James Keating reviews Jane Carey’s Taking to the Field: A History of Australian Women in Science (Melbourne: Monash University Press, 2023).


In 1977 the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) held a symposium on ‘Women in Science’. Rather than accepting what many contemporaries considered a truth self-evident—that science had always been a masculine world—delegates reflected on the past 40 years. How, they asked, could the ‘spectacular decline’ in women scientists since their interwar heyday be accounted for? ‘Where ha[d] all the women gone?’[1] Taking to the Field, Jane Carey’s excellent and expansive history of Australian women in science, begins with a similar premise. Seeking to historicise women’s substantial and long under-appreciated presence, rather than lament their absence, Carey offers a compelling response to ANZAAS’s enquiry and a welcome intervention into feminist historiography.

Ellis Rowan (National Library of Australia)

In the Australian colonies, as elsewhere in the nineteenth century, Western science was an amateur pursuit. Even by the 1870s, when the settlers boasted three universities amongst them, fewer than 30 full-time scientists worked across the continent. Thus, the ‘pioneering’ labour of natural history, claiming the continent through the collection and description of specimens—duly packed off to Britain for classification—was undertaken by enthusiasts. Many women, by virtue of their background, family ties, and ‘proximity to the “undiscovered” … landscapes of the Australian “frontier”’ (p. 13) were drawn into the field. Some, such as Ellis Rowan and Louisa Meredith, found acclaim as scientific illustrators, while others like geologist Georgina King swapped papers with supportive male colleagues. Yet, by the century’s end, as the discipline began to professionalise, these autodidacts found themselves marginalised by emerging scientific societies that valued formal credentials above practical experience.

Settler women, excluded from such public endeavours, were subordinated to male scientists—metropolitan and colonial—in the hierarchy of knowledge production. Nevertheless, as Carey illustrates, they exerted power over others. Botanists like Georgiana Molloy corralled armies of settler and Indigenous workers as they strove to domesticate once foreign fauna by assigning them ‘proper names’ (p. 19) and, in so doing, asserted their rights over the land. King’s better-known friend, the welfare worker turned ‘maverick anthropologist’ (p. 11) Daisy Bates, fashioned herself as the early-twentieth-century’s ‘leading authority on Aboriginal people’ (p. 39). Armed with an unquestioned sense of entitlement to collect and classify the continent—undoubtedly shared with her male contemporaries—Bates secured government commissions to investigate Indigenous communities. Such experiences informed her journalism as well as her 1938 book, The Passing of the Aborigines, which spread the ‘dying race theory’ to eager settler audiences.

While Bates was immersed in fieldwork, another generation of women joined the university-trained cohort which would soon replace the nineteenth-century’s legion of amateurs. Unlike in Britain, where women fought for the right to take degrees (which the University of Cambridge refused to allow them until 1948), women featured prominently among the student body when Australian universities introduced science degrees in the 1880s. In aftermath of the colonial suffrage campaigns, many among the middle-classes believed a ‘revolution in women’s roles’ (p. 69) was underway, a fact that normalised their presence in science faculties. Likewise, it was in the sciences, rather than the humanities, that women first took up teaching positions.

In contrast to the ostracism suffered by amateurs such as King, university women were not only accepted by their colleagues, but encouraged to join societies like the Association for the Advancement of Science. By the interwar years, women constituted around 40 percent of Australia’s scientific student muster. These numbers reflected women’s enthusiasms as well as the prejudices of their male peers, for whom a science degree offered neither the material prospects of engineering or medicine, nor the credentials of a classical education. Here, as Carey makes clear, class structured women scientists’ experiences. In a period when higher education was limited to a narrow band of settler society, women who entered the academy were almost always white, privately educated, and emerged from the same milieu as their male counterparts. Rather than ‘“breaking into” a longstanding male domain’, elite women faced ‘little resistance’ to their presence in the field (p. 75). Further, convinced that their training should serve the public, university-trained women assiduously promoted sex education, ‘scientific motherhood’, and eugenics—most notably through the Racial Hygiene Association (later Family Planning Australia). Although such efforts were seldom conceived as malign, Carey argues that women scientists’ determination to ‘improve the race’ (p. 149) within the context of White Australia was not only—at the very least—denigrating to those they perceived as social inferiors, but a politics whose insistence on gendered, racialised, and classed difference proved limiting to all women.

While middle-class women were encouraged to study science, few took on senior roles. Instead, during the turn-of-the-century science boom, women flooded the sub-professoriate. In botany, a domain coded as feminine, women constituted the majority of staff at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne, and monopolised geology at the University of Adelaide. Yet, while few barriers existed to women becoming laboratory demonstrators, vital but poorly paid and insecure work—Carey’s book doubles as history of gender and precarious labour in the academy—it was not until 1959 that Dorothy Hill, a University of Queensland geologist, became the country’s first female science professor (and not until 1966 that Margaret Valadian would become the first Indigenous person to graduate from an Australian university with a Bachelor’s degree). In the meantime, the glass ceiling appeared shatterproof. Outstanding scholars such as zoologist Georgina Sweet and botanist Ethel McLennan had repeated bids for promotion denied, with the jobs awarded to younger Oxbridge men. Male promise—and even male mediocrity—rather women’s demonstrated performance, held sway with hiring committees. One graduate told Carey that, infuriated by several rejection letters accompanied with the tepid excuse that there were no toilets for her to use, she launched a career in nutrition, which was seen as an appropriately feminine arena and compensated accordingly.

Public archives teem with similar stories as male academics, administrators, and employers engaged in a post-war revisioning of science so radical that women’s once ‘strong presence was rendered invisible’ (p. 189). Nevertheless, disclosures like that of Carey’s reluctant nutritionist were rare. Even as the number of women scientists plummeted—one consequence of the profession’s newly elevated status for men—few of the hundreds of women graduates from the 1930s and 1940s interviewed for Taking to the Field felt that they had encountered discrimination. Carey warns against reading their reticence as false consciousness. Instead, we might see her subjects’ conception of science as an egalitarian realm in which aptitude determined one’s prospects as stemming from their awareness of the privileges that education had bestowed upon them, allied with an antipathy toward ‘feminist interpretations of their lives’ (p. 182). Scientists, Carey speculates, might also have been loath to acknowledge the sexism that shaped their working lives as any admission of prejudice undermined their claim to authority: the discipline’s impartiality and objectivity. Yet, it’s unclear how unique science was in this respect. Here, the book would have benefitted from a closer comparison with women’s perceptions of and responses to structural disadvantage in other professions.

Taking to the Field concludes just before the 1960s influx of students from a much wider range of backgrounds reshaped universities and eroded the elitism that had allowed women scientists to circumvent ‘the obstacles of gender’ (p. 9) before the Second World War. Within a decade, women’s representation in science courses surpassed its interwar peak. From this new generation of scientists came the impetus to reform the ‘underlying structures of exclusion’ (p. 230) that had limited their predecessors’ careers. Here, as ever, Carey interrogates the mainstream understanding of women’s representation in science as a journey from ‘exclusion to acceptance’ (p. 8). Such narratives might appeal to policymakers seeking easy lessons from history, but rest on the presumption that ‘things were (always and everywhere) far worse for women in the past’ (p. 8). Instead, Carey deftly relates a messier and more urgent narrative. Insisting on women’s presence from the beginning, her book reminds us that Australian science proved remarkably accommodating to middle-class white women while still denying them substantive equality. The scientists that Taking to the Field reclaims from the condescension of posterity were neither radicals nor heroines but ordinary women, whose often unheralded work was—for better and worse—vital to the field’s ascendancy in the colony’s first 150 years.


[1] Barbara Hooks, ‘So where have all the women gone?’ Age, 7 November 1977, 11.


James Keating
James Keating

James is a historian of Australia and New Zealand who works as a Teaching Associate at the University of Melbourne. Tracing the stories and material legacies of Australasian activists, his research interrogates local, national, and international feminist movements to better understand the history and memory of transnational organising. His writing on suffrage, feminist historiography and material culture, the Contagious Diseases Acts, and world’s fairs has been featured in a range of journals and his book, Distant Sisters: Australasian Women and the International Struggle for the Vote, 1880–1914, was published by Manchester University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter @Keating_JW.