Roma Gilchrist

Roma Catherine Gilchrist (1909-1983), feminist and peace activist, was born Tuffin in England on 1 September 1909. The family emigrated with little money, moved to the south-west of Western Australia, where they lived in tents and a bark shelter, before returning to Perth where her father worked on the trams. He bought a farm near Perth but failed to make a living from it and after six years moved back to the city.

In 1931 Roma married John Gilchrist, son of a miner and a politically committed mother. They had four daughters and a son. John became an organiser for the Movement against War and Fascism, president of the Unemployed Workers' Association and a member of the Workers' Art Guild, all Communist-influenced. He was also Maddington branch president in the Labor Party. After Labor forbade membership of the Movement against War and Fascism, Katharine Susannah Prichard (q.v.) and some friends formed the Modern Women's Club which Roma joined. With a room in the city where light meals were available and a good library, the Club was a congenial meeting place both for members and similarly minded societies. A women's theatre group met there for some years and there, in 1946, Don McLeod launched an appeal for support for striking Aboriginal pastoral workers. The Club remained active though some members left in 1947 to join the New Housewives Association and in 1950 others, including Roma, joined the Union of Australian Women, of which she was vice president, 1954, and president, 1957-71. It provided a monthly forum where speakers from Perth, interstate and overseas found an eager audience. Members campaigned for peace, Aboriginal rights (many Aboriginal women were members), child care, kindergartens and improved conditions in maternity hospitals. They were a constant little pressure group which could be counted on to lobby the government in matters likely to benefit the working class woman and her family. In its heyday the club was staffed every weekday between 11 am and 2.30 pm but high rents made it difficult to maintain and in 1973 it disbanded.

In Europe in 1955, Roma represented the Peace Council of Western Australia at the Assembly for Peace in Helsinki, and was invited to the Mothers' Conference in Lausanne, where she made contact with women from behind the Iron Curtain. Her son won a scholarship and danced with the national Czech ballet company. The Gilchrists were hosts to Jessie Street (q.v.) on her visit to inspect living conditions for Aborigines. Roma continued to work for peace, organising a novel protest in 1957: women, wearing aprons and scarves printed with peace slogans, walked through the streets and were arrested, charged with unseemly propaganda and convicted. They appealed and their appeal was upheld. In later years Roma organized peace marches from Fremantle to Perth.

In 1970 Roma was appointed a justice of the peace. She visited Japan for Expo 70 where she met members of the Japanese women's movement. In ill health and living on a pension with her husband, she was awarded $200 in 1981 by the Women and Labour Conference Trust Fund to assist her to write the history of the Union of Australian Women in Western Australia. Her manuscript is in Battye Library, Perth. She died on 29 October 1983; John died in December. They were working class activists, learning from each other and from people they met as they worked for what they hoped would be a more just and peaceful future for all.

Michal Bosworth