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Your KS #12: Katharine Votes

Soviet Aid meeting, Brisbane, October 1941. KSP is in the first row, third from right, wearing a feather boa. Photograph digitised by State Library of Queensland.

Those who find themselves sick of politics during this election campaign would have been wise to not admit it if they were visiting Katharine Susannah Prichard. Katharine’s old journalist friend, Freda Sternberg, was visiting in 1944 and said, “I’m not interested in politics.” Katharine snapped back, “No sane person is entitled to say that.” (KSP to Ric Throssell, 18 Sept. 1944)

Katharine voted for the first time in the 1906 federal election, two days after her twenty-third birthday. Australia was then one of the few nations where women could vote. She writes in Why I Am a Communist that her father, Tom, “would not have approved, had he known, that… my first vote was cast for Labor. He was ill at the time and I could not tell him.” Tom had just been discharged from an asylum at the time of the election; he was to commit suicide six months later. Katharine was not exaggerating when she worried for his health if he discovered how she’d voted. His politics was very conservative; he was opposed to a minimum wage and in 1902 published a pamphlet, Popular Delusions, denouncing the influence of Labor, amongst other things. Voting Labor would have been seen as a class betrayal for a young woman from the middle-class like Katharine; Labor was the party of the workers.

Katharine’s politics was to move even further to the left during World War One and she was a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920. After the revolution in Russia in 1917, it seemed possible to many radicals that Marxism could flourish in Australia and change it for the better; by the time of Katharine’s death in 1969, only true believers like her were holding on to this hope in its original form. After World War Two, Katharine had to endure the long reign of her nemesis—Robert Menzies—who tried to outlaw the Communist Party. She lived long enough to see him step down in 1966 but not long enough to see Labor finally returned to power in 1972 after twenty-three years in opposition. It’s probably fortunate that Katharine did not live to 107 and witness the dissolution of the original Communist Party of Australia in 1991. It may have broken her very old heart.

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