Voices from the living past

“I think that a mother owes this to her children: to keep in contact with the rest of the world.”

This is the comment of a woman university student that was aired on Australian television in January 1961. My father shared the re-released recording from the ABC program A Woman’s Place. Questions include: Do the two lives of working and caring for children go together? Should women get the same money for doing the same job? Do you expect to find prejudice against the career woman? Could a woman be head of a large organisation?

The answers of the students vary — it wouldn’t be good television if everyone agreed — but their realisation of the challenge of “two lives” is evident. (One thing that has changed, at least to my ears, is the Australian accent, itelf a topic on RetroFocus with responses to Do Australian have a bad accent? in 1961 and 2019).

In another snippet of 1960s television from ABC’s RetroFocus, Australian passersby respond to a (male) university professor’s claim that housewives lead a dull life. One woman replies: “I don’t think it is dull at all … [They] invariably enjoy their game of tennis, bowls or golf.” More than one man suggests there’s a bit of “fun and games on the side.” In response to the question, “Never considered going to work?” an elderly woman replies, “Good heavens no!”

A few years after this aired, when my university was new, an article entitled ‘The Mums of Macquarie’ appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly on 19 July, 1967. The article read:

More than 150 married women have gone back to study at the new Macquarie University … taking up courses that had been interrupted by family life … There has been many a resignation from neighboring tennis groups and lunch clubs, a Girl Guide captain has abandoned knots and hikes and returned to books, and it is not uncommon to see women with grocery shopping on one arm balancing a basket of books and papers on the other.

The magazine included this image of children at a lecture:

One of my favourite book bloggers, Whispering Gums, recently posted her reflections as a 1970s feminist, and commented about attending Macquarie University:

I chose to go to a new, progressive university (Macquarie) … in my experience women were treated well, there. It had no baggage of “traditions” that the older male-dominated universities had, and its academics seemed invested in creating something new. I think that made a difference. Macquarie’s motto is Chaucer’s “and gladly teche” (from the lines “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”). I always thought it a bit strange that the motto focused on “teaching” more than “learning” but now I think it’s inspired, because it reminds the academics that “teaching” is where it all starts.

Whispering Gums finishes her post in a way that is apt here, by quoting Germaine Greer: things have changed, but not enough.

For a bit more on the history of learning and teaching at Macquarie, I recommend listening to this audio recording by my colleague Karina Luzia (the transcript is available here).

I have already blogged about the article Vanessa Fredericks and I co-authored, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years. We highlighted a Burns, Scott and Cooney (1993) article called Higher education of single and married mothers, also focussed on Macquarie students. They wrote:

As university teachers, we are well aware that many of [our] students are single and married mothers, who face the particular problem of integrating study demands with family responsibilities and often, with the demands of paid work as well. The present study was triggered by the experience of the first author in teaching a third year unit, in the course of which I became aware of the life crises being endured by two single mothers, one a sole Parent Pensioner, the other self-employed. As well as financial and child care difficulties, both had health problems, one had an adolescent son in trouble with the police, the other had major responsibility for a seriously ill parent, and both were in litigation with apparently vindictive ex-husbands. Students other than mothers do not usually suffer from this kind of constellation of problems (p. 189).

You can read the full article (open source) here, but for the purposes of tracing the voices of university student mothers, I will highlight the voice of one participant:

Well I have three children. I felt I owed it to them whilst attending college to still give them the same amount of attention and support in both their sport and education areas and maintaining the home. And I was very determined I would never be late for an assignment. And I never was, not one day late. But it was a great strain. I got by on four hours sleep at night some nights. For a long period there five hours was a luxury. I never started to study until the children had had some quality time, which meant I wouldn’t open a book to rewrite lecture notes (and I always wrote every lecture again when I got home, so I’d understand it) so it was probably ten o’clock at night when I started, sometimes midnight … I got very tired. Quite cranky, actually.

For the voices of contemporary student parents, I recommend the work of Marie-Pierre Moreau in which students discuss a lack of time and money, and the challenges of balancing family, study and housekeeping. Tired and cranky. That’s something that hasn’t changed!

5 thoughts on “Voices from the living past

  1. I love this piece of course Agnes, and thanks for the link. I was always aware that, as someone with a good academic record, I “should” have gone to Sydney like my pretty well all of my academic peers did but Macquarie excited me. I went in 1971. My sister, then brother and mother also went there in the 70s and not one of us regretted it.

    That audio clip was so lovely, and validating, to hear.

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  2. My Mum started at Macquarie in 1975, the year I went to high school. She had never matriculated, despite being very bright and going to a selective high school. She came from a working-class family and they hadn’t really considered University education at all. She was a “first in family” student.

    It was a huge struggle for her, with three kids (I have two younger brothers) and a marriage starting to disintegrate. She showed incredible tenacity and perseverence, sticking to her studies alongside dealing with our dramas (I was not a very happy teenager), financial difficulties, and her own health, which was not always good. Macquarie was the right University for her then – it had a fresh and progressive attitude to second-chance education and nurtured her learning and personal growth.

    Mum had the highest GPA in her graduating year, and went on to do Honours and then a Masters degree. She worked in a professional area and became head of the relevant department at a major Sydney hospital. She took in students on practicum and helped hundreds, possibly thousands, of families.

    And if Whitlam hadn’t made universities free, none of that would have happened. My parents would have saved the money for my and my brothers’ education, not spent it on her education. Imagine the lost potential! My mother’s free education was a very, very good investment for this nation – she paid it back in service, mentoring, support, care AND of course taxes over her long working life.

    Governments are not interested in such stories today. And I can’t see Macquarie being as supportive as it once was, either.

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    • Your mother did so well, Cathy – that’s beautiful to hear. And, of course, free education under Gough Whitlam (for international readers, from 1974 for a period of 14 years, Australian higher education was free) opened the doors of education to many.

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