Australia and the Vietnam War

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'Save Our Sons': The Fairlea Five

This photograph shows the Fairlea Five reunited at the Anti-Vietnam War Moratorium 20th anniversary. From left to right they are Joan Coxsedge, Jean McLean, Chris Cathie, Jo Maclaine-Cross and Irene Miller.
[Melbourne University Archives UMA/7/772]

This photograph shows the Fairlea Five reunited at the Anti-Vietnam War Moratorium 20th anniversary. From left to right they are Joan Coxsedge, Jean McLean, Chris Cathie, Jo Maclaine-Cross and Irene Miller. [Melbourne University Archives UMA/7/772]

‘Prison was hell’ screamed the headlines in Melbourne on 19 April 1971. ‘The five women released from prison yesterday all lost weight during their eleven days behind bars’.

The five women in question, Joan Coxsedge, Jean McLean, Chris Cathie, Jo Maclaine-Cross and Irene Miller, were arrested under a charge of Wilful Trespass for distributing leaflets on conscientious objection to boys registering for national service at the Department of Labour and National Service. Already well known for their protest activities, the five women were each sentenced to fourteen days in Melbourne’s Fairlea Prison. The case received wide publicity, generated a series of vigils and rallies outside the prison and brought the Save Our Sons movement to the attention of people who had not previously been aware of its existence. The media emphasised the imprisoned women’s role as parents, noting that between them they had 25 children, all of whom would have to spend Easter that year without their mothers. The Age called them ‘gaoled wives’.

The Fairlea Five were released after 11 days, Jean McLean remembered the prison as being ‘soul destroying and an institution rivalled only by something out of the 18th century.’ Their experience of incarceration was mercifully brief, but as women of obvious social conscience they lobbied to have conditions improved for those whose imprisonment would last much longer. In 2001 the five women received an official invitation to visit Vietnam where they met survivors of the war and the disabled children of veterans, among many others.