Helen Palmer

Helen Gwynneth Palmer (1917-1979), writer, teacher and political activist, was born on 9 May 1917 younger daughter of Nettie (q.v.) and Vance Palmer. She spent her childhood in the Dandenongs near Melbourne and at Caloundra in Queensland. In 1934 she completed her secondary education at Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne. After spending a year in London with her parents, she went on scholarship to Melbourne University, graduating in 1939 BA and DipEd. She taught in Victoria until 1942 when she joined the Women's Australian Auxiliary Airforce, working in their education division. After demobilisation in Sydney in 1946 she was employed by the Commonwealth Office of Education, returning in 1948 to Melbourne, where she taught in private schools. From 1955 she taught French and general studies at Fort St Girls' High School in Sydney.

Helen made several trips to China and in her writing foreshadowed the growing Australian interest in Asia. In 1952, during the Korean War and against strong opposition from the Australian government, Helen and several other Australians attended an Asian and Pacific Peace Congress in Beijing and travelled for a month in China. Her observations on the trip were published in An Australian Teacher in China (1953).

In 1956, in the aftermath of the upheaval caused by Khrushchev's speech on Stalinism and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Helen and a number of other intellectuals were expelled from the Communist Party of Australia. She had proposed to publish an independent socialist journal which would be dedicated to 'humanistic socialism'. From its first issue in June 1957 until it ceased publication in 1970, the bimonthly Outlook rigorously and critically examined those issues which were of concern to progressive Australians. Contemporary developments in the Soviet Union were reported and scrutinised, as were current issues of Australian domestic and foreign policy, the workings of apartheid in South Africa, the Cuban revolution, civil liberties, the treatment of Aborigines and - the issue which came to override all others in the 1960s - the Vietnam war. Through Outlook Helen Palmer provided a forum for vigorous discussion of all issues which were part of a radical critique of Australian politics and society.

She consistently argued for the central role of education in a dynamic and egalitarian society. As an active member of the New South Wales Teachers' Federation she worked to improve teachers' conditions and was concerned also with larger philosophical questions about the substance and content of the educational process. In her analyses of the sort of quality education necessary to serve all Australians, she foreshadowed many of the arguments and policies that would be taken up later by progressive educators. As a historian, too, she put the case for the teaching of social history long before such an approach had come to be accepted in general by academic historians. In 1956 she pointed out that it was easier for Australian children to find out how people lived in mediaeval Europe than to discover how their grandparents lived in Australia. The sort of history she wished to see taught would encompass 'the elements of the everyday lives of ordinary people'. She wrote a number of books on Australian literature, popular culture and history, including Australia: the First Hundred Years (1956) and After the First Hundred Years (1961) both written in collaboration with her friend Jessie MacLeod. Helen Palmer was also a distinguished poet and balladist; probably her best known piece is 'The Ballad of 1891', which chronicles the shearers' strike of that year.

Helen died on 6 May 1979. She was an influential and independent figure on the Australian Left for several decades; her contribution to radical scholarship and progressive causes in Australia was profound. Those with whom she was associated remember her as a quietly-spoken, tolerant and witty friend.

Judith Keene

Helen Palmer's Outlook edited by Doreen Bridges 1983.