Merle Thornton is one of Australia’s best known badass feminist activists. In 1965 she chained herself to the bar rail at the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane to protest against the law that excluded women from public bars in Queensland. Before the amazing actions of Merle and her friend Ros, women had to drink shandies in the ladies lounge, separate from men.
Merle was born in 2nd of October 1930 in Melbourne, the only child to parents George and Jean Wilson (nee Baily). Merle's birth was a difficult one, leaving the child with a distored head, and her mother Jean with significant injuries due to the dangerous birthing practices of the time. It was decided at that point that Merle would be an only child, with her father George stating that he'd rather have "One child and one wife, than two children and no wife". Merle has attributed her lifelong belief in women's equality to this decision by her parents, believing that her parents raised her in a more gender neutral manner than was common at the time, due to their inability to have a son.
Merle was enrolled in South Camberwell Primary school, a mixed school, where she gained a reputation for testing gender boundaries.
In 1938, Merle's family moved to Sydney, following a dispute over the working conditions of women at the sock factory her father worked at, which ultimately led to his resignation.
Despite not enjoying her disciplinarian schooling, Merle was academically gifted, skipping grade four entirely, and eventually gaining entrance to Sydney University on a scholarship, becoming one of only six students in her year group at Fort Street High School to attend university. During her time studying English and Philosophy in the 1950s, Merle became an early active member of what would become the Sydney Push, a bohemian group of libertarian thinkers and drinkers, which championed many of the radical ideals that would come reshape society through the swinging sixties.
Shortly after university Merle married her husband Neil, who she had met at a poetry class. Having taken on a career in the public service, Merle was forced to hide this marriage over the next few years, due to a law known as the Marriage Bar which prevented married women from being employed in public service jobs. Eventually however Merle was outed, after returning from three weeks vacation, visibly pregnant, which led to her immediate firing. This incident would lay the groundwork for Merle's firm stance against the discrimination against women that still existed throughout Australia.
Merle moved to Queensland in 1961 after her husband Neil gained a job at University of Queensland. Merle soon joined the staff there too, and it was during her time as a lecturer that Merle joined the university's Free Thought Society, where she regularly gave speeches on progressive topics, drawing a crowd of over 900 people to one of her speeches on the newly released contraceptive pill. As a member of staff Merle quickly took a hammer to the university's gendered office policy, choosing to sit in the men's common room, with male staff members reporting they were too terrified of Merle to eject her.
The Regatta Pub Protest
By 1965, the feminist movement was in full swing in Australia, and many of the countries pubs in capital cities like Sydney and Melbourne had relaxed their rules against women drinking alongside men. This, however was not the case in Queensland, where bartenders could be fined twenty pounds for simply serving a woman liquor in the presence of men, even though women were allowed to stand behind the bar and serve drinks to men.
Upon arriving in Queensland from Sydney in 1961, former Thornton was surprised to learn that women still didn't have the right to drink in bars in Australia's most northern state. Having spent much of her time as a member of the Sydney Push sitting in bars alongside other women and men, Merle was offended that these archaic rules still existed in some parts of Australia, and she soon set out to change them. However, when Thornton took her grievance to the local member of parliament, she was simply laughed at, and Merle quickly realised that she would have to take matters into her own hands.
After stocking up on supplies (and a few $2 sausage sandwiches) at the local hardware store, Merle and her friend Rosalie Bognor marched into their local pub, the Regatta, and chained themselves to the bar, refusing to leave until they were served a drink. Police were called, but not before the women had begun handing out flyers explaining to fellow patrons why the women wanted the right to drink in bars with men. By the time the police showed up, the media were already at the bar, ensuring that any attempt to remove the women would result in a PR nightmare for the officers.
Eventually, after a tense standoff in which the women refused to unchain themselves, the last remaining officer threw in the towel, telling Merle and Rosalie to "have a good night" and to "not drink too much." It was those last fateful words that Merle and Rosalie had been waiting for, clearly demonstrating that the police were not willing to enforce the ban on women in bars any more.
The protest is considered a pivotal moment for the progression of womens' rights in Australia, both for the change in law it brought about, and the public attention that was brought to the women's liberation movement as a result of the media coverage.
After the Regatta
After the protest against segregation in bars, Merle formed the Equal Opportunities for Women Association, and as its president led a successful campaign to eliminate the marriage bar which had excluded married women from career public service in Australia, because, yeah if you got married you were forced to resign from your job. The EOW was the first womens' rights body to make equal opportunity a slogan goal for women’s advancement.
- The dog chain used to lock Merle to the bar cost only 5s 6d and the padlocks were only two bob each.
- Merle hid her marriage from the ABC due to policies which required married women to resign.
- Merle has said that she didn't believe in marriage at the time she was wed. She and her husband decided to get married due to Merle's father's failing health, as well as witnessing the discrimination experienced by friends who had opted to live together without marrying first.
- Merle collects marbles to this day, in protest of being told by fellow students that girls didn't play marbles while she was at school.
- Merle realised she attended the same school as Barry Humphries after seeing him in concert in Brisbane, and realising that she recognised all the names of the teachers in one of his skits.
- When asked why his daughter was attending university (uncommon at the time) Merle's father would tell them that "if she has children she'll be a better mother for being educated".
- Merle talked her way out of being fired from her first job, which she often turned up late for, by explaining that she was only late due to "occupational maladjustment" which she described as a phychological term for someone who is bad at their job because it is beneath their skill level. Her bluff worked, and instead of being fired, Merle was moved to a better job at the Commonwealth Office of Education.
- There are many more important issues, like the equal pay issue. But it's something we thought we could make a quick impact on, and we do think it's an important and significant issue, both in being a matter of legal discrimination against women, which is never trivial - there are always invidious situations arise out of this - and because of the social attitudes of protectiveness towards women, involved in the attempt to keep women out of bars. We think this is very significant and bad. Women ought to have and ought to demand the right to discriminate between the conversations that they'll accept and the ones that they won't for themselves.
- At first the policeman asked us for the keys. We said we didn't have them, and we didn't know where they were. The police then asked for a hammer and smashed the padlock. And asked us to leave. We said that we wouldn't, didn't want to leave, that we weren't breaking any law, we had read the act, we had consulted a solicitor, and that it was quite within the law for us to remain in the bar as long as nobody served us with a drink. The policeman said, 'Please don't make a fool of me. Please go out quietly. I don't want to have to make a scene and carry you out bodily.' We said we were afraid he'd have to do this. He also told us in rather a fatherly way that we were breaking the law. If we would go and get the act, he would show us exactly which line did apply. We still refused to go, saying we did know the act. We had read it. We had consulted a solicitor. And finally the policeman left, saying, 'Stay as long as you like, have a good time, and don't drink too much.'
- Women should have the discretion to do what they choose in this matter. No-one's going to force women into bars if they don't want to go, but they should have the right to go there.
- One of the things that appalled me when I first came to Queensland was seeing the women standing around on the footpaths waiting for their men to come out of the bars in Queensland's suburbs. I think this is really an intolerable situation. It's a very general one.
- The regatta hotel now has bar named “Merles Bar”. Now when Ms Thornton visits the hotel she can have a drink at Merle's bar, which is named after her.
- Merle was the author of fiction novel After Moonlight, released in 2005.
- Merle is the mother of leading Australian actor Sigrid Thornton.
- Merle has an extensive body of published work in the social theory of feminism and has written documentaries, as well as episodes for the television drama series Prisoner.