by Virginia Simpson-Young, August 2021, from Bulletin 6/2021
In the Queen’s Birthday 2021 Honours List Glebe local, Ann Curthoys, received the Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her significant service to tertiary education, to social history, and to research. Ann has a long association with Glebe, both as a resident and as an intellectual and an activist participating in Glebe’s progressive environment. In 2012, Ann spoke at the Glebe Society’s ‘Glebe Voices’ event at Blackwattle Bay Café. A transcript of her talk on ‘Radical Glebe’ is on our website and is a must-read for anyone interested in Glebe’s role in the radical change of the 1960s and 1970s.1 I spoke with Ann to find out a bit more about her life in Glebe.
Ann, a historian, identified three areas in which Glebe was significant in our radical history: 1. Aboriginal and pro-Aboriginal activism in the 1960s; 2. The emergence of Women’s Liberation in the 1970s; and 3. As a centre for radical writing and book culture.
Ann Curthoys was born in Sydney in 1945. When she was three months old, her father returned from service in the Royal Australian Air Force, stationed in Borneo. A few months later, he gained a position lecturing in chemistry at the Broken Hill Technical College and the family would live in Broken Hill for seven years. Her father’s appointment to a lectureship at Newcastle Technical College in 1953 led to a move to Newcastle, where Ann later attended Newcastle Girls High School.
Sydney and the Freedom Ride
Ann moved to Sydney in 1963 to undertake Arts (Honours), majoring in history, at the University of Sydney. Though this brought her close to Glebe, she did not live in Glebe during her undergraduate years. Initially, she lived in her grandfather’s house in Lindfield, and then in share houses in Bondi and Annandale. As a University of Sydney student in the mid-1960s, Ann embraced the radical life, something for which she’d been well-prepared by her parents, both of whom were then members of the Communist Party. Her father had been committed to educating working-class young people, and her mother was involved in the Union of Australian Women, which was strongly committed to Aboriginal rights.2
In 1965, as an undergraduate, Ann participated in the ‘Freedom Rides’, led by Charles Perkins, who at that time lived on Catherine St, Forest Lodge. Ann recorded this life-changing experience in her diary which can be viewed on the AIATSIS website.3 She has since written a book about the Freedom Rides.4
The Women’s Liberation Movement
Glebe became a focal point for Ann in the years after completing her BA at the University of Sydney in 1966 and her Diploma of Education at Sydney Teachers’ College in 1967. In 1968 she enrolled in her PhD in history at Macquarie University and in 1970, joined the Glebe Women’s Liberation Group, which met at 67 Glebe Point Rd, now the Pakemon Café.
In 1971, Ann was in the collective that established Australia’s first Women’s Liberation newspaper Mejane and featured on the front cover of the first edition.5
In the pre-digital era, the Women’s Liberation headquarters at 67 Glebe Point Rd became a clearing house for feminist literature. Women thirsty for knowledge to explain their experience and find a way forward had little access to materials that were largely produced overseas. Ann said:
It was difficult for most Australian women to obtain much of this ephemeral literature, and one of the first things the new group did was duplicate and distribute it extremely cheaply.
67 Glebe Point Rd had a reading room containing piles of radical newspapers, magazines and journals. In her ‘Glebe Voices’ address6, Ann described how her experience in the Women’s Liberation Movement changed her:
What I really remember is the idea that your personal feelings of inadequacy were not because you were inadequate but because society made you as a woman feel inadequate. It was all about looking outside yourself to see how you were socially constructed. The other central idea was that women tend to look for male approval and don’t seek or value solidarity with other women.
Post-graduate and family life
Maintaining her commitment for social justice, Ann’s PhD thesis was a study of race relations in New South Wales in the mid-nineteenth century and compared British colonists’ attitudes to Chinese immigration with attitudes to Aboriginal people.7 Ann told me that despite the appalling racism directed at Chinese immigrants, Aboriginal people fared much worse, particularly as they were dispossessed of their land.
During her PhD candidature, Ann maintained her commitment to women’s history and the women’s liberation movement. In 1971, she married fellow-radical, John Docker8 and in 1972 they came to live in Glebe in a block of flats on Sheehy St. She has strong memories of writing her thesis ‘overlooking Blackwattle Bay, as a warehouse for containers was being built, long before the current housing complex in Griffin Place.’9 Although Ann was not particularly aware of it, this period coincided with the Glebe Society’s activism to save the waterfront, which eventually led to the foreshore parks there today.
When Ann had finished her PhD in May 1973, John and Ann set off overseas, travelling through Asia and staying in London from September 1973 until June 1974. Ann undertook some temporary jobs10 and loved ‘everything about’ living in London. They returned to Sydney in June 1974, and Ann gave birth to their son Ned in November that year. Early in 1975, the family moved to Canberra, where John began his PhD in the English Department.
Ann’s stellar academic career, which largely focused on women’s history, began in earnest on her return to Australia. Her first academic position was as a research assistant at ANU in 1975, working on a project called ‘Women in Australia’ that produced a guide to historical records for research about women in Australia.11 The project was funded as part of International Women’s Year. Her next role at ANU was establishing the Women’s Studies Program in 1976.12This was one of the first women’s studies programs in Australia and continued until 2000.
Ann and her family lived in Canberra for three years, returning to Sydney in 1978 where she took a position at the then New South Wales Institute of Technology, now UTS, where she stayed until 1995. In 1995, it was back to Canberra, where Ann became the Manning Clark Professor of History at ANU. In 2007, Ann became an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow at ANU, working on a project examining how Aboriginal dispossession influenced Australia’s political history.
Ann transferred her fellowship to the University of Sydney in late 2008, although her association with ANU continues today, as Professor Emerita. Keen to put down roots in Sydney, Ann and John moved first to Bondi (where John had grown up) but soon decided to look for a bigger place as they outgrew the small Bondi flat. Bondi was too expensive, so they started looking in the inner west and soon narrowed their search to Glebe. Although gentrification was underway in Glebe from the late seventies, most houses they viewed had ‘awful’ renovations. They finally found their house in Cardigan St, near Lyndhurst House, one of the streets whose houses had been earmarked in the 1960s for demolition as part of the radial expressways project. Thankfully, the expressways were stopped in the mid 1970s. Ann and John were fortunate to find advertised on the Belle Property Glebe website a house that happened to be owned by Helen Kaminsky, the brilliant hat designer, and bought it from her in late 2010.
Ann retired from official academia in 2013 but continues with her research and writing. She likes living in Cardigan St. She likes to see Wentworth Park from her office window, located at the very top of their terrace house, and she likes the recently renovated and refreshed Cardigan and Darghan Street Reserve just a few houses away. She likes being close to the Fish Market and has watched (and heard) the demolition and preparation works for the new Sydney Fish Market. She likes getting coffee at the end of a morning walk at Bruce’s on Bridge Rd, and under lockdown misses being able to spend time at Badde Manors café.
Glebe as centre for radical writing and book culture
For Ann, Glebe’s contribution to intellectual life continues today. As she said in her Glebe Voices talk:
My association with Glebe and its radical politics and intellectual life is much more than as a former and current resident. Glebe of course is not just a suburb, but rather a precinct that is part of a larger area, bounded by several educational institutions, most notably the University of Sydney and what is now UTS.
Glebe still has an important role in Aboriginal activism, for example Tranby and the Glebe Youth Service. And while 67 Glebe Point Rd is no longer a hub for Australian feminists, many of those founding women remain in Glebe. And cafes and bookshops – especially Gleebooks – continue to support Glebe’s rich intellectual life.
11. Women in Australia: An Annotated Guide to Records, edited for the National Research Program by Kay Daniels, Mary Murnane and Anne Picot, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1977;