writer, artist and political influencer
As her husband became more involved in Labor Party politics, before being elected MP for Maribyrnong in 1969, Shirley published poetry, reviews and short stories. She co-edited an anthology of anti-war poems. “We Took Their Orders and Died”, and later a magazine for schools. She studied anthropology at Monash University, ran workshops for children and raised three of her own, Naomi, Deborah and Daniel.
When Moss became environment and conservation minister in the Whitlam government, Shirley helped him interview candidates for key positions in his new ministerial office. “She was a better judge of character,” Moss noted. The team they selected would be working on groundbreaking legislation, including the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act.
As Moss tried unsuccessfully to save Tasmania’s Lake Pedder, and more successfully to protect Fraser Island and the Great Barrier Reef, Shirley also looked to the future of the planet. She said she had no doubt that “the rape of the land was linked to greed and ignorance”. She believed that child development was the key to a better world. “Children need to be aware of the environment because they are closer to nature than adults,” she remarked in an interview for The Australian Jewish News. “Shirley Cass”, he reported, “will be a great asset to her husband in his new position”. There was no mention of what Moss’ political rise might mean for his wife’s career.
The Whitlam years were heady and intense times, not without their challenges. Moss was often away from home in Canberra or wherever his wallets and, later, ghost wallets took him. In 1976, Shirley wrote that she considered “the families of parliamentarians to be destitute families, bereft of the warmth and participation of one of their members”, a comment which received scornful treatment in The bulletin. The Canberra Times asked other politicians’ wives for answers, slyly reporting that most “were not available to comment; they were shopping or, perhaps, spending precious time with their husbands. He did, however, quote Kristine Klugman in support of Shirley. Politicians “waste the lives of their wives,” Klugman said. “The woman had to take care of the family and often also of a job.” Moss would publicly acknowledge this when he retired from Parliament in 1983.
Shirley remained outspoken and politically active throughout her life; especially for immigrants and refugees. In 2013, after the death of her daughter Deborah from cancer, Shirley proposed the creation of a literary prize in Deborah’s name, a prize which today encourages emerging writers born outside Australia, or of parents from Australia. ‘other countries.
In her own work, Shirley continued to explore themes relating to her origins as a child of people born elsewhere. Returning to school in the late 1990s, first at RMIT and then at Monash University, she earned an MFA in 2004. In the years that followed, she exhibited in group exhibitions and personal, including a 2006 installation at the Jewish Museum in Melbourne. , Mark the Stranger, which was described by Shirley as a “weird tagging emblem contest”. They included coats, hats and badges she made from fabric and wax, referring to badges used to identify and exclude Jews through the ages. Shirley had found a new way to approach her subject, bringing to her art her Jewish heritage and her contempt for anything that seeks to dehumanize the other.
In 2020, she publishes Strangers and love poems, a mix of works of art, poems, letters, images and objects from his personal archives. They speak of the beauty, meaning and melancholy she saw in everyday life, as well as in her family and friends.
Shirley was a great communicator, a superb cook who always made people feel comfortable around her table, and she could be very funny; “funny” was a word often used to describe her. Her granddaughter, Ruby, described Shirley in more detail in a ‘love letter’ reproduced in her grandmother’s book. She wrote that Shirley had a “relationship to words, people, food, clothes, objects and animals” that was “spectacularly special, brilliant and deeply loving”.
Shirley Cass is survived by her children, Naomi and Daniel, her grandchildren, Esther, Ruby, Hannah, Rosa, Theo and Louis, and her great-grandchildren Myriam and Adam. His daughter Deborah died in 2013.