As Australia entered World War II, its all-male armed services had a problem only a woman could solve. That woman was Violet McKenzie, Australia’s first female electrical engineer, a wireless radio pioneer, one of the ABC’s first broadcasters, and the founder of the volunteer Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, or “Sigs”. Established in 1940, Sigs trained hundreds of women to the highest standards in Morse code and semaphore using a unique system McKenzie devised herself, drawing on mnemonics and musical cues. She also instructed her students in circuit theory and the physics of electromagnetic radiation and taught them how to fix radios and install antennas. The “girls” of Sigs practised military drills at weekend camps and in Sydney’s Centennial Park, the top students wearing the uniform that McKenzie, whom they adored, had designed herself. Australia’s military was in urgent need of personnel with mastery of signalling technologies; it turned to Sigs for help.
By the end of the war, the women of Sigs had trained some 12,000 Australian and many American, New Zealand, British, Indian, Chinese and other servicemen in signalling. McKenzie was a living legend. In March 1945, she was asleep in her Greenwich Point home when anxious neighbours woke her up. An American warship had arrived at the point and was flashing Morse code; the neighbours worried the ship was in distress. McKenzie raced down to the shore to read the message: “Attention Violet McKenzie. We are United States naval personnel. We request training at your signals school.” As David Dufty writes in this absorbing biography, the Australian admiral who gave the ship’s commander McKenzie’s home address “had a mischievous sense of humour”.
Sigs’ graduates were among the first women to serve in Australia’s armed forces, including in code-breaking units where they learnt Japanese code and monitored Japanese naval frequencies. McKenzie was the prime mover behind the formation of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). Arguing for women’s participation in the navy with “a ring of Admirals”, McKenzie patiently answered all of their questions, including: “What about sex?” To that, she responded – plausibly or not – that with all the hundreds of men who’d been trained by her women, “there have never been any goings on”. The naval board finally gave the go-ahead.
McKenzie, who was born in 1890, had to overcome resistance from patriarchal institutions from the day she decided she wanted to study electrical engineering at Sydney University. The attitudes of her time were encapsulated by a column published in 1938 in the Melbourne gossip magazine Table Talk. Titled “Why must women butt in?”, it bemoaned the “woeful change” by which “woman no longer is satisfied to be queen – she wants to be king also” despite the “dear creature” not being “built for strenuous competition, prodigious mental effort [or] sheer physical strength”. Dufty drily notes that Table Talk folded a year later. He also shows how McKenzie had learnt to avoid unnecessary backlash by crafting a public image for Sigs as both “a serious business that contributed to the war effort” and “a perfectly respectable, feminine activity”. He goes into enthralling detail about the gender politics that McKenzie was forced to negotiate.
Dufty begins the book in a folksy, old-fashioned and somewhat prolix style: of her family’s move to the New South Wales seaside village of Austinmer in 1892, for example, he writes: “In due course, they became upstanding members of the community.” But the story soon takes off, and there’s much to love about this meticulously researched work on a fascinating woman whose memory has been largely lost to history. It paints a vivid picture of Sydney life in the first half of the 20th century, from the huge number of homeless people camped in the Domain during the Great Depression to the community of wireless radio enthusiasts with McKenzie (then Violet Wallace) at their centre. They included her friend Charles Maclurcan, one of the first people in Australia to own a car, and to be fined for speeding as well, after stopwatch-wielding police at Circular Quay calculated he’d been doing a shocking 24 miles per hour (about 39km/h), or as the magistrate exclaimed: “That’s the speed of an express train!”
Violet McKenzie, for all her prominence, was a relatively private person. Dufty nonetheless manages to create a portrait that is both fond and memorable while focusing on her work and contributions to public life. Inspired by Catherine Freyne’s Radio National documentary on McKenzie, he drew on archival sources as well as interviews with people who’d known her, all of whom spoke of her with “admiration and awe”. He concluded that “some individuals simply are extraordinary, and Violet McKenzie was such a person”.
One of the last things McKenzie said before she died in 1982 at the age of 91 was, “I have proved to them all that women can be as good as, or better than, the men.” She’d been a fighter for women’s equality her whole life. Yet like some other women of her generation, she didn’t warm to brash young second-wave feminists of the 1970s such as Germaine Greer, or the new feminist rhetoric that positioned men as the enemy. Dufty writes: “For women like the ex-WRANS, who had spent their formative years counting the dead among the young men they loved, the notion of disparaging men left them cold. They felt no ownership of the successes of this new women’s movement.” Neither was the new movement particularly eager to own them. McKenzie, her Sigs and the WRANS, Dufty notes, didn’t rate a mention among the Australian women’s achievements enumerated in Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police, published in 1975. It was also, of course, the time of the anti-Vietnam War movement; military service had lost its sheen. But it’s time for Australian feminism to reclaim Violet McKenzie. Tiny in stature, she always stood her ground against even the most patronising of big men. What’s more, while forging her own path over traditionally male territory, she ensured it widened behind and around her.
Allen & Unwin, 312pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "David Dufty, Radio Girl".
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