A different view of women: Mentors, Australian women professionals and the United States

Anne Rees discusses her Ph.D. research on the mentorship early Australian women professionals received, and how they benefited from university cultures in the United States.

Recently I’ve been mulling on mentors. This year I completed my Ph.D. at the Australian National University and was launched into the uncertain waters of the early career researcher. As I navigate this exciting but fraught terrain, my thoughts keep turning to role that mentors have played, and continue to play, in shaping my career. Since my undergraduate years at the University of Melbourne, I’ve been the beneficiary of support and advice from numerous academics – almost all fellow women – both within and outside formal supervision arrangements. These relationships have been central to my development as a historian. From my decision to complete a Masters degree abroad, to the submission of my first conference abstract, to my growing interest in public history, mentors have offered an important – and at times critical – guiding hand.

In the contemporary Australian history profession, there is no shortage of established female academics to offer counsel. It is indeed one of the notable strengths of the discipline that women loom so large in the field. As Ann McGrath and Joy Damousi recently noted, history has been much more successfully feminised than other social sciences. Women run departments, occupy chairs, and lead professional bodies.

The University of Queensland, c. 1912. Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
The University of Queensland, c. 1912. Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

The Australian Historical Association is a case in point.  The current president Lynette Russell, vice president Joy Damousi, and two immediate past presidents, Angela Woollacott and Marilyn Lake, have all been female. This is not a recent trend: women have sat at the helm of the AHA for fourteen of the past twenty years. In addition, history has two current ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellows – one exploring the History of Child Refugees and the other, Inventing the International. Of the nine Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards granted to historians in 2016, five were secured by women. In such a context, junior academics enjoy an abundance of potential mentors who understand the challenges of navigating the professional world in a woman’s body. And in an age when academic jobs are few and far between, and women continue to bear the brunt of childcare and domestic labour, female ECRs need all the help we can get.

It needs hardly be said that earlier generations of female professionals were not so lucky. During the long decades before women’s liberation, as women struggled to gain a foothold in the professions, sympathetic mentors were both more important and less available. As I noted during my Ph.D. research, the Australian women who managed, despite the odds, to pursue careers in academia, medicine and the sciences during the interwar and postwar decades tended to be those who were taken under the wing of a teacher or senior colleague. Equipped with the encouragement of a mentor, women were better able to seek scholarships, apply for jobs and undertake further education overseas. Mentors could inculcate self-belief and give a licence to ambition. Their sponsorship made it respectable, even dutiful, for women to deviate from conventional female trajectories. Without this support, it was all too easy to succumb to the insistent voices that drilled women to bow out into marriage and motherhood.

Image via Museum Victoria.
Postcard welcoming Americans to Australia. Image via Museum Victoria.

But these prospective mentors were, by and large, male. Even within female-dominated professions such as librarianship and education, it was still men who occupied the majority of leadership positions. Aspiring women professionals were therefore dependent on senior men to overcome the tendency to mentor junior versions of themselves, and instead take notice of female potential. In this regard, geography mattered. In comparison to Australian and British-trained male professionals, American men or men who had trained in the United States were conspicuous for their willingness to support female students and junior colleagues.

This was certainly the experience of Jacqueline Goodnow, a psychologist who trained in the 1940s. In a recent oral history interview, Goodnow identified University of Sydney academic Cecil Gibb as a critical influence upon her decision to complete a Ph.D. overseas. Gibb had completed his graduate training at the University of Illinois, and returned from the United States “with a rather different view of women.” He soon noticed that Goodnow, a temporary lecturer in the Sydney department, held false hopes that female talent and hard work would win local recognition. Goodnow had recently graduated with a University Medal, and assumed that a tenured appointment at her alma mater would soon eventuate.

At this point Gibb lifted the wool from her eyes. The Sydney department, he stressed, had never appointed a female faculty member, and was not yet likely to do so. Instead he encouraged Goodnow to take matters into her own hands. “Apply for a scholarship,” he urged, “get a Ph.D. and … publish.” At first she thought of Bryn Mawr, but Gibb encouraged Goodnow to set her sights higher. Only Berkeley, Illinois or Harvard would do. In the end, she chose the latter path. By 1953, she was a graduate and faculty member of Harvard University. Later in life, Goodnow believed she “owe[d] an enormous amount to Cec Gibb.” And she was not the only one. He also played a similar role for other women, including Cecily de Monchaux and Barbara Gillam.

Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Photograph by Steve Strummer. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Hatcher Graduate Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Photograph by Steve Strummer. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Similar examples can be found in librarianship. The University of Adelaide librarian William Cowan became renowned for advancing his female colleagues after he returned from the University of Michigan during the mid-1930s. Two decades later, Jean Whyte was butting her head against the glass ceiling at the Public Library of South Australia when she met Professor E. H. Behymer of Bethany College, West Virginia, who was leading a seminar series for the Library Association of Australia. Behymer sympathised with Whyte’s frustrations, and suggested she apply to Chicago’s Graduate Library School. In 1952, she followed his advice, and went on to become inaugural Professor of Librarianship at Monash. Without this chance meeting, Whyte later reflected, she would still be languishing in the stacks on North Terrace.

From these mentoring relationships emerged new geographies of transnational mobility and professional expertise. As we can see in the case of Whyte and Goodnow, the influence of a US-trained mentor led directly to a graduate qualification in the United States. At a time when most Australian postgraduate training was still undertaken in Britain, their female-ness set them on a different trajectory. Overlooked by the local boys club with its entrenched networks of intra-imperial mobility, they were instead recruited into an emerging American empire of educational exchange.

First Students at Macquarie University, Sydney, 1967. Photographer unknown. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The first Students at Macquarie University, Sydney, 1967. Photographer unknown. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

And in each case, this was to be a lasting relationship. Goodnow spent much of her career in the United States, only returning in 1972 for a lectureship at Sydney’s new Macquarie University. Whyte kept up her US ties, and modelled the Monash librarianship program on the Chicago school. Both became outspoken proponents of American-style professional practice. In furthering their own careers across the Pacific, these women would also nudge Australia into the American orbit.

Mentoring, then, can leave deep traces beyond the individual. When the lives of future leaders are set on a new course, their professions and even their nations are likewise apt to be remade. As I discuss further in History Australia, professional women’s transpacific mobility can be read as a neglected chapter in Australia’s reorientation towards the United States. Alongside the better-known stories of Curtin’s “turn to America” and Hollywood-led cultural Americanisation, we can also tell a tale of Australian-US relations in which career-minded women play a starring role. These women found in the US greater scope for female professional endeavour, and their mobility and influence would weave thick ties between Sydney and San Francisco.

Mentors were, among other factors, key to setting this process in train. This is not to say that women’s mobility was dependent upon male beneficence. Goodnow and Whyte both also exerted agency, and were acted upon by other forces. But they would have found little cause to consider America had not Gibb and Behymer intervened. And from these life-changing conversations flowed broader changes in professional – and by extension, national – culture that are still being played out. What significance might future historians ascribe to women’s mentoring today?


screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-19-46-amAnne Rees is a Kathleen Fitzpatrick Junior Research Fellow in the ARC Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney. She holds history degrees from the University of Melbourne, University College London and the Australian National University, and has been the recipient of an Endeavour Research Fellowship and the Ken Inglis Prize. Her research focuses upon transnational women and the international dimensions of Australian history, and has been published in Australian Feminist Studies, Australian Historical Studies and History Australia. In 2017 she will take up a David Myers Research Fellowship at La Trobe University.

Follow Anne on Twitter @AnneLRees.

Copyright remains with individual authors who grant VIDA holding a perpetual, world-wide, royalty free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce and promote content. For permission to re-publish any VIDA blog post, in whole or in part, please contact the managing editors at auswhn@gmail.com.au

This entry was posted in Research blogs. Bookmark the permalink.