Eva Cox: A Feisty Feminist


Anyone even remotely interested in the issues affecting Australian women during the past 30 years will recognise the voice and the face of Eva Cox. Her logical, informative and perceptive comments in the media have contributed to the continuing debate on the role of women in Australian society, and on the sort of society Australia should aspire to become. The value of her role as a social critic was recognised by the award of the Order of Australia in 1995.

In her recently recorded interview for the National Library’s Oral History Collection (TRC 4855) she frankly discusses the difficult experiences that forged both her social values and her determination in fighting for them. She was born in the wrong place at the wrong time—into a comfortable, middle-class Jewish family in Vienna in 1938. The following year her family was shattered. Her mother Ruth, a final-year medical student, took her to England where she spent the war, first cleaning the homes of anyone who would give them shelter, then teaching. Her father, Richard Hauser, joined the British Army in Palestine, and her grandparents and other relatives took refuge in Sydney. Reunited in Rome after the war, where her father worked for the United Nations Refugee Association, Eva continued her schooling until her parents joined her mother’s extended family in Sydney in 1948.

Their long separation during the war, her father’s desire to ‘save the world’, and his later infidelities, irreparably damaged her parents’ relationship. Two years after arriving in Sydney, Richard began a relationship with the pianist Hephzibah Menuhin, leaving an embittered wife and a bewildered and rebellious daughter. Eva admits that for all his faults her father had a profound influence on her future values and activities.

At Sydney University in 1956–57, Eva discovered politics, sex, and fellow rebels in ‘the Push’—none of which was conducive to academic success. Abandoning university she travelled in Europe, married an English photographer in 1962, and gave birth to their daughter Rebecca in 1964. She returned to study as a single mother in the early 1970s, graduating with Honours in Sociology from the University of New South Wales in 1974 and becoming a tutor and research consultant in that department. She also joined the Labor Party as an anti-war and feminist advocate, and established the first Commonwealth-funded childcare centre for Rebecca and other children. It served as a model for government childcare policies.

The 1970s was a golden decade for Eva. She found her voice and her vocation through the Women’s Electoral Lobby, for which she became a leading spokesperson. She was Director of the New South Wales Council for Social Service from 1977–81, then Adviser to the shadow spokesperson on Social Services, Don Grimes, in Canberra in 1981–82. Between 1989 and 1994 she ran a private consultancy, Distaff Associates, with Helen Leonard, and has lectured since 1994 at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Her ABC Boyer Lectures in 1995, entitled A Truly Civil Society, reaffirmed her credentials as a leading contemporary thinker. Forcefully challenging current social values she argued that social capital is more important than financial capital. The following year her book, Leading Women, addressed the problems women face in exercising power. Both works are products of her determination to make organisations more ethical.
—Ann-Mari Jordens