Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wearne, Margaret (1893–1967)

by Joy Damousi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Margaret Wearne (1893-1967), trade unionist, was born on 9 February 1893 at Eaglehawk, near Bendigo, Victoria, eighth child of Joseph Wearne, a Cornish-born miner, and his wife Mary Ann, née Smith, from Victoria. In 1913 Margaret began work in the confectionery trade. A foundation member of the Female Confectioners' Union in 1916, she was employed in the MacRobertson complex at Fitzroy. Miss Wearne held a number of leading positions in the union, including that of president of the Victorian branch and first general secretary. In addition, she was a delegate on the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. She represented her co-workers on the Confectioners [Wages] Board of Victoria from 1920 and in 1928 appeared as an advocate for her union before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration; she was said to be the first woman to present a case to the tribunal.

One forum for Wearne was the Woman's Clarion, which described itself as 'the first journal published by a Woman's Trades Union in Australia'. As founding editor in 1921, she promoted the union's central demands which included an eight-hour day, a 40-hour week, holiday pay and equal pay for women. She worked tirelessly and energetically, travelling throughout Victoria and Tasmania to negotiate with firms for better wages and conditions for women in confectionery factories. An efficient and effective organizer, she was reported in 1921 to have enrolled with the union 95 per cent of the staff in the department of MacRobertsons in which she worked.

In the 1920s Wearne fought vigorously against efforts by the (male) Confectioners' Industrial Union of Australia to recruit female members, on the grounds that a separate female union was needed to safeguard the conditions of women workers. In no uncertain terms she claimed that she would 'resist most strenuously any attempt to rob women and girls of the rights conferred upon this Union'. Despite her efforts, the union amalgamated in 1945 with the Federated Confectioners Association of Australia. The merger diminished her influence; in the new union she was assistant-secretary of the Victorian branch.

Wearne had been a member of the Australian Labor Party from 1919 and a delegate at every State conference between 1928 and 1952. She was secretary of the Women's Central Organising Committee from 1944 until 1959. Described as having 'an absolute devotion to duty [and] an unselfish mind', and as being 'clear and quick to grapple with the difficulties that arise from day to day', she made the labour movement her life project. On her retirement in 1952, she believed that 'girls in the industry today do not appreciate the work done by the union in improving their wages and conditions and take too much for granted'.

'Reserved, generous and gentle', with a 'quiet, steady personality', Wearne remained a staunch advocate of female workers' industrial and political rights. On 25 September 1954 at Christmas Hills she married with Presbyterian forms Thomas James Copeland, a 74-year-old estate agent and widower. Predeceased by her husband, she died on 31 August 1967 at Preston, Melbourne, and was buried in Preston cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Fraser and N. Palmer (eds), Centenary Gift Book (Melb, 1934)
  • Woman's Clarion, 7 Nov 1921, 20 Mar 1922, 20 Sept 1923, 20 Mar 1924, July 1926
  • Herald (Melbourne), 23 July 1952
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 July 1952
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1952.

Citation details

Joy Damousi, 'Wearne, Margaret (1893–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wearne-margaret-11986/text21489, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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