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Clare, Mona Matilda (Monica) (1924–1973)

by Jack Horner

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Mona Matilda (Monica) Clare (1924-1973), Aboriginal political activist and author, is said to have been born on 13 August 1924 at Dareel, near Goondiwindi, Queensland, daughter of Daniel Herbert ('Ron') McGowan, an Aborigine, and Beatrice Scott, the blonde, blue-eyed, high-spirited daughter of English itinerant workers. Along the upper Darling and Barwon rivers where he worked, McGowan was respected as an expert shearer, despite his withered arm. A son Dan was born in 1926. After Beatrice died in childbirth in 1931, a welfare inspector removed the children as 'neglected'.

From Yasmar home for infants at Haberfield, they were fostered to Bill and Stella Woodbury, brother and sister, at their farm and orchard near Spencer on the lower Hawkesbury River. The children were given great affection, and attended a private bush school and the local Catholic church. In 1935 officials parted them, sending Monica to Redmyre Road Home, Strathfield, and Dan to a boys' training farm. She never saw him again. Monica resumed school at the home and was trained for domestic service. The racial taunts of pupils and staff made her determined to excel at study.

Monica worked for many Sydney suburban families, being paid four shillings weekly, with a rising increment of two shillings on each birthday. Her mail could be intercepted and rules were strict. Employers frequently dismissed her before the holidays fell or higher payment was due. In August 1942, no longer a ward, she accepted her final domestic position at Vaucluse, then rented a flat and obtained factory jobs. Working at W. D. & H. O. Wills (Australia) Ltd's cigarette factory, she studied typing and shorthand at night-school.

While visiting the Woodburys, who had retired to Nambucca Heads in 1946, Monica met the Aboriginal community at Bellwood reserve. She grew interested in race relations and Labor politics. Residing at Malabar, Sydney, she contacted Aboriginal families at La Perouse and in November 1949, during her campaign for Daniel Curtin (Labor's candidate for the Federal seat of Watson), enrolled them for voting. Her marriage in 1953, from which there was a daughter, ended in divorce.

On 13 August 1962 at the registrar general's office, Sydney, Monica married Leslie Forsyth Clare. Born to British parents at Waratah, Tasmania, he was a union official in the building trades. Monica joined the women's committees of the union and became a relieving clerk for the branch at Wollongong, where she and Leslie lived. Until 1970 she accompanied him on his motorcar trips four times a year to country towns where he organized on behalf of members, verified the appalling conditions on Aboriginal reserves and, through union action, fought racial discrimination.

Having direct knowledge of life on segregated reserves, Monica became secretary of the Aboriginal committee of the South Coast Labor Council. Her political activity was sustained by her shrewd understanding of human behaviour. When people presented complaints of discrimination, she bombarded shire and State politicians for improvements. Her constant correspondence had practical results: the Askin government decided to replace transitional housing for Aborigines with homes of Housing Commission standard and established low-interest loans for buying furniture.

Following the 1967 referendum which ensured Federal responsibility for Aborigines, in 1968 Monica restructured the Aboriginal committee as the independent 'South Coast Illawarra Tribe', representing the Koori people of Nowra, Orient Point, Wreck Bay, Wallaga Lake and Bega. As its secretary, she was prominent in the campaign which led to the establishment of co-operatives for rehousing the Wallaga Lake and Nowra communities with loans from Commonwealth funds. A delegate (c.1968-72) to several conferences of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, she was also active on the International Women's Day, May Day and National Aborigines' Day committees.

Described by her husband as a woman 'with strong reserves of energy and generosity', Monica had suffered from a collapsed lung, and for many years cancer took its toll. She died of subarachnoid haemorrhage on 13 July 1973 (National Aborigines' Day) at Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay, Sydney, and was cremated. Her husband and their adopted son and daughter survived her.

Monica Clare's novel, Karobran (meaning 'together'), based upon her early childhood and teenage experiences as a state ward, expressed her rebellious nature, as well as her constant search for identity and family. Having attended a creative-writing course at Wollongong, Monica rewrote the manuscript many times until she was satisfied. It was published posthumously in April 1978.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Hill and A. Barlow (eds), Black Australia, vol 2 (Canb, 1985)
  • T. Mayne, Aborigines and the Issues (Syd, 1986)
  • Aboriginal and Islander Forum, June 1978
  • Illawarra Mercury, 14 July, 29 Aug 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Feb, 15 Mar 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

Jack Horner, 'Clare, Mona Matilda (Monica) (1924–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/clare-mona-matilda-monica-9750/text17223, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012