From the Chancellery
My grandmother completed primary school and never entered the paid workforce; she helped her mother at home until she married. My mother completed one year of what she called higher primary education in a rural school; she left school and worked as a shop assistant from her 14th birthday until the day she married. She then left the paid workforce forever.
I grew up in a rented maisonette in Sydney and attended a catholic girl’s school whose aims were to educate girls to be either nuns or good Catholic mothers. I was lucky. No one thought I was a potential nun; I was reasonably bright and my father thought it was genteel for me to stay on and matriculate. I don’t believe anyone saw me as someone who might have a career. I was a wife in waiting – a better educated wife than my grandmother and mother – but certainly not someone who might play any part in the public sphere.
I was reasonably successful in what was then called the Leaving exam and gained a scholarship to the University of Sydney. I didn’t really want to go but it was hard to see what else to do by then. I thought I might like to be a teacher.
I began teaching at Brighton High School in South Australia without any teacher training when I had just turned 20. Because I was a married woman, I was temporary – with no rights to promotion, superannuation, maternity or long service leave and I earned three quarters of the pay of a male teacher. I was 35 before I had my first superannuable, permanent position.
So how did I, with such a faltering start, end up being the third woman to be appointed a university Vice Chancellor in this country?
First, and most importantly, I had the base. I had sufficient schooling to get me into a world where I could see alternatives to the lives of the women in the suburb in which I was raised. With that base, and despite having an unreasonably large number of children – four – I was able to gain further education to better equip myself for opportunities in my career.
Second, I could make decisions about my own life because, from when I was 19, I knew that I could earn enough to support myself and that meant I could always leave a situation if it was not to my liking. Neither my mother nor my grandmother had that option.
Third, I wanted to change things and I was born at the right time for that to be possible for a woman. I have been very fortunate both to cause some of the ripples and then ride the wave of economic and social change which has changed women’s lives in a generation. I wanted a role in determining public policy and I was part of a generation of women who fought for and were permitted, at times very reluctantly, to enter the public sphere.
But, fourth, I have been more than the object on which that transformation played out. I have been part of the change. I have both consciously reshaped and changed myself to meet various career challenges as well as agitating and working for changes I thought would make a difference to my own life and to the lives of others.
We all have only one life. I believe it needs to be one where we strive to be the best person we can be and to add something to the lives of others. We will fail at both of these things every day but the very effort of trying to succeed is what lies at the base of a belief in education as a transforming influence.
An excerpt from Professor Denise Bradley’s occasional address presented following the conferral of an honorary doctorate and the title of Emeritus Professor on Friday March 30.