The Influence

Filmmaker Robynne Murphy is inspired by the collective genesis of a painting by sisters Lorraine Brown and Narelle Thomas. By Kate Holden.

Robynne Murphy

Untitled painting by Lorraine Brown and Narelle Thomas, and Robynne Murphy (inset).
Credit: Supplied

Robynne Murphy is a legend of the Australian women’s rights movement. She helped to make industrial relations history with the landmark Jobs for Women campaign at the Port Kembla steelworks from 1984-92, setting precedents for Australian women that remain today. With thousands of others, she campaigned relentlessly for the right to work at the BHP steelworks, which had a “men-only” employment policy.

Murphy worked for 30 years at Port Kembla as a welder, crane driver and hot strip mill worker, before retiring to resume her calling as a filmmaker and make Women of Steel (2020), a film covering the long, tumultuous story of that historic campaign. The film won the History Council of New South Wales’ Macquarie–PHA Applied History Award, was a finalist at the Sydney Film Festival and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Awards last month.

Murphy is still fighting: she is an outspoken voice for climate action, a union activist and battled the Black Summer infernos of the south coast as a Rural Fire Service volunteer. She chose to speak about an untitled 2010 painting by Lorraine Brown and her sister Narelle Thomas, from the Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation in Port Kembla, NSW.

You live on the south coast of NSW, where freshwater meets salt, and you famously worked at Port Kembla steelworks near Wollongong, again a landscape where salt meets fresh. Tell me about this painting with its gorgeous natural elements.

I like a whole lot of different paintings; I thought, “Maybe I should talk about [Italian artist] Modigliani.” But I thought, “No, the one I see all the time is this one.” That particular painting is really about Wollongong, where the mountains meet the sea, and the images are exactly what you’d see: goannas and dolphins. Coomaditchie has a freshwater lake right next to the beach at Port Kembla. It’s special. There are tortoises in there.

Having lived most of my life in the Port Kembla area, I connected with the local Aboriginal artists of the area at Coomaditchie co-op. When I was a kid I lived on the Macleay River up north, and my father taught at the “white” school but with Aboriginal kids, and one of the artists of this painting, her husband comes from the same area as where I grew up. So we just had this really nice connection. But apart from that, the two women who painted this, the two sisters [Lorraine and Narelle], are really strong women, the Elders of that co-operative, and they’re really good at connecting with that wider community, and they’ve been an inspiration for me.

I no longer live in Port Kembla. The painting was a sort of present to myself as well. It has significance because I was about to retire from the steelworks so this was about understanding where I was going and where I’d been. I knew I’d probably move on from the area, to make the film. The painting was up at auction and I was lucky to get it. It’s a priceless piece of art. It’s as much for me about the actual painting as the two women that painted it.

It’s got all the country colours – browns, oranges, the blues of the sea. But yeah, just the colours themselves: they’re earthy colours, they’re grounded colours. And the content is so beautiful because when you go along the beaches in Port Kembla you often see dolphins … it just reminds me of everything I love in the area. I’m a pretty grounded person and I like to be connected: that’s what my life is all about, and that’s just one of the paintings that connects me with what I do and the people that inspire me.

The other thing that drew me to it is the colour of the steelworks. The rusty colour of iron ore and ochre are similar colours from iron oxide.

You’d had your career at the steelworks … and the hard work of activism in your Jobs for Women campaign. And then filmmaking to bind them together.

Well, “career” … I went in as an unskilled worker, 30 years later I’d done my time and it was time to go. I’d just started making the film and I knew I had to leave to finish it.

I can see a connection between the Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation work, of making connections and community and cultural sharing, and the work you did with the women’s rights movement and organising the campaign at BHP, then mounting a film project…

That’s what I like. That’s what I love. It’s what I continue to do now. I’m involved with community here: the Aboriginal community, and an amazing woman who’s keen to get people involved with cool fire burns, and I’m also in the local fire brigade. That’s a great way to get to know the people in Nelligen and also give back. It’s all about connection.

The way I make films is very much in that co-operative way. We didn’t have much choice anyway – but it was a collective of people who shared my passion and wanted to get the story out. It may not be the greatest cinema from an artistic point of view, but the film has guts and heart and emotion, and that’s all been brought in not just by myself, as I lived through it, and the women who tell their stories, but the collective effort of the team. It all comes back to that co-operative spirit.

The thing about the film, it’s always been my aim to show that what appears to be this “little campaign” is part of history; we actually did change aspects of the workforce for women forever by opening up opportunities for women in male-dominated industries. It took a long time, but particularly the migrant women involved in the campaign, they need to go down in history as brave women.

Our campaign was part of the extension of the women’s liberation movement – I got involved 1977, 1978, maybe earlier. I’d been involved [in the] Women’s Abortion Campaign and the Working Women’s Charter – but the Jobs for Women campaign really took it out there. It was never going to be a successful campaign if it didn’t involve migrant women. It wouldn’t have represented the community.

“I’m a socialist, I’m a communist, I’m a feminist, I’m a green”: these are labels that people put on you. To me a genuine campaign is when you’re reaching out in the grassroots, no matter what the situation is, that you’re appealing across all barriers.

So the Coomaditchie co-op is another collective endeavour, resource-sharing, making common spaces, incorporating diversity.

I’ve got a connection and a love for Narelle and Lorraine, and Lorraine’s husband, Sonny, and all the mob there. I was still working with BlueScope Steel when I started working with them: some idiot had put carp in the lake there. So we had a fishout. The idea was to involve kids, educate them about carp and rehabilitate the lake; we planted trees too. I moved away about 10 years ago and I really miss them, but I’ve got this painting to remember them by. Now and then I’ll ring them up and have a yak. We get on the phone and we just talk for ages. I think when you make good connections something just happens.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Robynne Murphy".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.