Baby Boomer women broke education barriers

Recent events in federal politics brought sharp focus on the struggles faced by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's mother and women of the Baby Boomer generation who wanted to pursue higher education.

Through my research at La Trobe I am uncovering stories of women from Ann Shorten's era; women who kept their dreams alive, waiting until children left home before embarking on higher education. With courage, tenacity and sheer hard work, they juggled jobs and managed households while studying for doctorates.

Those once sweet young things born after World War II fought all their lives for equal educational opportunities. Australian social customs of the 1950s-70s saw very little point in nurturing girls' dreams of brilliant careers.

Girls from working class or rural families faced the biggest battle. Why bother educating them when they were expected to marry, have kids and look after their husbands? There was often barely enough money to feed and clothe a family, leaving nothing for uni fees or a move to the city. Girls were expected to leave school at 14 and work perhaps in a shop or hairdressers. It was boys who received an education.

Through my work I have encountered some families who bucked the trend. There were mums who insisted their daughters finished year 12, and women whose parents moved from the country to the city, leaving family and community, for their daughters' education.

Fees and living costs remained prohibitive. One woman won a scholarship to study pharmacy, but when her father lost his job and the family couldn't support her, she left to become a nurse. Nursing and teaching (Ann Shorten's first career) were seen as appropriate jobs because they helped prepare women for bringing up children.

In 1974, when Gough Whitlam's government removed university fees and introduced financial support, women flooded into TAFEs and high school to get their year 12 certificates.

For many, this opened up longed-for careers. My mum finished year 12 the same year as my younger sister. Mum went to university and became a social worker, repaying the government investment many times over.

Although starting university late in life meant Baby Boomer women had no chance to pursue careers, these women broke down barriers for future generations to enter higher education.

Dr Margaret Robertson is an education lecturer and researcher at La Trobe University