Here is the text of the Occasional Address I delivered at the University of Sydney on 3 May, 2017 after I had been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University:
It is a truly wonderful honour for me to stand before you today to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from this hallowed University, Australia’s first, established in 1850.
I am particularly proud, and pleased, to have been selected for this honour.
First, because it would seem to signify that the University no longer sees me as the refractory girl who refused to turn up for her graduation ceremony.
Today, I look out over this crowded Great Hall of proud newly minted graduates – and congratulate each and every one of you on your achievement in completing your degree. But in the 1970s it was not cool to gown up and front up.
I received my degree in the mail.
Snail mail, of course.
Those days are long behind me and I am very happy to be back in the arms of my alma mater.
Second, I am proud to be a woman acknowledged by the University.
Today, when 57 per cent of students and a majority of graduates at this University are women it is easy to forget that it wasn’t always the case.
Women were still a minority when I was a post-graduate student here in the early 1970s; there was just one woman professor and it was only in faculties such as Social Work that there was more than a handful of women teachers.
In 1973 a significant number of staff and students – I was one of them – went on strike, what became notorious as the Philosophy Strike. We took this action because of a decision by the Department of Philosophy to not allow two female post-graduate students to teach a course entitled ‘Philosophical Aspects of Feminist Thought’.
The strike lasted almost a month during which time striking staff did not teach or mark essays and students stayed away from class and did not complete assignments. We received support from the Builders Labourers Federation and other unions and the whole issue became a cause celebre.
The strike was successful and the course ultimately went ahead, becoming yet another milestone in the progress of women in the history of the University of Sydney. In this instance it expanded the curriculum to include feminism as a legitimate subject of study.
To go back to the beginnings of that history, it is worth noting that it was not until 1881 – 30 years after the university had been established – that the University’s Chancellor, Sir William Manning, proposed to the Senate that women be admitted as students.
If you have ever wondered how the Manning Bar got its name – this was the guy.
Australia’s two other universities already admitted women students so he was not exactly a pioneer.
He wanted to forestall having women beat down his door to demand entry, but his pragmatism meant that the doors were opened.
The next year, 1882, Isola Florence Thompson and Mary Elizabeth Brown became the first female students when they enrolled in the Faculty of Arts.
It was not until 1938 that the university conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws on Dame Maria Ogilvie Gordon, the first woman to receive an honorary degree.
There have been many, many more female recipients since and I will certainly not be the last woman proud to take her place in this pantheon of honorees.
In all sorts of ways, the University of Sydney made me and I am glad to have the opportunity to acknowledge this publicly today.
I would not be the person I am, nor have accomplished the things that were read out in the citation, were it not for what I learned in my years at this university.
In particular I have to thank the late Professor Henry Mayer of what was then called the Department of Government and Public Administration.
He was my mentor, my champion and the person who taught me not just how to think, but how to apply traditional patterns of thought to the exciting new radical movements, in particular the women’s liberation movement, that were erupting around the world while I was a student.
Henry Mayer tolerated my activism, accepting my assurances that I was still being a diligent student even as I was part of the groups that founded Elsie Women’s Refuge, the Sydney Rape Crisis Centre and Refractory Girl, the first women’s studies journal.
We found ourselves on opposite sides during the Philosophy strike; Henry Mayer could tolerate a lot but not the fundamental challenge to the pedagogic power of the professor that was at the heart of the strike.
Fortunately, this was not a terminal rupture.
While other teachers advised me that ‘studying women’ would be bad for my career, Henry took the opposite view. He understood that ‘women’ was becoming a new field of study, not just a dilettantish sideline or a passing political diversion.
He also encouraged me to turn what I was discovering into a book.
That book Damned Whores and God’s Police was published in 1975 and only then did Henry insist that I submit it for a doctorate.
A lengthy battle ensued with university authorities before it was agreed that the published book could be submitted, rather than me retype the whole thing and have it bound like a thesis.
It became a precedent: the first book to be awarded a Ph.D by the University of Sydney – possibly by any Australian university. Now, of course, the university routinely invites writers to work on books on campus in order to gain Ph.Ds.
Let me conclude by saying that often our lives turn out differently from the way we expect.
We need to be open to ideas and opportunities that might lure us away from what we thought was our destiny.
My life certainly did not follow a predicable path and for many of you who are graduating today the same will be true.
I would encourage you to embrace the future with enthusiasm and optimism. The world is way more complicated and, in some ways, more scary than it was when I was graduating but it is also a more exciting place.
You live in a world where communications technology has transformed everything we do. A research task that when I was a student would have involved getting myself to Canberra and immersing myself for a day in the National Library is now just a click away, via Google, on our computers or our phones.
We are connected in ways that once were unimaginable and which have the capacity to turn our local dreams into global realities.
You need not be bound by convention or tradition or anyone’s expectations – including your own.
All you need is to believe in yourself. Work hard. Be bold. Have fun.
And go where life leads you. You will have such a wonderful time getting there.