Feminist and Community Activist
Photograph courtesy of The Mercury
…That new life was born out of all I learned from the Women’s Liberation Movement which I now use as a tool for the emancipation of older women, who, unlike me, did not discover WLM but are now being empowered to see themselves and their lives in positive terms. Betty Vivian, As Good As New, p.2
Betty was born on 13 August 1923 at Grange, South Australia. The eldest of two girls, Betty was born into an era where society’s expectation of how girls would progress through their lives ran to a fairly rigid formula – receive a basic education and then find acceptable employment until marriage. After marriage it was expected that women would cease paid employment to look after their husband and children, as they came along. Betty was no exception to this formula, and married Charlie Pybus in 1942.
Charlie, a Tasmanian serving as an able seaman on the destroyer HMAS Stuart, returned to the Pacific war zone weeks after his marriage, leaving behind a newly pregnant wife. Charlie returned from the war in 1945, collecting Betty and their son Stephen and taking them to his hometown, Hobart, to live. Their second child, Cassandra, was born in Hobart in 1947.
In her autobiography, As Good As New (written under her maiden name Betty Vivian), Betty gives great insight into the expectations that were placed on her, first by her parents and then by her husband. As Good As New articulates her earliest memories, from her childhood to adulthood. She talks of her growing realisation that, despite her love for her two children, she was not living a fulfilling life, and of the epiphany she experienced after attending her first Women’s Liberation Movement meeting in Sydney in 1970. As Good As New is also a valuable first hand account of the development of the second wave of feminism in Australia in the 1970s.
At the age of 47 Betty became a true feminist. She contributed to the setting up of the Women’s House in Sydney, which was revolutionary for its time. It provided a drop-in/meeting facility, counseling and referral centre for rape victims and women seeking abortions and contraceptive advice, and a resource area to produce information on the Women’s Movement.
Betty was part of the movement that resurrected the writings of early feminists (those female historians, philosophers, novelists and poets who had been writing for the past 1,000 years). The discovery that many of the books were out of print led to the establishment of women’s publishing companies such as the Feminist Press, Virago and Women’s Press who republished them. The 1973 Women’s Commission, a weekend of women articulating their concerns about their place in a male dominated society, discussed a range of women’s issues that still resonate today. These include issues such as: women’s health; economic independence; and domestic violence, which often led to women’s homelessness. The second phase of Betty’s life, and her subsequent involvement in women’s health issues, was highly influenced by the Women’s Commission.
In August 1973 the Control Abortion Referral Service, of which Betty was a key instigator, was opened to counsel women on termination techniques and contraception. This led to the elimination of backyard abortions with the establishment of legal clinics. This was the forerunner to Women’s Health Centres across Australia, and this is where Betty made her mark in Tasmania. In Sydney she was the initial administrator of the second Women’s Health Centre in Australia, at Liverpool in NSW. These first women’s health centres were pivotal in the establishment of the Hobart Women’s Health Centre.
In 1980 Betty, who had taken over custody of her son’s daughter, Tania, returned to Hobart to live, without her husband. Hampered by ill-health and family commitments, Betty did not become actively involved in women’s issues in Hobart until 1992, when she joined the Board of Management of the Hobart Women’s Health Centre (HWHC). She remained a board member until 1999 and at the same time was the convener of the Older Women’s Network, Tasmania. From this time, until her death, Betty worked tirelessly for older women. Her efforts ensured the HWHC employed a woman to work solely in the area of older women’s health. The Kingborough Older Women’s Network, of which Betty was the convener, was also established at this time.
In 1997 Betty wrote, printed and distributed 1000 free copies of a handbook of advice and information for older women entitled Growing Older, Wiser and Well: Handbook of Advice & Information on Options for Older Women. A further 2000 copies were printed and distributed with sponsorship from GIO and the Moonah and Glenorchy Rotary Clubs.
Betty’s commitment and activism continued through her later years. Through her efforts Tasmania became part of a network of national focus groups contributing to the Supportive Neighbourhoods and Communities for Older Women Project. She was very involved in the International Year of Older Persons (1999), being an active member of the Coalition of Older Women. The Coalition worked with the Salamanca Theatre Company’s installation event A Delicate Embrace, with the Kingston Group presenting the Venetian Blind Project. This installation toured Tasmania and beautifully recorded significant aspects of several women’s lives. The Coalition also participated in the Grey Mardi Gras, the organisation and presentation of A Matter of Personal Choice – Advance Healthcare Directives, and a wonderful highlight event, the Art-I-Facts Exhibition, which exhibited treasured objects from women’s lives and the stories behind them.
Betty’s contribution to the feminist movement and her unceasing work on behalf of older women was recognised at the Inaugural Edna Awards in Hobart in 1999. On Australia Day 2004, she received the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) in recognition of her work for women, as a feminist and community activist.
Betty died in Hobart on 23 September 2004. The inaugural Betty Pybus Memorial Lecture was held in Hobart on 18 October 2005.
Hobart Women’s Health Centre, Newsletter, Summer 2004, pp.1-2
Vivian, Betty, As Good As New: Stories from a Long Life 1923 – 2003, [B. Vivian & Arts Tasmania], 2003
Special thanks to Joy Tunney, Convenor, Kingborough Older Women’s Network.
Betty Pybus Memorial Lecture: Hobart Tuesday 18 October 2005 (PDF, 56KB)
‘Two Feisty Women: Betty Pybus and Edna Ryan: path breaking feminists of the late 20th century’ delivered by Lyndall Ryan (with thanks to the organisers of the Betty Pybus Memorial Lecture)