Working women today have Anna Stewart to thank for many of the rights we take for granted.
Stewart was a journalist and Victorian unionist who led the first campaigns in the 1970s for maternity leave, childcare facilities, equal pay and awareness of sexual harassment as a workplace issue. Sadly, she died aged just 35 in 1983.
Commemorating her service to and achievements with unionism, the Victorian Trades Hall’s Anna Stewart Memorial Project is designed to encourage more women to be active in unions. It runs as a two-week internship during which participants spend a couple of days at Trades Hall, and the rest embedded with their union in order to gain a greater understanding of the work we do.
In 2022, ANMF (Vic Branch) welcomed Beechworth Health Service assistant director of nursing and Job Rep Jeanne O’Neill.
‘I really enjoyed it,’ Jeanne says of her experience.
In her time with the Branch, she was able to meet many staff – from elected officials to organisers – and learn more about the breadth and depth of the work we do. ‘Everyone was so willing to give up their valuable time to explain their role and responsibilities. People showed great interest in the Anna Stewart Memorial Project and I got to meet several Annas! The variety of experiences was fantastic.’
‘Even though we didn’t all work in the same profession, the issues we all had were not dissimilar: violence, gender equality, pay etc.’
One of the unexpected highlights, Jeanne says, was meeting women with different professional backgrounds but discovering their many things in common. ‘There was a tram driver, there was a girl who designed electronic games, there was a teacher, a librarian. But even though we didn’t all work in the same profession, the issues we all had were not dissimilar: violence, gender equality, pay etc.’
Jeanne says her internship has re-energised her and given her new ideas. ‘It’s helped me to think slightly differently about approaches to things,’ she says. ‘Just hearing some of the things that I heard in the Job Rep meetings – about the issues that metropolitan hospitals, have compared to what we’ve got: it reinforced that we’re all in the same fight but we all have different things going on, so we need to cross-pollinate from each other.’
A life of caring, and sharing
Jeanne has been at Beechworth for several years. Before that, she worked at Albury Wodonga Health for almost three decades. ‘Because it’s much larger than where I currently am, people work in silos, whereas because Beechworth is such a small organisation it’s much more collegial and collaborative.’
This suits Jeanne well. ‘In Beechworth, you’ve got what you’ve got,’ she says ‘so you’ve got to be quite resourceful. But I don’t feel hamstrung by that; I enjoy having to be resourceful. And people want to help. My first weekend at Beechworth, we had the fires in the Indigo Valley. I had staff ringing me left, right and centre: everybody wanted to muck in and make a contribution.’
‘I want them to remember empathy.’
Jeanne’s passion for nursing and her sense of solidarity comes from her family. Her grandfather, who worked on the Victorian railways, set up one of the first benevolent sick funds in Victoria. Her grandmother and two great aunts were nurses who ‘spent their lives serving people in times of hardship, loss and devastation.
‘Their example inspired me to love nursing by making a difference in the lives of others,’ Jeanne says. ‘Their vision and compassion have been constant reminders throughout my career of what really matters. Despite the challenges, it is a calling and a love unending.’
Thanks to their influence, Jeanne’s healthcare philosophy emphasises the care equally with the health. ‘I don’t want patients to think “oh Jeanne gave me that antibiotic or that pain relief”,’ she says. ‘I hope they may remember instead [that I] held their hand, or a simple hug when their world was falling apart. I want them to remember empathy.’
This extends into all aspects of her life as well. Jeanne has volunteered for many years – for Carevan, at a shelter for the homeless, and for animal shelters. She was even nominated for Australian of the Year for her volunteering work.
After her experiences during the Anna Stewart program, Jeanne plans to continue to raise the profile of the Branch and to remind her staff and colleagues ‘that the union is there to represent the workers, and workers’ rights’. Significantly, she wants to empower her colleagues to speak up. ‘I want to see them standing up for themselves and being articulate and assertive, and wanting to proactively change things but also to fight their own fight.’
‘Also, since I’ve got back to work I’ve managed to recruit two new Job Reps!’