A comrade retires

This post is adapted from a speech I gave for my close colleague Cathy Rytmeister at her National Tertiary Education Union farewell. If you have worked with the NTEU in any capacity, then I expect you know Cathy. If you have taken parental leave from an Australian university, then you have benefitted from her advocacy. It was honour to give a speech to celebrate Cathy’s work for the NTEU and her retirement from Macquarie University, where she has worked to improve working conditions for over thirty years.

Cathy Rytmeister on a bicycle with NTEU flag

I have known Cathy for a long time. I encountered her at Macquarie University over twenty years ago soon after I started work as a research assistant at the then Centre for Professional Development. Cathy had recently moved from teaching and researching in statistics to academic development.

We were in the tea room — the Centre was well known for its generous morning teas. So much so, that as a casual staff member,  I asked whether I should omit the time from my timesheet. The director of the centre, Stephen Marshall, and my manager, Lyn Hammett, said no. Morning tea was the most important part of the working day. It was an opportunity for conceptualising research, developing teaching capabilities, and building relationships. We also laughed a great deal and ate a lot of cake.

So, twenty odd years ago, we were in the tea room of a cottage on campus that has since been knocked down. (Cathy asked if I had any photos of the cottage last week, and I said yes, before realising the only ones I had were of the bulldozer demolishing it.) This morning tea — a vast spread of cakes, biscuits and tea in front of us — I was sitting next to Cathy Rytmeister. Staring at my profile, she said ‘I know you’ and asked whether I had attended lessons at a local art centre with my brothers in the 1980s. I had.

Cathy had been my art teacher as a child. Here I am:

a sepia-tinted photograph of a child with paint-covered clothes

Cathy then asked whether I was a member of the NTEU. I was, and said my father had told me it was important to join the union. ‘I knew I liked your parents’, she declared.

There are so many ways in which I could describe Cathy — authentic, humorous, spontaneous, loyal, ‘not entirely whinge-free’ as her partner Roy has said. But I shall pick just three words and share some examples of how she has contributed to the NTEU and inspired me and others: integrity, generosity and passion.

First, her integrity

Cathy speaks truth to power, and has described her role as being “the little voice that annoys”. Like me, Cathy grew up pro-union, and her strong sense of social justice was honed in her childhood. Workplaces, notably the post office, and universities have played an important role in radicalising Cathy — she describes her time as a student at the Institute of Technology (now UTS) as a “hotbed of radicals” and a turbulent time that gave her a taste for campaigning, strikes and picket lines.  Studying maths at Macquarie and being a Student Rep in Academic Senate prompted a lifelong interest in academic governance and leadership, and the politics of higher education. She was active in the students’ political movements and worked with members of the Macquarie University Staff Association (MUSA), a branch of the Federated Australian University Staff Association (FAUSA) – a predecessor of the NTEU (thank you to Nikki Balnave for those details.)

Cathy has a long history with the NTEU, starting as a casual staff member at Macquarie in 1989, and joining the union as soon as she could as an academic a few years later. She has been active at all levels of the union, as a member of Branch Committee, NSW Division, National Councillor, Education Committee member, Women’s Action Committee, state Assistant Secretary, Bargaining Committee member over several rounds, Macquarie Branch Vice President (for both academics and general staff) and six years as Branch President. She has participated in four rounds of Enterprise Bargaining. It may have been faster to list the positions she has not held! A highlight of her union work is successfully campaigning for paid parental leave – and, like many, I and my children thank her for this.

We can celebrate Cathy’s successes, and recognise there is still plenty of work for us to do. Everyone here will be familiar with Cathy’s integrity and principles in the ongoing struggle — let me check my notes from conversations with her — against rampant individualism, unrestrained commercialisation and passive complicity with the neoliberal agenda.

Second word: her generosity

I am sure you have all been recipients of Cathy’s generosity. It has had a powerful influence on my professional and personal life — I can’t disconnect the two because there’s an intimacy to working with Cathy. We’ve been through challenges — multiple rounds of change management, parental leave, break-ups, illness, the deaths of colleagues and friends — and celebrations of birthdays, degrees, jobs and family. Cathy and I have worked closely in the NTEU, in politics for The Greens, and as co-teachers, co-authors, researchers and committee members. I have interviewed her several times for different projects — her knowledge keeps on giving — and she has not let me forget putting [snort] into one of the transcripts.

Cathy nourishes people — sometimes with food (pancakes in the tearoom), sometimes with hard liquor, or by knitting socks and baby blankets. (This photo, over sixteen years ago, shows her exquisite knitting.)

a baby in a snuggle bed with a green knitted blanket

She supports and celebrates people — in song (her farewell songs are legendary, including Knock knock knocking on Kevin’s door for Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Kevin Jameson), with advice, and by sharing quality time.  Cathy feels deeply and her emotions are big. It’s a wonder that someone so sensitive can be so tough at the same time. We’re lucky that Cathy feels the world the way she does, and that she is generous with her vulnerabilities. Cathy is generous by disagreeing with people and challenging them. Her relationships, including with those she disagrees with, are enriched by her generosity.

She is also generous with her opinions. You won’t leave a meeting wondering what Cathy really thinks about something or someone. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, what would Cathy say? A discussion with Cathy, or witnessing her in enterprise bargaining or on academic governance committees, leaves you in no doubt about her principles: equity, transparency, fairness, solidarity and activism.

Cathy shows that the revolution begins with care. Warm feet, a full belly and a song.

But don’t let being comfortable fool you. Cathy will challenge you. ‘Your warm feet feel good in those knitted socks, don’t they, your belly is full with the food I cooked, your ears are full of song, but what’s good for your world? What’s good for your neighbour? What’s good for the society as a whole? What’s good for people you never see? How will you pay the debt of your privilege, and share what you have?’

Finally, her passion.

Cathy is passionate about higher education. She is passionate about activism and politics within and beyond the university. Quality learning and teaching, education as a public good, effective leadership, the student experience, staff rights and conditions…

And she is passionate about life outside of work. Singing in two activist choirs, travelling, caring for her grandkids, loving Roy. That is inspiring. Let it be an example to you that your life at work does not define you. Cathy is leaving Macquarie, but she has songs to write, gigs to perform, socks to knit, campaigns to join, and a rich and loving circle of family and friends. May you have the same.

I have talked about Cathy’s generosity, her love and care. Part of her passion is also anger. Many of you will have seen Cathy being the ‘crankiest woman in the room’. She reminds us that anger is necessary and valuable. I am looking forward to the publication of her email drafts folder so we can finally see all the messages that were deemed too saucy to send after the heat of the moment had cooled!

Cathy’s integrity, generosity and passion come together in her work for the NTEU, and her life’s work.

Her office offers something of an archive as she cleans it out and uncovers gems of her history at Macquarie and with the NTEU. Treasures will include: bawdy and possibly defamatory song lyrics that she has written, a facsimile of an olive branch sent to former Vice-Chancellor Di Yerbury, learning and teaching awards, and union t-shirts and posters, including those inviting former Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz to come to the party.

A toast to Cathy. To what she has given us, to what she leaves us and to what comes next. Thank you comrade.

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!

Everyday life

A lot has happened in the world since my last post, and yet I’m writing from inside the same walls. In Australia, most people are experiencing COVID-19 through the disruption of social distancing, rather than proximity to illness and mortality. My condolences to those who have lost people close to them. Here, we are schooling at home, trying to maintain connection to the outdoors, worrying about family and friends, restricting our movements, feeling anxious when visiting the shops… For many, these challenges are compounded by job loss, pre-existing physical and mental health issues, and social inequality.

I am fortunate to enjoy the company of the people I live with, to be able to continue working from home, to have functional internet and enough room in our house. Even so I have felt enervated by enforced domesticity and lack of autonomy.

I have previously blogged about service, care and housekeeping (at work and home) as under-recognised work that is disproportionately performed by women. With a smaller distance between home, work and school, I’ve been thinking about the workloads that have increased: care work, housekeeping, life administration, and emotional labour.

Having a full house all the time means more time spent cleaning, preparing food, shopping and tidying up. Even pet care has increased, with our dog requiring grooming and an urgent trip to the vet this week (with twice daily medication, her infection is clearing up). What is on your mental to-do list right now? Here’s a sample off the top of my head: pick up medicine from chemist, organise online catch-ups with friends for the 7 year old, suggest alternatives to screen time, call doctor, write shopping list, plan for schooling, make telehealth appointments, make vet appointment, pay water bill, wash sheets, empty recycling, clean out drawers, book flu shots, donate books, post parcels, sign and return school forms, get quotes for repairs, put chickens away, buy slippers, read The Art of Life Admin

It keeps going in all its banality. I won’t be doing all of these things myself, but I am keeping a tally. During COVID-19 lockdown,  many tasks have additional steps and take longer than usual.

Keeping energetic children occupied while parents are working is usually outsourced to school, before and after school care, clubs and activities, vacation care, holiday camps and grandparents. Organising school holiday entertainment takes time. While there are good online activities available, the level of parent supervision depends on the age, temperament and needs of your children, and whether the activities cost money. My children have enjoyed a mix of paid and free activities, including hip hop, science, art and coding. This picture is my daughter’s Monet-inspired work:


I am enjoying:

  • Helen Sword’s (free) Stay at Home Writing Retreat. Days spent writing are the stuff of fantasy right now, but the retreat meant I was able to finally complete this post! Small tasks: an abstract, an introduction to a report, a creative writing assignment.
  • Flat shoes and clothes that feel like pyjamas. Will I ever be able to wear ‘work clothes’ again?
  • Home-made soup using the ingredients from our mystery fruit and veg box delivery. My brother has just updated his blog of my mother’s recipes from the 1970s with minestrone soup. And simple, experimental meals; tonight’s dinner was a sausage tasting competition.
  • Homebound fun. We are playing a lot of board games, including The Spider’s Web: A Game of Escape, which we found in an op shop or garage sale some time ago and played for the first time this week.
  • Catching up with colleagues in our twice weekly tea room meetings.
  • Podcasts while exercising: Conversations, By the Book, Slow Your Home
  • Writing in my Passion Planner diary. As well as getting my to-do list on paper, I can chronicle my responses to prompts like: What was the most memorable part of this past month? Are you happy with how you spent your time? What are you most proud of? What or who are you especially grateful for this past month?
  • Finding the right books for a distracted mind. The Unread Shelf Challenge had me pick up Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend. I loved it for the focus on the inner lives of older women.

Despite these pleasures, our emotions are tumultuous. Looking at the emotions wheel, we are feeling overwhelmed, playful, helpless, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—and that’s before we get dressed in the morning! I am spending more time than ever trying to remain calm and supporting the emotions of others. Those with younger children and large families must be finding this a challenge. Self-care is more important than ever.