Oral History Transcript: Social History and Women’s History (Dr Lis Kirkby)

If public records are correct Dr Elisabeth Kirkby turned 100 earlier this year (2021). I’ve been thinking about our conversation for the Wide Open Air Exchange podcast when Lis was aged 96 and how it could be of interest to researchers of women in mid-20th century British and Australian social and political culture and to other readers more generally.

The following transcript was produced and published in December 2021. It has been very lightly edited for readability, and with sub-headings added.


Wide Open Air Exchange podcast

Guest: Dr Elisabeth (Lis) Kirkby

Host: Christine Gallagher

Recording location: Lis’ home in Sydney

Original publication date: December 8th 2017

Hello I’m Christine Gallagher and this is the Wide Open Air Exchange.

Today you’re going to meet Lis Kirkby: the honourable Dr Elisabeth Kirkby OAM. 

One of her many achievements was receiving a doctorate, a PhD, at the age of 93, around three years ago.

The story of Lis’ career progression really speaks to some of the themes of this podcast. 

Lis has changed direction several times. She was a theatre actress, a radio presenter and producer, a television soapie actress, a parliamentarian for many years, and someone who has done a lot of work in the area of human rights and social justice. 

And, I think a great example of it never being too late to change direction or to pick up on something that you had been doing earlier and to pursue it further.

In Australia Lis was a household name: first as an actress, as a soapie actress on a television show called Number 96, which caused a bit of a stir in the 1970s because it depicted themes that hadn’t been seen much on television in Australia before. 

It was set around an apartment building with several couples as the main cast and some other secondary characters who brought sex and drama into the nightly soapie. 

After Lis had success with her television career in Australia, she went into politics in the late ‘70s. 

There was a new political party that was formed, the Australian Democrats. The first leader of the party, Don Chipp, was very famous for saying that the Democrats promised to “keep the bastards honest”. 

It was a party that had some success in the upper house, in the senate and in upper houses in the states, and it had some influence for a period there. The major parties, or the governments of the day, needed the cooperation of the Democrats to pass legislation.

I was a bit young to remember Lis as a parliamentarian but I gather from our conversation that she’s someone who is quite concerned with issues of social justice and I imagine she was working to that end as a parliamentarian.

We speak a little bit about politics in the second half of this conversation. Lis shares her views on the politics of refugee and asylum seekers. I also ask her about the “Me Too” movement and women’s movements more generally.

Now I’ll leave the overture there and bring you into my conversation with Dr Lis Kirkby.

                       A record of early aspirations

Christine Gallagher: Do you have memories of being a young girl and projecting forward what you thought you wanted to do with your life?

Lis Kirkby: No I don’t have memories but I was tidying out a drawer a couple of days ago and found a book, a confessional book, The Confessions of My Friends. And there were all these questions, you see, and it belonged to my mother; she must of had it as a teenager.   

The very first confession is quite amazing, it was by Grahame-White. Grahame-White in England was one of the earliest aviation personalities.He learned to fly before World War One and became quite a personality of the day.

CG: So a famous aviator

LK: (agreeing) a famous aviator.

Now I don’t know how she got it, that was amazing. Then there was her and several other people who I’ve never heard of, but obviously were her colleagues in high school and they had put all their ideas in. 

Then it came that I had put three entries in, one at the age of nine, and one at the age of ten, and one at the age of eleven, and they were dated ‘31, ‘32, ‘33. In every single one of those three years was the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and my answer, “I want to be an actor”. 

CG: So you had aspirations, at that age, to be an actor?

LK: Ya, and of course I was totally dismissed. I must have discussed it with my father and mother and it was totally dismissed by my mother. I mean you couldn’t possibly do that. It was a totally disreputable profession.

CG: Was it? For men and women or particularly for women?

LK: I think she put all actresses into the basket of being chorus girls, you see 

CG: Yes

LK: And of course that was indecent exposure

CG: The can-can and all of that

LK: I mean this was ridiculous because she went to the theatre, and enjoyed going to the theatre, so why she was so critical of people who gave her that enjoyment don’t ask me. But anyway

CG: There’s a record of you saying you wanted to be an actor

LK: Yes

CG: Who would have been your idols then?

LK: There was also another question in the confession book, “Who is your favourite actor?”. My favourite actor was John Gielgud and my favourite actress was Joan Crawford. Now that is ridiculous because I doubt if I’d ever even heard of Joan Crawford.

CG: Really. So you don’t remember knowing her but maybe you knew that it was very sophisticated to like her or something.

LK: Maybe I saw a poster, or something, in the cinema. But who knows why I didn’t ever pick an English film star, of which there were many in the 1930s. I mean that was when film took off, after the introduction of sound.

CG: Do you recall the first cinematic experience that you had, the first film that you saw or an early one?

LK: No. Certainly I remember seeing The Scarlet Pimpernel with Leslie Howard. I think I saw it more than once. But there are lots of other things that I must have seen that I’ve no memory of.

CG: Does that just happen with the passage of time? Is there just a limited amount of room for remembering that kind of detail? You’re in your tenth decade 

LK: (laughing) well I doubt that I would have remembered so much if I hadn’t quite inadvertently found this book which had been buried in the bottom drawer of the desk and just had lots of stuff put on top of it and I’d forgotten about it. 

                                Conscription to the British Army 

CG: But you did become an actress and an entertainer. How did that begin?

LK: Well the thing was that my mother was always against it. My father was much more sympathetic. And she died very early of cancer. She was only 42.

CG: Oh, that is young.

LK: And that was just as I was leaving school. I was in my final year of doing what was then London matric, higher school certificate. 

After she died, about six months later, I went to the Oldham Repertory Company as Assistant Stage Manager and from there I went to the Manchester Rep until I was called up in 1942 into the Army which was the fate of all 21 year old young women who hadn’t already volunteered.

CG: So you were conscripted, wow

LK: Yes I was conscripted. I was called up to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Barracks in Wrexham in north Wales. 

After you’d done your induction training they siphoned you off, and they made me a trainee NCO [non-commissioned officer]. I always said it was only because I had a loud voice [laughing]

CG: So you could yell out 

LK: I could yell out all the commands

CG: The drills 

LK: [agreeing] and the drill.

I mean it introduced me to a whole level of British society that I’d never seen before.

CG: What do you mean by that?

LK: I mean underprivileged young women who’d come from very, very poor homes and had little education. Because in those days, unless your parents insisted you stayed at school, you could leave school at 14. 

What you did first of all on the intake was they were checked by a doctor to make sure that they hadn’t got skin diseases or whatever. And then you had to check their hair to see that they didn’t have lice. If they did, you sent them off and their heads were shaved. This was a hygiene method. 

CG: Wow

LK: But then you discovered that some of them had never seen, there were no tampons in those days, they’d never seen a sanitary pad in their life. So then you had to explain to them how to use a sanitary pad and so forth. That was a total eye opener to me. You know I couldn’t get my head around it.

CG: I think that would be difficult for most women today to even comprehend, that women were using material that they were re-using every month.

LK:  I mean some of them, apparently, had always had a towel, you see, and they put it between their legs and around their shoulders and tied it off and just moved it on.

And there is the saying, “getting your rags off”, you see, when of course they washed it after that. But I mean it was not a hygienic or comfortable thing for anybody to do.

CG: And this is what you were being exposed to for the first time

LK: [agreeing] the first time. 

I think I was probably much too critical openly because I thought I would be sent to driver training school and then I would be a driver. But instead they sent me to a records office in Winchester, Army Records, and that was even worse. 

Because what I had to do was to go through all the correspondence that came from young women who wanted to be discharged. So they had all kinds of reasons why—my mother’s sick, my brother’s just been killed, I’ve got grandma and she is failing—there was every reason under the sun. 

If they had been sick they would have been medically discharged so you didn’t get those sorts of letters. They were social problems. And you had to put your view of whether this letter should be taken one step further and whether you should approve of the discharge or disapprove.  

CG: That’s a big responsibility

LK: I was obviously approving too many because the head of the department, who was a woman with the rank of sergeant, not a very high rank, said I was far too gullible, and didn’t I realise they were all lying. I mean it was the attitude, you see. If you are considered to be of lower class, therefore inevitably you’re a cheat and a liar.  

CG: So the discrimination, you saw

LK: [agreeing] the discrimination. 

However I was rescued because after about six or nine months of that, a new unit had been formed at the Duke of York Barracks in London for Army entertainment and it was called ‘Stars in Battledress’. 

And certainly they had about four concert parties and the leaders of the concert parties were music hall stars and well known. But they had a small group with actors in it and we were going to tour Terence Rattigan’s play ‘Flare Path’.

CG: Entertaining troops, is that the idea 

LK: That’s right.  So we toured the whole of southern England Army camps, Airforce camps, Naval barracks and did this show and went round in Army trucks. I mean we had very little scenery.

Indeed two or three of the cast were well known in theatre. Wilfrid Hyde-White was one of them and interestingly enough another one was John Longden who had made a reputation in Australia in the 1930s. He was an English actor who’d come out to Australia in the 1930s and had made some of the early films.

And that is what I did and when the tour was over we went to Salisbury to what was then, or became, the Salisbury Repertory Theatre. And we did a whole series of shows there with visiting stars. Edith Evans came for one show. I wasn’t in that, but I mean I met her. And Peter Ustinov also was another one who came.

CG: And was it with a sense that it was the war effort?

LK: Yes. Well, you see, Salisbury was a military town and in the theatre it was providing a different level of entertainment to the local music hall, the cinemas, or going to the pub which is what people had.

It was just to give the ability to relax to people whether they were waiting to go overseas on military duty or whether they had returned and perhaps been injured. It was just part of the entertainment, you see.

CG: It makes sense that you would have that as part of a war effort because if you’re asking people to fight for a way of life then part of that is cultural, it’s how you relax, it’s your entertainment. 

LK:  Yes. The films that were made then for example Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve were promotional efforts to inspire patriotism and if not to encourage people to join up at least to support the war effort.

                                 Radio broadcaster in Malaysia 

CG: I’d like to know how you get from Britain to Malaya, or Malaysia, or what was it called then?

LK: That was purely fortuitous. I was in a play at the Manchester Library Theatre which had been written by an English gynaecologist who wrote plays as a hobby. My husband was his registrar so he obviously came to see his boss’ play, and that’s how I met him.

And he had been in the RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] during World War II and had spent time in Singapore. It was at the start of the National Health Service in England and a lot of doctors were very suspicious about what was going to happen. And he was offered a job in Singapore so that was how I got to Singapore.

I think I was aware there was no professional theatre in Singapore but after 12 months he was offered the job of a gynaecologist in Kuala Lumpur and we moved from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. 

I’d been working for the school service of Radio Singapore, and I was transferred to the English service of Radio Malaya. And of course that was when radio was actually a full propaganda tool for Western values and for Britain, because Singapore then was still a British colony and Malaya was a protected territory

CG: A protectorate, yes.

So what kind of programming did you do on the radio?

LK: Well, mainly what happened was there were six language services. We were broadcasting in English, in Malay, in Hindi, and in Tamil, and also in three Chinese languages because most of the terrorists that were running the fight against British rule were Chinese. 

Some were not Chinese but the majority were Chinese. These were propaganda programs to persuade them it would be a good idea if they surrendered and didn’t continue fighting a guerrilla war. 

CG: Was it delivered as news, or as entertainment, or as commentary?

LK: It was done in all kinds of ways. It was done mainly of course by news broadcasts, and then by feature broadcasts which had a strong propaganda element, and partially by entertainment. I mean music, popular music, that suited each race. Indian popular music wasn’t the same as Western popular music, but there was a huge audience for it.

CG: And did you get directions from the British government?

LK: No we got directions from, well initially the head of the propaganda department was General Templer and he’d come to the studio to meet the people who were being ployed and your employer was in fact Radio Malaya which was partially subsidised by the British government.

CG: And is it right that you were there for 15 years?

LK: Yes

CG: That’s a long time

LK: Eventually the propaganda changed to promoting Malayan independence. So, I was writing feature programs that fulfilled that. But in addition to that I was writing and producing radio plays and also I was news-reading.

Eventually I was head of what was called the Talks and Features unit and I would write a program in English then all the other language services would translate it into a suitable language for their audience.  

CG: There’s not many people who can say that the things they’ve written have been translated into multiple languages 

LK: So it was a very interesting time and of course a lot of news broadcasts were very political. 

They were consulting with the British government about how to achieve independence and the first government of Malaya was a multi-racial one. Tunku Abdul Rahman was Malay, who became prime minister, and in his cabinet he had Chinese and Indians and Eurasians and Malays.

CG: And was that a diplomatic move of unification?

LK: I think they wouldn’t have got independence in those days unless they had agreed to that. There were some very staunch Malay politicians who wanted a Malay state but they wouldn’t have achieved that. 

And then of course there was, hopefully at the beginning, Singapore was supposed to be part of the new Malaysia, and it broke down. And that was when Lee Kuan Yew took Singapore out and made his speech that he could not come to terms with what was being demanded of Singapore, and he would have to continue running Singapore on his own. 

CG: And was there any unrest or violence at that time, with all of this happening?

LK: In Singapore there had been very severe racial riots but they were on religious grounds. 

CG: And was it safe for you living in that region?

LK: Well when we first went to Malaya there was still of course a Communist emergency. Sir Henry Gurney had been killed by the Communists outside Kuala Lumpur. When he was returning from Fraser’s Hill they ambushed his car and he was shot.

So you didn’t drive out of town very often. And if you were say a rubber planter, or on a tin mine, you would be armed. So if you came into Kuala Lumpur, say once a month to do shopping and everything, a lot of these men would be wearing pistols.

CG: Wow, yeah?

LK: But I think that was perfectly, absolute, adequate safety in the major towns but it was out in the more remote areas as they were working towards independence that danger vanished. I mean the whole peninsula became a safer place to live. 

CG: So what was your decision to leave there then, was it to come to Australia?

LK: Oh the decision to leave was that if you had been part of the colonial medical service, or the colonial civil service, or the colonial education service, you were given so many years to transfer your work to a Malaysian person

CG: A handover, so to speak

LK: [agreeing] a handover. 

And doctors were kept, they were one of the last groups of people that were allowed to work in Malaysia. So I was able to stay and I was able to keep my job with Radio Malaya but that was quite unusual.

At Radio Malaya, all my English colleagues that I’d started with had already returned to England and one of them went to Hong Kong, to Hong Kong radio. They’d all moved away. I was the last European. 

The Director General of Broadcasting was Malaysian and the Head of Engineering was a Malaysian, he happened to be a Sikh engineer. And it was a truly multi-racial broadcasting organisation.

CG: Were you multilingual? Were you able to pick up any

LK: No, not properly. I used to read little bits of the news in Malay but it was only linking, it wasn’t the substance of the news. 

                            Australian radio and television (including Number 96)

CG: And then was it Australia that you came to next?

LK: Yes because my husband then came to Sydney University to the Faculty of Medicine

CG: l see, and when was that?

LK: 1965.  But the thing is, one of the last English Directors of Broadcasting was Bert Reed and he had, I think, gone to a conference with the last chairman of the board of the ABC, Sir Charles Moses. He was a very charismatic figure, and he’d become very intrigued by Bert and he asked Bert if he would come to Sydney as Director of Light Entertainment. 

And Bert, of course, knowing he was going to have to leave Malaya was very happy to come. Bert was an amazing man. He had been, in the 1930s, a jazz pianist, a big name jazz pianist in London playing with all the big bands of the day, Henry Hall and all of those.

He was also a very competent administrator. So he came to Sydney as Director of Light Entertainment 

CG: At the ABC?

LK: [agreeing] at the ABC. And then he became Deputy Director before he retired.

CG: And you joined the ABC when you got to Sydney, as well

LK: Again, you see it was just luck. Bert was already director of Light Entertainment. He and his wife had been very good friends in Malaya and Bert, of course, was able to get me introductions to the ABC.

CG: Yes, well you say “luck” but you had just spent 15 years working in radio in Malaysia. The experience that you brought with you would have been invaluable. So, I think there’s a combination of hard work and luck with a lot of things, isn’t there. It doesn’t just happen accidentally. You also have to be able to deliver, which you obviously did.

LK: So the first radio bit I did was on Lee Kuan Yew’s resignation, well not resignation, um, decision not to be part of Malaysia. And in those days, before the radio news every night there was a five minute piece on an item of national or international importance. And because I’d only just arrived from Malaya, the News division gave me this five minute piece on Lee Kuan Yew. 

And then later on when the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaya, who was the Malay assistant to Tunku Abdul Rahman, Abdul Razak came to Australia I was sent to Kirribilli House to interview him about his visit to Malaya.

CG: Wow. So I’m imagining you coming to Australia and then working for the ABC and having this specialty knowledge about politics in Southeast Asia. How do you then move into becoming a television actress?

LK: Well the thing was that when I came to Sydney I thought, “hooray, now I can go back to theatre”, which proved to be more difficult. But I was a part-timer at the ABC so that gave me the opportunity to do television or film or theatre work.

It was at that time, when I arrived in ‘65, and I’d done various things like the independent theatre and so forth. When Number 96 started, and I’d done previous television, and in fact a previous television series which never took off for Cash Harmon who did Number 96

So I was auditioned for Number 96 which in the beginning nobody thought was going to last. I mean we only got a six week contract at the beginning. 

CG: Incredible. For people who don’t know, I mean Australians will be very familiar with it, but there are some listeners who are overseas. It was groundbreaking television in the early 1970s because it was quite an adult television program and there was a lot of press around it being risqué. That’s my impression of it 

LK: That is how they publicised it. And what they always forget is that it was actually based around six middle-aged characters. 

You see there was the Australian couple, Pat McDonald and Ron Shand. There were Johnny Lockwood and Phillipa Baker who were the migrant couple. And there was a Lancashire couple, Jimmy Elliot and me playing Lucy. And there was Elaine Lee playing this sophisticated woman who housed disastrous relationships. But we were none of us the young ones.

The young ones were introduced because say Johnny Lockwood’s character had his daughter who got on drugs, and that was terrible for him but it introduced that there was a young gay man, played by Joe Hasham, who was in a gay relationship and at that time homosexuality was still a criminal offence in New South Wales.

CG: You did a lot of work on this later in your political career, didn’t you, in ending the criminalisation of homosexuality. It’s actually unfathomable for someone my age to even think there was a time when that could be a criminal act.

LK: So on Number 96 you had gay sex, you had drugs, you had sexual predators, but they were all the…

CG: … the periphery characters, the secondary characters 

LK: Because on any TV series you’ve got to have lots of glamorous young women. You’ve got those young characters, but the stories still had this sort of solid backdrop of middle age characters.

CG: Sorry I don’t normally age people but by then you would have been around about fifty, by 1972? And that was your Australian television debut, as a fifty-year old actress in this main role in a highly popular series. 

LK: That didn’t become particularly newsworthy in comparison to these rather more scandalous stories.

CG: So it was the secondary storylines, they sexed them up, I see.

LK: But the script editor was English and he had been script editor on Coronation Street and he was a great expert and knew exactly what was to happen and what was not to happen. A lot of the success of the show was, I think, due to him. 

CG: And was it long running? I was born in ‘79 so my memories of the show are re-runs.

LK: Production started in ‘71 and ended in ‘76. So in comparison to Neighbours it wasn’t really long-running. 

CG: But a lot longer than the six weeks they anticipated. 

LK: [agreeing] a lot longer. Yes.

CG: So did you become a household name and a celebrity in Australia because of that role?

LK: Oh yes.

CG: What was that like?

LK: Well you were too busy. You see, we did five episodes a week

CG: Ooh, that’s like the theatre isn’t it

LK: We were nightly. Half past seven to eight. So you didn’t really have time, expect maybe if you went out for The Logies. You didn’t have time to become… 

CG: A red carpet celebrity, kind of thing

LK: Because we only got our scripts on a Monday morning for what we were going to have to do that week

CG: Wow, so you had to learn all your lines and everything

LK: And then you’d spend Monday and Tuesday sort of dry-running them and then Wednesday, Thursday, Friday they were being filmed. 

And we started in black and white. I mean it’s amazing to think Australia didn’t get to colour television…

CG: …until what was it, about 1974 to ‘76?

LK: Something like that, ya. 

                               Member of parliament in NSW

CG: What would you consider to be your achievements in your time in politics? Are there things that you’re quite proud of that you feel that you were able to do? We touched on homosexuality decriminalisation earlier.

LK: You see, during my time in politics in New South Wales the Legislative Council set up committee systems and we investigated a lot of social problems. Now that had never been done in a state parliament before.

So we looked into the situation in prisons, and the situation in nursing homes, which is still in the news. I mean lots of our reports became relevant again when they started the most recent investigation into the behaviour of nursing homes and the abuse of the elderly.

And we looked at the hospital system and whether or not it was meeting the needs, so it gave you an insight into what was happening even though it didn’t, in those days, translate into legislation. 

CG: You exposed a problem; you highlighted a problem

LK: But the other thing was, the piece of legislation that I was most closely involved with were changes to industrial relations.

When the Greiner government was in power of course they were trying to cut back the power of the unions as Liberals want to do. And I managed to introduce 300 amendments to the Industrial Relations bill

CG: 300 !

LK: And the Minister for Employment, in those days, was given permission to come into a Legislative Council and debate the amendments.

And that was a first because they knew with that number of amendments it was no use handing it to his representative from the Upper House because he couldn’t possibly have been on top of it.

Some of the amendments he agreed to, but it was a mammoth debate and really very, very exhausting. 

CG: Yes how did you go with all of that side of politics? I mean I’ve sat in parliamentary question time, not in New South Wales but in federal parliament, and it’s pretty aggressive and rude and there’s a lot of argy bargy. How were you on the floor and how were you with all of that kind of ugliness of politics?

LK: I think about this a lot when I watch question time now, which quite frankly I think is disgusting. 

When the Legislative Council became fully elected there were a lot of women and more women then there are now and it changed the atmosphere totally. Now I’m not saying there wasn’t argument, and even rude remarks passed, but it wasn’t quite as vitriolic as it is at the moment.

And certainly any abuse that I might personally have encountered, I think I was probably too busy thinking about what I was going to do next, and whether I was going to get it right, and whether I was not going to be able to get it right. It sort of went like water off a duck’s back.

But I can’t recall anything that was quite as vicious as what has been happening recently.

CG: lt is pretty awful, isn’t it

LK: It is totally unnecessary

But then of course, there were no tweets in those days

CG: No, no tweets and no social media

LK: No tweeting. No Facebook.

So we have generally as a society become more aggressive and more unpleasant

CG: All the trolling and everything that is happening

LK: Exactly. 

CG: lt’s all out in the open, yet anonymous. Anonymity I think is part of the problem because people can make any name they want and create a Twitter account and say the most horrible things and they don’t have to own it themselves

LK: Ya. So I think that’s one of the reasons it’s developed so badly, in my opinion. And also to the detriment of parliament and to the detriment of politicians. 

A good friend, Ann Symonds, a Labor member in the Legislative Council when I was still in the Council who used to insist, “I am not a politician, I’m a parliamentarian”.    

CG: Good distinction, yes

LK: And this was long before it got as dirty as it is now.

                                         ‘Me Too’ and other women’s movements

CG: That point you make about more women and the culture being different. I’m interested, and this is slightly an aside.

You know all of this “Me Too” that’s happening now and people are speaking out more about things that have happened to them, their experience with bullying and sexual harassment and those sorts of things. 

I’m curious, in your years of working in different industries that have been at times quite male dominated I imagine, whether it’s in the war effort, or in media, or in politics. I’ll ask it as an open question, what do you make of it?

LK: Well I think I must be very lucky. Even when I first went into the theatre, I was not harassed to the degree that some people have apparently been harassed. Obviously when you were younger you received advances but certainly the aggression that is now coming out was not my experience.

But then on the other hand, I discovered the other day, I found a little book in the Penguin series called The Bedside Book of Punch. And I thought, “oh that will be interesting to read in bed”. So I took it to bed with me. 

Now the cartoons of Punch were very funny and some of the articles were written by the leading commentators of the day and I read them and I thought they were so sexist and I couldn’t remember them being that sexist    

CG: Because it was part of the culture

LK: It was acceptable. But a lot of those articles, if you tried to publish them now you would be howled down. But, you see, it was published and people accepted them.

Now I’m perfectly certain that in my lifetime there were highly aggressive men around who manipulated and abused women, but actually speaking that is not my personal experience. So I must have been very lucky to have missed them or else maybe I was too busy at the time.

Someone was talking the other day about being pinched on the bum, and being angered by it. In those days, well you just shrugged it off and moved away and took good care you never got in that position again.

You can publicly expose a person’s habits which has been done this week with [name redacted]. What is that going to do to him, apart from shame him publicly, I would say forever. Is that sufficient to satisfy the women he abused. It’s not as if you’ve been ripped off by a shady financier and you can get your money back.

CG: But I think from what I’ve read the sense of justice for people knowing that the person who did that to them is being exposed and they’re being believed and it seems that there’s some healing in that or a sense that if it changes the culture then that’s a positive thing.

You would have seen the various feminist movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s

LK: Yes, you see in those days as a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby you were fighting for equal pay which we have not yet achieved and you were fighting for jobs and initially we were not complaining about being abused sexually and that is something that seems to have cracked into the conversation recently.

And I mean to fight for equal pay and equal access to jobs seemed a very sensible down to earth thing to do and very necessary and I think it’s very sad that we haven’t achieved more. Maybe we have achieved a lot by bringing sexual harassment to the fore to be discussed and to be condemned but we still have to get equal pay.

                                  Becoming a doctoral researcher 

CG: Let’s get to your doctorate that you did because that’s such an amazing achievement as well. Had you known previous to when you enrolled that you had any aspiration or idea  that you wanted to do academic study?

LK: No, not at all. I signed up at Charles Sturt University and did the first two years by distance education. That meant that, once a year, you had to go to the university in Wagga Wagga and sit a public exam, like you did at school.

CG: And how long had it been seen you’d sat an exam?

LK: Well 30 to 70, so 40 years.

And I can remember waiting outside the examination hall in Wagga with a group of other young students. One girl was almost being physically sick

CG: From the nerves

LK: [agreeing] from nerves. And the other was desperately, desperately miserable, terribly, terribly nervous. 

However I went in and sat there and you know you wait and “now you can pick up your pen”, all this

CG: “Now you can turn over the page

LK: And half of me was thinking, “oh dear or dear, still doing it this way

CG: [laughing]

LK:  I opened the exam paper and there were lots of things I could talk about so I just sat there, and my writing got worse and worse, and worse and worse, but I mean I answered them and got quite favourable results.

And it so happened that the Adjunct Professor of History at Charles Sturt University decided for third year distance education students, if they wanted and were able, they could attend lectures. So I started going to his lectures. 

It was he who really sort of set me off. He would be very encouraging if I made comments in the lecture and at the end of the year he said, you know you really ought to do an honours year.

CG: What’s his name?

LK: Don Bogel

CG: He encouraged you to pursue it further

LK: He encouraged me to do the honours year

CG: And it hadn’t been on your radar to do it at all. You hadn’t even been thinking of it

LK: I hadn’t even thought about it. I was too busy thinking about what I was doing for just the three year course.

CG: l had the same experience with my undergraduate studies. I did the three years and I had a lecturer, Diarmuid Maguire, who said “you really should do the honours”. I thought, “Me?”. It hadn’t even occurred to me to do it. Sometimes it takes for a person to give you the encouragement to do it. It’s so important.

LK: Yep. 

So, I did the honours year. And so, I thought “what am I going to do; maybe I can do a masters”. And that is how I was put in touch with Professor Harry Knowles at Sydney University. And he said, “come and see me we’ll have a cup of tea”. 

So he said, “okay, go away, go away; start writing and let me know”.  So I went and would do writing on a theme and send it to him and would comment on it.

Then one day, and this was all meeting him and not on email, he said “you’re not going to do an honours, you’re going to do a PhD”.

CG: Oh, yes

LK: I said, “don’t be silly; I mean, I couldn’t”.  He said, “yes you are; I will come with you now and we will go to the admissions office and you will do all the paper”. So he encouraged me.

CG: Can I clarify the timeline here? You did your undergraduate from 2004 was it?

LK: 2004 and 2008 

CG: And was that in History, did you say?

LK: That was in History, and was mainly the history of English literature and the effect of literature on people’s ideas in the 1930s. 

CG: So intellectual history. And by now you were in your 80s, were you, by then?

LK: Ya

CG: And you had the professor who was seeking the potential for you to do a doctorate based on the things that you were writing for him.  Did you have a gap, any time off between?

LK: No

CG: Wow. So you went straight into doing the doctorate?

LK: Ya. And the year I started the doctorate was the first year at Sydney University that students had to do course work. PhD students. But we had a choice of the course work — not a very big choice, but there was a choice. So, I started the course work because I had to. 

One subject was Qualitative, in languages that I thought were pretty silly. I mean they were inventing all kinds of words that I thought could be said much more simply, in straightforward English.  You didn’t have to wrap it up in a lot of pseudo-scientific words. 

And the other batch that I did were on the history of certain businessmen: the history of the guy who started McDonalds, the biography of Henry Ford, and others. I mean there were a whole line of them in that area and that was really interesting. 

CG: So you had to do the methods courses, because to get a doctorate you have to have academic methods in what you do. But then in terms of the substantive, the subject, you were interested in  business biography and historical figures captured you 

LK: Yep. And they were really fascinating. I mean some of them were very sad. 

Woolworths was another one. He died because he was terrified of going to the dentist. Eventually in old age, of course, his gums got all swollen and inflamed. And he died of, not inflammation, they were poisoned. And he would not go to the dentist. His doctors had told him, “look”. 

Of course this was years before there was penicillin or any antibiotic. So I mean there was no treatment in those days except surgical treatment. And you could, I suppose, understand that a man who had done so much in business could be so personally timid of dental treatment.

And also the way McDonalds started training their staff when they first started the hamburger joint, which is what it started off being. And nowadays, now of course, McDonalds are everywhere

CG: Global

LK: Huge business

CG: So you accidentally find yourself, academically interested in economics, in business; you’re an historian who finds yourself reading about, and enjoying reading about, people in the realm of business. 

And I guess that’s a sort of stepping stone towards, ultimately your thesis

LK: Yes. What I’d written about, naturally because the Great Depression has economics in it, but I had written about personalities: the politicians of the day, the union leaders, and the affect on people of being unemployed. And how in Sydney, for example, people were camping in The Rocks and on the beach at La Perouse because they’d nowhere to live and no jobs and so forth.

CG: And it was a comparative project, is that right?

LK: What I did was link it to the Global Financial Crisis, which was of course the way the banks and financial institutions created the Global Financial Crisis by over-lending without security which led to the collapse of the housing market in America. 

CG: l have so much respect for you for getting that doctorate, doing that doctorate. It’s only one of many achievements that you’ve had in your lifetime. 

                             Hopes for the future

CG: Maybe we could just finish by drawing on your experience, by asking two questions and you can answer either or both, it’s up to you:

Is there anything that has happened in your lifetime that you didn’t expect to see, like a pleasant surprise, some kind of progress that has happened that you didn’t expect; and what is yet to happen that you would like to see in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your children let’s say

LK: Well the second question is much easier to answer than the first. 

I would like to see an awareness in people that what you need to do is to be compassionate. I look at what is happening on Manus, in Nauru, in total disbelief that more Australians are not demonstrating and saying, “you cannot lock them up and leave them there; however they got here, you are responsible for them, therefore bring them and let them stay”.

Now why that hasn’t happened, I don’t know. And hopefully we can change people’s attitudes from being so totally self-centred or being so totally misled to think that there’s a danger in letting them [refugees] in. 

Trump for example calling them “rapists” and “criminals” and what he’s doing building walls

CG: lt’s scare-mongering, isn’t it

LK: Yep. I mean it is on the news every night. You see people in Syria and in Yemen and in Thailand. You don’t run away unless you are in danger and particularly you don’t take tiny children with you. 

I mean there seems to be no understanding of why human beings who are suffering react in the way they do. Now why haven’t we achieved that after what, four thousand years of what is laughingly called “civilisation”. 

But now, everybody’s concentrating on “What’s in it for me? How much can I make; how can I get more?” If you attempt to kick back from that, you are regarded as either a Communist or an agitator or as if you have no understanding of the world

CG: Naive

LK: Yes you’re naive and silly

CG: Idealistic, yes. But it needn’t be

LK: [agreeing] it needn’t be.

Providing the government of the day supplies, with the money they get out of the taxation, supplies a hospital and the education and the roads and for people who need assistance, affordable housing.

One of the problems in Australia is the distance. I mean it’s so easy to suggest that you are solving the problems if you have one huge hospital and then you shut the smaller hospitals, but unless there is transport to get people to where the medical services are, it’s not going to help.

And they seem to forget that many, many people,  particularly elderly people, particularly elderly women, who don’t have cars, they don’t have friends and relatives who can drive them if they have to go for a hospital appointment.

CG: So with that, do you think there’s some hope with technology because I’ve heard talk about driverless cars changing those sorts of things, you know you won’t need someone to drive you anymore because you’ll be able to have a car come and pick you up and take you to your appointment.

LK: Well, I’m sort of a bit iffy about driverless cars. I won’t be around, I’m sure I won’t be around when they become common in Sydney but I wouldn’t like to be in a driverless car. 

I mean I think it’s great to have a driverless car to assist you so you don’t make a stupid mistake and put your foot on the accelerator instead of the brake.  But I think in a difficult situation you still should have the ability to take control of it.

CG: ls there anything else, is there any way you want to end, or anything we haven’t touched on that you want to say, or any kind of final point. Is there anything you do feel optimistic about?

LK: Well obviously one has to be optimistic about the new generation. I mean I’ve got grandchildren and great grandchildren and when you watch them and see what they’re doing and see what opportunities that they have got, well hopefully they will, some of them, will come out with different ideas. 

CG: So there’s hope. We need compassion, we have hope

LK: Yes

CG: Thank you so much for doing this and thanks for speaking with me and meeting me, it’s been such a pleasure and an honour. Thank you very much 

Christine Gallagher: That was Dr Lis Kirkby, Elisabeth Kirkby, a really interesting person and a fascinating conversation and very generous of her to have me in her home, so thank you very much Lis.

And I think that conversation really only just touches on some of the achievements from Lis’ multiple careers. She also went into farming for a while, she had a property that was meant to be her retirement plan but she ended up going into politics and doing other things. She farmed wheat and sheep. 

Lis also went into local politics and was a councillor on the Temora Shire Council. 

And certainly other milestones and achievements that we weren’t able to flesh out entirely. 

But Lis was also telling me that she was a member of the International Commission of Jurists and is currently doing quite a lot of work for them on issues related to Malaysia. She’s getting something like about twenty emails a day.

So still very active, very connected, very informed and a real inspiration. 

I was thinking as I listened back to that conversation, and also at the time that I was having the conversation, that Lis strikes me as someone who is, I guess, relatively privileged and I think she would say that herself, she mentioned numerous times that some of the opportunities that she had were to do with luck or were fortuitous. 

When she was describing the women that she met in the military during World War Two, some of the underprivileged women, I relate to my family being more closely related to that experience than to her own. 

My mum who was born in Bolton, in the north of England, came from a family of ten children and her mother by 1942 would have already had 7 or 8 of those children so she would have been much older than the age of the women who were being conscripted. But I imagine in her extended family some of those women would have been. 

People in my family worked in the cotton mills and did not have a lot, and some of the stories that Lis was sharing there certainly resonated as things I’ve heard before about the types of conditions that women were used to. And Lis and I didn’t talk about it but I think I had read somewhere that her father had at one point actually owned a cotton mill in Bolton.

Anyway the point is, the reason I mention that is, that I admire Lis as being somebody who, although she may not have experienced poverty first hand, was able to take what she had witnessed and actually do something about it and work towards trying to address issues of social injustice. 

She’s made the most of her opportunities, she’s created opportunities, and she’s been quite tireless in continuing to learn and pursue new things and, as I say, is an inspiration for those reasons.

That’s all from me for this week, and I’ll see you next time.      


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