News Item 147

02-Nov-11 - Historical Portraits of Women Home Scientists is now available! Read the Q&A session with the authors about this unique study

Historical Portraits of Women Home Scientists: The University Of New Zealand, 1911–1947––a unique study that collections in Australasian studies, history of education, and women's studies will find valuable––is now available!

The following is the Q&A session with the authors, professors Tanya Fitzgerald and Jenny Collins about the book:

Question: Why did you decide to write this book?

Answer: We decided to write Historical portraits of women home scientists: the University of New Zealand 1907–1947 because we were acutely aware that there was a tantalizing absence of academic women from historical narratives in New Zealand.

The central focus of this book is women’s work as scientists and scholars and how a select group of women managed (against the odds) to create their own scholarly enclave at the University of New Zealand. It is framed by a series of portraits of six women home scientists and each chapter weaves together the threads of their personal and professional lives.

While male university administrators might have imagined that these women were teaching their female pupils home science or “household arts”, academic women used the opportunity, outside of the gaze of male administrators, to create a generation of scientists whose work was focused on the scientific management of the house and household. Importantly we trace the history of early women home scientists as they sought to establish a new field of study.

Less than a decade after the establishment of the Department of Home Science, a number of graduates secured postgraduate scholarships to undertake masters and doctoral degrees in England, Canada and the United States. Some returned to New Zealand and took up academic posts, and two notable graduates, Catherine Landreth and Neige Todhunter, became leading figures in academic circles in the US. This book therefore is an intellectual history of women in higher education that challenges assumptions that home scientists were “glorified housekeepers”.

Question: What do you hope your readers take away from your book?

Answer: We hope that readers will immerse themselves in the portraits that we have presented and appreciate that “home science” did not create glorified housekeepers. Rather it was a subject and field that offered women opportunities to take up professional and academic lives as scientists and scholars. Certainly as we point out in the book, women did undertake scientific work, and they also competed for and won funding for scientific research, published in scientific journals and were awarded prizes and fellowships in recognition of their contribution.

We hope too that readers will be stimulated to think about the richness of archives and although hunting for material for and about women is like searching for needles in a haystack, there are amazing rewards when material is located. As we discovered, historians of women’s education have to act like forensic archivists in their quest for the historical morsel. It is often this morsel, which can open up a whole new way of thinking about historical evidence.

We would like readers to develop an appreciation for the central role educated women as well as education for women played in opening up social, professional and economic opportunities for women. As we highlight in the book, frequently considered ‘outsiders’ in the scholarly world of men, women organized around their own interests and used associations such as the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) and the American Home Economics Association (AHEA) to establish collegial environments and networks.

Question: What other research do you believe is needed on this topic?

Answer:In this book we have shaped the scholarly portraits of six women home scientists. There were however 243 academic women at the University of New Zealand in the period 1907–1947. What were the complexities of their lives? What understanding can be derived from their careers, their contribution to scholarship and their wider networks? Taking up this challenge, Jenny Collins is now working with data from a series of interviews with home science graduates from the 1940s-1960s period, including Colombo Plan scholars from South East Asia and those who went on to professional careers in education, nutrition and elsewhere both in New Zealand and in international settings. This is particularly timely given that Home Science is this year (2011) celebrating 100 years since its foundation.

Tanya Fitzgerald is currently working on an Australian project that examines how women’s professional associations provided opportunity for academic women to exercise a level of leadership in the public domain. Organizations such as the Federation of University Women brought women together to discuss matters of common concern. However, what there really was not the space in the book to discuss was how these organizations created opportunities for women to establish networks, provide a level of mentoring for women new to academia, and advocate for their scholarly interests of women in universities.


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