When Jennifer Wallace graduated with a first in English Language and Literature, in 1954, she felt she had no proper plans for the future, going so far as to interview at an advertising agency for a copywriting position. But the fateful pull of an academic path proved its strength when she was offered a lectureship at the then newly-created University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales.
While she loved teaching, she nevertheless realised that she would need a research degree to have a serious career in academia. So she returned to Melbourne as a Senior Tutor, enrolled in an MA in Medieval Literature and set about searching for an overseas scholarship. Three years later in 1957 she had commenced a Master of Philosophy (M. Phil) in a Glasgow still recuperating from World War Two. The departure of the planned supervisor of her medieval topic meant she was persuaded to switch her attention to late nineteenth, early twentieth century drama, noting in retrospect that perhaps her academic interests have always been too wide.
In 1968, love trumped academia and she abandoned her scholarship to marry Werner Strauss, a fellow Australian doing his PhD in the control of industrial air pollution at the University of Sheffield. For a brief time, she became a teacher at Abbeydale Girls Grammar School in Sheffield, but at the beginning of 1959 the couple returned to Australia where she resumed her role as a Senior Tutor at The University of Melbourne until the birth of her first child in November 1959. A period of part-time and temporary employment followed until in 1963 she was offered a full time continuing lectureship at Monash – then Victoria’s newest university – despite being pregnant with her second child.
“The fact that I became actively involved in university and staff association politics certainly added an extra ball to the juggling act,” says Strauss. “I was extremely fortunate to have the support of my husband, a reliable daily household help who stayed with us for over twenty years, and a sympathetic professor, who admired my capacity to have my children at the end of the academic year, the third son being born in December 1967.”
Strauss’s successful career in academia was something she had not planned for, having grown up in a not very well-off family where no one had gone to university, in a country town where ambitions for girls (other than marriage) were unlikely to be higher than teacher’s college or nursing. “In 1942 I went as a boarder to a small country school [Alexandra College, Hamilton] where that was also the case among my fellow students. At that stage my idea of the future was to be a kindergarten teacher because I like small children,” says Strauss.
In 1948, however, when she was in Year 11, she met the older sister of one of her day-girl friends who was at Melbourne University, and she seemed to have an interesting life. “When we were set one of those evergreen essay topics about ‘What would you do if you were given a thousand pounds?’ I wrote that I would spend it on going to the university, whereupon my English teacher said ‘Well, if that’s what you want, we had better do something about it.’ I then received generous individual coaching from him, my History teacher and the Head Mistress, who taught me the esoteric subject of Latin (when the Matriculation examination arrived I was the sole candidate in Hamilton!).”
Her results won her one of the forty State Scholarships worth £40 each that were awarded annually to Matriculation candidates. These had originally been calculated to cover the full cost of tuition at Melbourne University, but by 1949 they covered barely more than one subject. She would have to wait for a year until the much more generous Commonwealth Scholarship scheme came into effect for 1951. In the interim, she tried to earn money in various part time jobs such as baby-sitting, knitting fair-isle jumpers, and serving in one of the local pharmacies. It was simply exciting for her to be in one of the first cohorts of Commonwealth Scholarship winners, as was the prospect of moving to a big city for the first time and living the student life at Janet Clarke Hall. At this stage she had very little idea of the future beyond the fact that she had essentially been given a licence to read interesting books for several years.
Her unbridled enthusiasm for literature eventually insinuated itself into the cracks of time after the birth of her three children, when in 1975 she published her first poetry collection Children and Other Strangers, followed by Winter Driving in 1981 and Labour Ward in 1988. Yet although another masters degree withered on the vine, she did gradually start publishing in academic journals, mostly in the field of Middle English literature, but with a growing commitment to teaching and researching Australian literature, especially the work of women poets. The turning point came during a period of study leave at the Humanities Research Centre of The Australian National University. Strauss was working on a “not-very exciting” project of an annotated bibliography of Chaucer criticism when she was invited to contribute a critical study on the poet Gwen Harwood to a series on Australian writers to be published by University of Queensland Press. In 1992, after considerable hard work, Boundary Conditions: The Poetry of Gwen Harwood was published and at that moment it dawned on her that she was entitled to submit the text for a staff PhD without the normal processes of supervision, although subject, of course, to external examination. The history of abandoned research projects was over, and a modest research career developed, although she certainly didn’t envisage that its final effort would entail spending a large part of her last ten years in academia editing the Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore.
The poetry of Strauss features strong female characters, perhaps when thinking about her life: motherhood, the anti-Vietnam War movement and feminism. These three intertwined stimuli influenced her poetic output. She continues to identify herself as a feminist, although she admits that she’s slightly amused that she is sometimes kindly dismissed as an already outmoded “second wave” feminist, more interested in activism than in theory. “Certainly I was very attracted by the idea of re-writing the classic stories of male heroes from the viewpoint of the minor female characters and giving them agency and control of the narrative. I suppose you could say, making them “strong”, but I don’t think I thought of myself as strong, rather as reaching for strength by imagining it as a possibility for these women otherwise relegated to minor roles or victimhood,” she says.
Being a feminist poet, stepping outside the boundaries of the personal and the domestic, suggests Strauss, could provoke antagonistic dismissal as a whinging or opinionated female. But she found that being a feminist critic was quite exhilarating, if with difficulties. “You were disturbing the comfortably masculinist literary hierarchies that applied to both poetry and poets and determined who had a chance to survive and be memorialised in anthologies. When I was invited in 1978 to produce an annotated bibliography of Australian women poets for World Literature Written in English it was sobering to find how difficult it was, first to find these poets and then to find their poems.”
Through her poetry, she expressed the many unique voices of women worldwide, and to this day she continues to support women where she can, having recently stepped down as President of Graduate Women Victoria. It was in this role where she persevered after university retirement, GWV noting “without her energetic leadership, Graduate Women Victoria may have gone out of business years ago.” In 2008 Strauss was made a Member of the Order of Australia, “for service to education as an academic and scholar in the field of Australian literature and poetry, and to a range of organisations involved in women’s issues and industrial relations.”
Graduate House is proud to share the story of a remarkable woman and looks forward to working more closely with Graduate Women Victoria (GWV).
featured image: Chilli Head, Poetry Books / FlickrCC