Beyond the classroom

Melissa East and Patrick Ferry
Tuesday, 12 March 2024

In the 1940s, Doris McRae was one of the most senior female educators in Victoria. Beyond the classroom, Doris was also a pacifist, women’s right campaigner, communist and a 'person of interest' to ASIO.

Teacher and activist

Doris's distinguished teaching career began as a student teacher at Pakenham, south-east of Melbourne.  Later she studied at the Teachers’ College and Melbourne University. Doris taught at schools across Victoria. In 1942, she became principal of Flemington Girls’ High School. This made her one of the most senior female educators in Victoria. Doris is still remembered as an inspirational teacher. 

Doris’s socio-political views and activism began taking shape at university during the First World War. She joined the Student Christian Movement and Student Peace Group. Doris strongly opposed conscription. Her lifelong commitment to pacifism later led Doris into more radical political circles.

Banding together with persistence

As a teacher, Doris was keenly aware of gender discrimination. Her mother Mary was forced to resign from teaching when she married. This law still applied in Doris’s era (she never married). Doris was also paid less salary than her male counterparts.

Doris became a leader of the Victorian Teachers' Union (VTU), campaigning against such discrimination. Persistence was required as change was a long time coming. The marriage bar was only lifted in 1956. Equal pay for Victorian female teachers was not achieved until 1968.

Seizing the moment

For many Australian women, the Second World War offered new opportunities, particularly in employment. 'Seizing the moment', women from across Australia (including Doris) worked on developing the Australian Women’s Charter (1943). This landmark document set out an agenda for women in post-war Australia. It addressed issues such as women’s rights to paid work, equal pay, childcare and gender discrimination.

By now, Doris was closely associated with the Communist Party of Australia. She looked to the Soviet Union as a model for improving women’s and children's rights. Doris published booklets promoting the Soviet education system and way of life.

Surveilled and publicly accused

Educated, committed and not afraid to speak her mind, Doris clearly made waves. Her pacifist and communist views attracted attention from Australia’s security services. A security dossier was begun on Doris.

Doris was soon caught up in the anti-communist hysteria building up in Australia. In 1946, Doris was wrongly accused in the Victorian Parliament of spreading communist propaganda in the classroom. She was later accused of forming a communist 'cell' within the VTU. Doris retired from teaching on health grounds due to the emotional strain caused by the campaign against her.

What the Queen's messenger thought

In 1952, Doris attended a conference on children’s rights in the Soviet Union. On the flight from Moscow, she was seated next to Captain Salmon, the 'Queen's Messenger'. Salmon was carrying classified documents between British embassies. ASIO received a copy of Salmon’s report on his conversation with Doris. In it he dismissed Doris as 'not a very intelligent type' and did not see her as a threat in terms of organising unrest. One wonders how much Salmon's assessment was coloured by Doris's gender? However, he did recognise the potential for Doris to persuade people:

the danger would seem to lie in the fact that she would be able to impress people with the fact that she had been to Russia and would speak with apparent knowledge of conditions.

Doris remained committed to social activism for the rest of her life. She died in 1988 and is still remembered as a champion for social justice and women's rights.