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Invisible Workers and the Archives of the History of Science

Amaya Jane Alvarez
As an historian I am interested in the way in which the dominant narratives of Australian science are constructed and the issue of what kind of records are accessed to help to develop such accounts. This interest stems, in part, from my research involving women in science in Australia, more specifically women workers at the CSIR during the 1930s and 40s; but also from a concern about the way in which certain workers are excluded from historical accounts, the reasons for their exclusion and the possible ways of writing about them which highlight their particular experience in science.

This paper is concerned with two main questions which I think are central to an understanding of the history of Australian science and to the relationship between archives and such history. Firstly, what are the ways of writing history which render invisible certain scientific workers; and secondly, does this exclusion derive from the approaches which dominate the history of Australian science, or does it lie with the records of Australian science, or both? This paper is not going to attempt to answer these questions; rather, it will highlight, through a brief survey of my research on women at the CSIR, some of the possible interests and conflicts that can arise in the construction of the history of Australian science.

Before I present my own research, I think it would be useful to outline what I see as the dominant concerns and interests of Australian science, which explains in part why the workers I was interested in can be characterised as 'missing'. I would argue that the main focus of histories of Australian science, from a variety of perspectives, has been that of the growth of national science, of an Australian science and what that has entailed and means.

For example, in the Historical Records of Australian Science throughout the 1970s and 80s a debate occurred around the following questions: When did a distinctly Australian science emerge? What was the relationship of Australian science to European/British science? When did colonial science end and national science begin? This debate is encapsulated in the work of George Basalla and his model of colonial science, and the responses to his model. Along with these questions the Records also contained historical work on early societies, fledgling institutions and amateur scientists - stories which interweave with, and provide evidence for, the debate about national science. The struggle for autonomy from Britain might be the theme around which histories of early Australian science are constructed and can be characterised. The struggle for national and institutional autonomy seems to continue this theme into accounts of Australian science in the twentieth century.

In works on the history of Australian science, such as the centenary history of ANZAAS and the edited collection Australian Science in the Making, as well as in more specific works such as Schedvin's and Currie and Graham's histories of the CSIR, the historical unfolding of Australian science has a common purpose - to portray the progressive development from colonial, individual, amateur science to national, institutionalised, professional science. Though this process might be tension-ridden, and science may be imposed upon by the State, the clear message is that there is a progressive logic at work in which both national and scientific maturity are reached through development and change. The scientific worker in all this is generally represented as the individual whose life work and its triumphs and frustrations are metaphors for the life stages of the developing national science. Science becomes a narrative of progress and the scientist a symbol of that progress. There is little exploration of whether or not the historical characterisation of the development of the scientist from amateur to professional, from colonial to national, might not apply to women in the same way, or, for that matter, to lower-ranking workers (the two categories are not mutually exclusive.)

How do women feature in this history? There is beginning to appear some research work on women, much of it unpublished and dominated by biographical work. Women are being added to the history of Australian science, they are slowly being uncovered, and the unorthodoxy, enterprise and talent of women such as Jean White­Haney, Ruby Payne Scott, Georgiana Molloy and Georgina Sweet can be inspiring reading. Certainly, from a professional perspective, their stories should be recounted in order to strengthen the legitimacy of women working in science; and such a task is often undertaken by women who themselves are working or have worked in science. But this seems to be one kind of historical enterprise, tied up with notions of the scientist and how their professional lives should be remembered. They are often closely aligned to national accounts of science, and the growth of women's participation in the national enterprise.

What appears to be lacking is history which explores the issues of the broader structural and socio­political framework within which scientific work was, and is, undertaken, and how, in different historical contexts, these structures impacted on women working in science in Australia. Margaret Rossiter's ambitious history of women in American science comes to mind as the kind of work which does not usually appear in the history of Australian science, perhaps because of the dominance of nationalistic, progressive accounts which do not engage with the kind of institutional and structural criticism found in Rossiter's work.

For me the challenge lies not only in uncovering hidden women scientists -although that is an important and ongoing historical task; it is also about asking certain questions. Firstly, what are the implications of assuming there is no need to examine the working lives of women in science; secondly, how does an investigation of the working lives of women in an institution of Australian science confront the dominant image of the scientist and the progressive accounts just outlined?

The challenge of this task became apparent when an exploration of where women were working at the CSIR is embarked upon. For it is immediately obvious that to write about women at the CSIR could not be achieved by simply adding them to existing accounts, for they were not where they should have been to warrant such attention from histories constructed around great individuals.

They were not at the top of the organisation; in the period under examination, women rarely achieved positions higher than Assistant Research Officer, and they certainly weren't part of the leadership of the Council. They also made up a very small proportion of the workforce, and tended to be clustered in divisions whose research focus lay in the biological sciences (the 'soft sciences') such as economic entomology and plant industries, due in no small part to the fact that the majority of women in university science were located in the biological sciences.

When approaching the task of attempting to write about a group that had not been accounted for in mainstream histories the first concern was how to access them; the second was what sort of history would allow me to do more than just describe who they were, because that might leave the account as nothing more than the description of a small group of workers who happened to be women. What was needed was a framework on which to hang not simply the history of certain women at the CSIR, but also insights into the writing of history of Australian science. The next issue was how to get access to information on women workers at the CSIR, and how to interpret what I found. The CSIR archives yielded personnel files on women in professional classifications, there were also staff lists in the annual reports, but there was little or no obvious evidence on lower-ranking workers and whether in fact there were any at all. It was not until I began to think about one of the things that had struck me when reading through the annual reports that a possible avenue of inquiry opened up. While reading the staff lists I was struck by the fact that women were listed as 'Miss' or 'Mrs'; this was hardly mind-blowing for the period I was examining, but nevertheless I began to wonder if the marital status had a significance beyond that of a title.

With the assistance of the CSIR archivist I came across a whole series of files concerned with married women and their employment rights, or lack of rights, under both the Public Service Act of 1922 and the Science and Industry Act of 1926, from which the CSIR largely derived its staffing policy. I still had not found anything on lower-ranking workers to try to provide some idea of the proportion of women working as laboratory assistants. Such workers were explicitly excluded from staff lists (along with typists and maintenance staff). I came across some correspondence with the Council from the Federation of Scientific and Technical Workers (FSTW), an organisation representing workers whose interests lay outside those of the professional staff organisations, so I pursued the records of the Federation to see if they would reveal any information on such workers.

It was amongst the Federation's records at the Archives of Business and Labour (now the Noel Butlin Archives) that I came across references to the dealings of the Women's Employment Board (WEB) with the CSIR, over the issue of appropriate wartime salaries for various workers, including large numbers of laboratory and technical assistants, whose conditions and tasks at the Council were suddenly rendered visible. The records of the FSTW, who represented the laboratory assistants at the Women's Employment Board hearing, provided detailed documentary evidence of the numbers, the skills and the concerns of female laboratory workers. At the Australian Archives, the transcripts of the Women's Employment Board hearings revealed the perspective of the CSIR and the employee organisations on the workers whose pay was being negotiated.With these two historical cases on my hands my next concern was how to interpret them.

What my study was concerned with was the issue of how the two historical entry points, that of married women and the CSIR's appearance before the Women's Employment Board, might contribute to critical debates about the way the history of Australian science is written, and also current debates about the position of women in science. These concerns are crucial to the formulation of history as not simply a record of the past, but a commentary on and framework for the present and the assumptions which shape contemporary debates and historical analyses.

What I will attempt to do is give some idea of how the material I found on women at the CSIR throws some light on the question of their lack of coverage in other histories of science.

In the material I used to construct the story of women at the CSIR, I concentrated far less on individual files, and much more on general correspondence files; and, in the case of the WEB, on transcripts and correspondence regarding the Board's proceedings. This may sound like rather unremarkable material, but there was a lot that could be derived from the records. For example, the WEB case involved the divisions at the CSIR sending lists of their female workers on staff, including not only their rates of pay but also a detailed breakdown of their duties and responsibilities.

What was interesting in these lists was not only the apparently skilled nature of the work done by women employed as laboratory assistants (they certainly were far more than bottle-washers), but also the fact that the classification of assistants was a particularly female one - for example, there were four classifications for women and two for men. Also of interest was the fact that female assistants were classified across-the-board, sharing their classification with office assistants. The FSTW argued that this diminished their chances of having their contribution to science recognised, and the scientific nature of their work acknowledged, as they were lumped in with non­scientific assistants.

What the WEB material also provided was an insight into the changing nature of the workforce at the CSIR, particularly during the war. In the period covered by the WEB records (1942­47) there was a large influx of women into the CSIR workforce - this expansion occurred not amongst the professional staff, which remained almost the same, but amongst the lower ranking workers.

Such changes indicated both the impact of the war, and the shortage of males at those levels. More fundamentally, it heralded changes in the nature of scientific and laboratory practice, stimulated by the massive growth in war-related science, and the status accorded science by its involvement in the war effort. The records provided evidence of the shift from small divisional workforces to much larger workforces, and the recruitment of lower-ranking workers to accommodate the changing production process, a process which saw very clear gender divisions between different classes of workers.

When it came to examining married women on staff, I used as my frame of reference the Public Service Act, passed in 1922, which governed all Commonwealth workers. Section 49 of the Act specified that married women should not be employed and that women who married while employees should be retrenched. The CSIR was formed in 1926 and, as with the Public Service Act from which they took their lead in this instance, Regulation No. 10 of the Science and Industry Research Act deemed that married women had retired from the service of the Council on the date of their marriage, and that the employment of married women should be discouraged.

The existence of a restriction on married women is not surprising, considering the general attitude to women working at this time. It would be a radical organisation indeed that did not consider the employment of married women to be unusual. However, the dominance of a practice or attitude in a particular historical context is no reason not to explore the impact of the practice on those whom it restricts and defines.

Over the next twenty years, there was continual correspondence between the Public Service Board, the Council and the Government, as well as the married women themselves, over whether or not the married women on staff should be employed or retrenched. The Board kept pushing the Council to remove married women from staff, arguing that the Council should be consistent with the Service; and, more forcefully in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that it was unfair to employ married women during hard economic times.

The Council's response was diplomatic but guarded. Implicit in the wording of its responses to the Board was the caution that they were willing to stick to the principles of the Act on the issue of married women, but they wanted to stress their autonomy on other staffing concerns.

What was significant in the correspondence between the Council, the Minister and the Board was not so much the use of an economic argument to justify the sacking of married women (for that seemed hardly surprising during a depression) - the puzzling and interesting aspect was that these women were employed at all, given the Council's own policy on the employment of married women. In other words, why did the Council employ these women in the first place, and why were they so seemingly tolerant towards married women on staff? The issue was not raised until pressure was exerted by Government, when presumably the prohibition of married women working was built into their own legislation as well.

It was in answering this question that I began to understand that the Council's response was influenced by the nature of the workers under discussion. The Executive could agree in principle that married women should not take the positions of men, particularly during a recession; the reality for the CSIR at the time, however, was not a surplus but a shortage of trained and skilled workers, and because the Council was attempting to expand and strengthen its legitimacy as a Research Council, it needed to hang on to whatever scientific workers it could get.There simply were not, according to the CSIR executive, many scientists to fill the jobs required. They certainly felt there was little chance of attracting research scientists from overseas, for reasons intimately tied to their arguments for the retention of married women on staff, and in fact women in general ­ these reasons being the rates of pay and the uncertain conditions of the work.

Both the Public Service Board and the Council had a loophole which could be utilised in relation to the employment of married women, under special circumstances - ie, if the worker was indispensable they could be retained at the Council's or the Board's discretion. For the two decades I examined, and up until the official lifting of the ban in 1966 by the Public Service and in 1967 by the CSIRO, married women were continually employed at the Council through the use of the loophole. The fact that the Council did retain some, though not all, married women might make one congratulate them on their liberal views. However, before anyone sits back complacently and muses about the impartiality of scientific institutions as employers, as I first did, I would like to place this employment strategy in perspective.

What occurred in all instances of married women being employed was that their employment conditions were totally dependent on the Council's discretion - that is, whether or not they were indispensable at the time. Furthermore, on marriage the women lost all previous work entitlements they might have accrued - in effect, they became new employees, though often they carried on the same work.What this resulted in, in practice, was short-term employment contracts. As employees married women then were extremely vulnerable and, of course, lost all access to a career or vocational path of any kind.

I would also extend this treatment of married women to include unmarried women as well, for any woman employed at the Council was a potentially married woman. It not only affected the positions they might fill, but also their rates of pay, which were up to 40% less than those of men - based on the belief that whether married or single they were dependents of some kind, a widely held and union-endorsed position. The only exception to the pay discrepancy was during the war when the WEB ruled that professional women should receive 100% of the male rate and lower-ranking workers 90%, but only for the duration of the war.

It would be naive in the extreme to expect that the Council would look on the careers of young women with the same interest with which they looked on those of young men. Many of the young women did leave voluntarily on marriage, though there is no way of knowing whether they might have remained if they had been encouraged. The argument was raised that this was the 'done thing', that women did in general retire on marriage because they did believe that marriage should be their focus. The asymmetry of this argument always strikes me, for if women were so willing to take on the role of wife/mother why was there any need for legislation?

Clearly it was as much an argument about wages as it was about women's proper place. But, for the small percentage of women who continued to work, or wished to continue to work after marriage, their relationship to the Council and the State was one of continual insecurity and uncertainty. What amazed me was the fact that many of them managed, within these constraints, to carve out rewarding and challenging if unconventional careers - though of course rarely where they would be noticed. Some adopted strategies to conceal their marital status, sometimes with the knowledge of co­workers and sometimes without. For a number of women it was only when their pregnancies became too apparent to conceal that they actually made the move to inform the Council that they were married. A number indicated that they would in fact like to return to work after having children; the Council did not respond favourably to such requests. Some women went to desperate measures to try to hold onto work; there is correspondence from one woman, before she is dispensed with, offering to work for free if only she could be kept on; another suicided shortly after being notified that her position was being advertised. She had also kept her marriage concealed for a year until the imminent birth of a child made this impossible; the sad irony in this instance was that the Council was expecting to retain her, as she was needed - the advertising of the position was done to appease the Public Service Board, but of course she was unaware of this strategy.

What all these varied stories do reveal is that the notion of the scientific worker as an individual whose autonomy and independence from external pressures is paramount, nurtured and supported by a scientific institution such as the Council (which Schedvin portrays in his account of the CSIR), does not hold when the working lives of women in science is examined.

What can also be gleaned from an examination of the experience of married women is that the Council, rather than being viewed as the magnanimous employer for keeping these women on, was acting in an extremely pragmatic fashion. The Council benefited enormously from the employment of married women because of, not in spite of, their marital status. The Council was able to retain, on lower wages and in lower ranking positions, workers who had no rights other than the right to leave their position, because they were employed at the Council's discretion.

What I hope to have conveyed in this brief historical survey is the importance of considering the working lives of women in science - not only because they remain largely invisible in other histories, and not only because the experiences just recounted uncover practices which explain, in part, why women are not where they should be to warrant attention from other histories; but also because, by examining the working lives of women in science, some of the assumptions made about the nature of scientific work and of the progress of science in Australia are challenged and scrutinised.

The opening up of the historical question of what scientific work entails, and the relationship between institutions of science and their workers, is an important one, not only for historians concerned with the gendered nature of these relationships, but also for historians concerned with the experiences of scientific workers in general.

I would argue that there has been little work done on scientific practice in the history of Australian science. The focus has been very much on the history of ideas and theories, and practice is only formulated as the practice of significant individuals. What I hope to have conveyed is the importance of considering different kinds of historical data, and of considering the practice of science, the constitution of the workforce, the skills of the workers, and the relationship between workers and between workers and management in different historical periods. The issue becomes more complex than the straightforward notion of 'missing people'. They are 'missing', I would argue, not simply because they have not been uncovered by the historian, but because historians construct histories which wouldn't consider them to be missing in the first place.

In relation to the archival record of science, the question I raised at the opening of my paper should be reiterated. Does the dominance of a certain kind of history derive from historical practice, or does it lie with the kind of material that is available in science archives, and the way that material is made accessible to historians?

As a historian I'm not sure I am qualified to answer that question. My concern here is to highlight the importance of considering such a question. Archivists need to be aware of the priorities that may be placed on certain kinds of material, for the result of such emphasis might be an archival record of science which continues to reinforce a narrative of Australian science structured around the lives of 'great individuals', and which ignores the possibility of other kinds of histories.

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