The more things change

At the recent farewell for union colleage Cathy Rytmeister, one of the guests reminded me of a YouTube video I recorded for the National Tertiary Education Union nearly fifteen years ago. He said he thought it was “brave” at the time. Certainly Cathy has some words to say about that:

Be brave. Be brave. Sometimes speaking out is your best defence. Passivity allows you to be pushed around. I know that nowadays it’s a lot harder, because people are casual and it’s their livelihood at stake if they speak out … [Paraphrasing a well-known folk song] ‘Join the union while you may. Don’t wait till your dying day. That may not be far away, you dirty, blackleg academic.’ Get as involved as you can and don’t give up hope.

The video was significant as one of the union’s early forays into social media. It was written about in the Australian Financial Review:

The National Tertiary Education Union has harnessed the power of video, using website YouTube to rally members ahead of a national strike on Wednesday week. A video produced by the university union’s NSW division, featuring an academic claiming heavy workloads forced her to choose between family and career, received 2300 hits in three days last week. Union officials say the response proves just how effective social media can be in getting messages out, and web users can expect to see a lot more online from the NTEU…

The video is no longer publicly available, but I am fortunate to have a father who downloaded it at the time with an eye to posterity. I had to convert it from an archaic file format in order to watch it.

With enterprise bargaining and industrial action happening across the Australian higher education sector, this glimpse into my university work fifteen years ago as a casual academic and PhD candidate reminded me of the importance of collective action and systemic change.

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!


When I tell my family I am going to recharge, they know that means I will be plugging my neurostimulator into the wall and getting the battery back to 100%. I’ve mentioned the neurostimulator for pain management in previous posts, and here’s how I described it in my article Details Optional:

A neurostimulator is an implanted medical device that delivers electrical stimulation directly to the nerve, interrupting pain signals before they reach the brain. It is a small metal box with two leads emerging from it, fine insulated wires that conduct electrical impulses along either side of the nerve. You can feel it through my skin. Stroke your hand across my abdomen—flesh, flesh, and then recoil in shock at the hard metal underneath. No, it doesn’t hurt. It tingles. I recharge it regularly with a hand-held programmer against the skin. My mum is a cyborg, my son says.

Over the last month, I have had the opportunity for recharging of a different kind, despite the shocking covid case numbers in Sydney that have impacted family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The outbreak made for a quiet holiday spent walking, swimming, reading, napping, watching, eating and playing. Here are my favourites of what we enjoyed:

As always, I want to take the holiday feeling into the working year. This New Yorker article on slow productivity offered a timely caution against inflating workloads and the role of managers. And, on management, Sandra Jones and Marina Harvey make the case that living with covid makes distributed leadership imperative in higher education. At a farewell for a colleague who is moving to another university yesterday, I was reminded of the importance of collegiality, critical thinking and constructive dissent. My goal for the last couple of years has been to amplify others; I plan to continue this and make these values to my priorities. I will keep you posted on what it looks like in practice.