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Feminist and academic, 1908-2003

Madge Dawson, who died on 15 June 2003 aged 95, was one of the pioneers of the second women's movement in Australia. With her introduction of Women's Studies into the Department of Adult Education at the University of Sydney in the late 1950s, she became an important inspiration and mentor for several generations of women.

Born Alice Madge Burton, the first of three girls to a struggling rural family in Echunga in South Australia, Madge grew up with a strong sense of social justice. Largely the result of her mother's teaching, this dedication to equal rights became a guiding principle of her life.

As a girl, Madge learned to love the bush and its denizens, including the ever-hopeful gold fossickers. The sisters went to a small bush school with very little access to books and then to Adelaide High School. Their mother always encouraged them towards careers but their father expected Madge to finish her education at 14.

She was a brilliant student and won a bursary to cover the fees for studying medicine at Adelaide University, but could not take up the offer. Paying for living expenses during her study was beyond the ability of her parents. Instead, with assistance of a South Australian Education Department allowance, she studied to become a teacher, with a BA.

While teaching in SA, Madge encountered institutionalised discrimination against women - their male peers earned more and there was a government ban against the employment of married women. Later, when she took up her position at Sydney University, she encountered the same institutionalised discrimination when the university tried to exclude her from its home loan scheme for married staff on the grounds that she was a woman. The Staff Association took up her case and won: she was the first woman to receive such a loan.

In 1934, Madge married David Dawson, then a teacher and later an actor. By 1937 they had scratched together enough funds to travel, visiting Germany, China, Japan and the USSR, making choices that were unusual for the time because they wanted their travels to be educational.

She and David were, she once said, two fairly naive Australians encountering or observing racism, sexism, class division, colonialism, imperialism, communism, Nazism and war.

In what Madge recalled as one of the most disturbing experiences in her life, they went to a fair in Berlin which developed into a speech by Goebbels. Hundreds of storm troopers and Italian soldiers paraded past Goebbels and the audience of thousands rose to give the Nazi salute. Goebbels spoke of Jews and communists as enemies and declared that a woman's role was in the home, producing children.

Madge and David finished up in London, where Madge joined demonstrations supporting the Spanish people and the International Brigade against Franco and his Nazi allies. For a while she was a member of the British Communist Party but in subsequent years drifted away, partly through disillusionment with events in the USSR. Throughout World War II they lived in London, where Madge worked in an aircraft factory. In 1940 they adopted a son, Sean, and in 1945, Madge gave birth to their son Paddy.

They stayed in London after the war, where Madge gathered more tertiary qualifications (in social work), while David worked in the theatre. She also gained rich insights into the political and social realities of the day.

They returned to Sydney in 1954. Madge became politically and socially active; she joined the ALP, became an outspoken advocate for Aboriginal rights and, later, against the Vietnam War and nuclear armament. In that she was joined by Paddy who, in a dramatic act captured by the media, was one of the first to burn his draft card. Such acts took moral courage but were applauded by an ever growing number of people and viewed by Madge with pride.

In 1956 she took up a lectureship in the Department of Adult Education at Sydney University and began path-breaking teaching and research on the status of women. In this department in the late '50s she established the teaching of women's studies at Sydney University, well before it was considered a discipline, and through this entered the lives of many Sydney women.

The course, Women in a Changing World, introduced students to the then extant literature on the socio-economic and political status of women in western Europe. Her friend and colleague Joan Bielski says it opened new worlds to participating students, raising awareness of the injustices women encountered in what otherwise appeared to be liberal democracies.

Many participants went on to remake their lives and to resume the careers for which they had been educated. They often referred to themselves as "graduates of the Madge Dawson school of feminism". Some went on to become leading figures in academia and in the new feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s. A small group of her students became the research team for her book Graduate and Married (University of Sydney, 1965), a seminal work on the position of educated Australian women in the mid-20th century.

Madge also initiated and led an extensive survey of women academics in three Sydney universities. The results, published by Sydney University Press in 1983 as Why So Few? Women Academics in Australian Universities, was co-authored with her close associates and friends Bettina Cass, Diana Temple, Sue Wills and Ann Winkler. In 1984 she edited, with Heather Radi, Against the Odds: Fifteen Professional Women Reflect on their Lives and Careers.

Always intellectually sharp, sceptical and inquisitive, Madge also had a deep compassion for humanity and a love of animals. She was a powerful influence in the lives of many women, including her niece Professor Lesley Rogers, for whom she was a much loved and admired role model. Her house in Mosman became a meeting place for intellectually invigorating debate and was frequented by many well-known historians, sociologists, social workers, artists, professionals and political activists, and many young people.

In her book on the Australian women's movement, The Meagre Harvest (1996), Gisela Kaplan, a close family friend of several decades, argues that the presence of Madge Dawson as a representative of an earlier era, and her willingness to share her experiences, allowed younger generations to understand the debates and experiences that had gone before.

Women like Madge made the second women's movement in Australia very distinct from those in European countries. Overseas, the women's movement erupted apparently from a point zero, with breaks, caused by world wars and fascism, having cut the lifelines to earlier feminist experience. Not so in Australia. The continuity of ideas and challenges was guaranteed by the presence of women of the stature of Madge.

Her long-term interests in inequalities, exclusions and exploitation were developed during her early years but continued throughout her energetic life and for decades after her retirement. Even in her late 80s and 90s, after she had moved to Byron Bay to live with Paddy, his partner Kaylene, and her grandson Joe, she organised discussion groups on social justice and made close friends.

In 1989 she was awarded an honorary MA from Sydney University and an honorary doctorate by Macquarie University. While she cared little for displays of honours and was embarrassed to acknowledge any distinctions, it is good that Sydney's educational institutions made her their own. Her contributions were gifts to Sydney, and to the nation.


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Obituary by Professors Gisela Kaplan, Gill Bottomley and Lesley Rogers
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 2003

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