1978 at Prahran and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gibson, One Woman's Life (Syd, 1980)
  • J. Sendy, Ralph Gibson (Melb, 1988)
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 Aug 1980
  • R. and D. Gibson papers (National Library of Australia) and file (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • E. Quick, interview with S. Murray-Smith, 1982 (tape and video held by author).

Citation details

Nita Murray-Smith, 'Gibson, Dorothy (1899–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-dorothy-10297/text18219, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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