Lesbia Harford, born Lesbia Keogh in 1891, speaks to us across a century – because she hated this class system with a passion. One of the first women to study law at Melbourne University, mixing in a broad intellectual circle, she turned her back on the sterility of the bourgeois world.
Addressing the radical Free Religious Fellowship, she said: “We don’t like to think that we live in houses other people have built for us, wear clothes others have made for us, eat bread other people have baked for us” while giving little in return.
During 1915 she tutored members of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”, in English expression, and threw herself into their anti-war activity. Guido Baracchi, whom she recruited, later a founding member of the Communist Party, wrote that she “stirred my mind deeply” and “set my imagination on fire”.
Lesbia Keogh was the most prominent of the tiny minority opposed to the war at the polarised university.
In 1916, in spite of a serious heart condition, she went to work in clothing factories. Baracchi, inspired by her, lasted a week in a factory. She stayed for five years, campaigning for the clothing workers’ union to appoint a woman organiser and then for equal pay. She was briefly an official herself.
In 1916 and 1917 she was a regular agitator on soapboxes against prime minister Billy Hughes’ referenda to introduce conscription and campaigned against the persecution of German Australians. When she ended up in hospital from exhaustion, she bribed a maid to bring her clothes, defied the doctors and returned to the fray.
Her poems illuminate her immersion in and identification with the life, the suffering and the struggles of the working class:
I will not rush with great wings gloriously
Against the sky
While poor men sit in holes, unbeautiful,
Unsouled, and die.
She’d “Rather never use/Tea and spice/And what’s nice/Than see the men lose” a strike. Gertie, the immigrant, came to work “much less weary/And far more gay” because “She had been dreaming/Of home all night”. She celebrated popular music:
And the people walk with their heads held high
Whether or not they’ve a penny
And the music’s there as the bandsmen know
For the poor though the poor are many
For the music’s free, and the music’s bold.
It cannot really be bought and sold.
She found wisdom among the workers’ tiny cottages. “For I’d learned much more/Than in all the score/Of years I clamoured for books to eat.” May Day, she wrote, is a time to
Take courage to fight on until we’re done –
Fight though we may not live to see the hour
The Revolution’s splendidly begun.
In July 1917 Billy Hughes outlawed the IWW. Jail would have condemned her to death but Lesbia Keogh committed to sharing their fate. “We’ll walk in darkness, obscure, despised/We’ll mourn each other at prison gates.”
In Sydney, she later lived with the families of jailed IWW men as they campaigned for their release. In 1920, she married Pat Harford, a Wobbly and artist who, influenced by her, helped establish the post-impressionist movement in Australia. She died when only 36.
Decades before “sexual liberation”, she wrote about menstruation and practised “free love” with both women and men. “My loves are free to do the things they please/By day and by night”. She highlighted the intersection of class and gender.
Cherry plum blossom on the workroom bench
Where we can see it all our working hours.
In all my garden days of ladyhood,
I never met girls who so loved sweet flowers.
The lady “has a thousand ways/Of doing nothing all her days”. The worker loves a holiday to lie in bed but if she had weeks to spend, she “might learn better how to shirk/And never want to go to work”. As a maid for the famous Fairfax family, she observed:
Finding specks on shining pans and pots
Never praising much, but scolding lots.
If the table’s white, she does not see
Roughened hands that once were ivory …
Poor Miss Mary! Poor for all she owns,
Since the things she loves are stocks and stones.
The simplicity and the searing hatred of the ruling class still have the power to touch the soul of class conscious workers and revolutionaries.