Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

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How would describe the education you got at Northam High School?

I think it was a very good education, I had very good teachers. And it was a very difficult time of course. It was wartime to a large extent, and although I still think that homework was over-emphasised, I mean we were accepting that, and it was a very good education. I really enjoyed the teachers I had. They had a great influence on me, very good teachers. And I say, for the times, it was a very good education.

Were you interested mainly in the maths and physics side then?

No. I was particularly interested in English and literature. And I didn't quite know, when we had to decide which sciences to go for, whether to go for physics or biology. I think those were the only two options at the time, or chemistry. And I chose physics, really I suppose because botany and biology - I thought I'll never remember all those long names. They were just the sorts of things that influence children. But I was good at mathematics and good at physics, so I wasn't, I'm not unhappy to have chosen those as my special subjects. Oh, and literature, I was just fascinated with it. I wanted to get an 'A' in literature, and I had a real tragedy when I finished my exam feeling absolutely delighted with my work. I didn't turn the page and missed one whole question. Tragedy. Just that much probably was enough to turn me into science.

So when you finished at Northam High what did you do then? What was the next step?

I came down to UWA and decided I was going to do an engineering course actually, because I thought I was good at mathematics, and we had engineers in the family, and for some reason I thought engineering would be a real challenge, and I'd really enjoy doing that. And I went into the Dean of Engineering to apply, down from the bush, and you know - not with - with no real reason not to, and was surprised when he looked a bit uncomfortable with my approach, and so I finally said to him, 'Why, what's the problem?' And he said, 'Well, we haven't got a woman's toilet'. So that at seventeen years old, it was a bit embarrassing for me. I suppose today I would have made another sort of retort, and I'm sure they've got women's toilets now, but - and I went off and enrolled in physics and science and did nuclear physics. Which I also wasn't told women couldn't do. So ... (laughter)

Nuclear physics was very much the fashionable - or people looked up to those who were doing nuclear physics at that time, didn't they?

I don't know about that. I didn't know at that time. What I was interested in was, it was one of the cutting edges of sciences, and my research was, well it was the start of nuclear energy, you know, the power of the bombs and those sorts of researches, those - it wasn't so much the bomb but that sort of research was continuing. And I did my research on cosmic rays which are the particles that enter the earth from space and that, I think, has given me an enduring interest in astronomy. I'm just fascinated with astronomy. It's mind-boggling and it's something you can't really grasp, because it's sort of not in a human dimension, but I just thought that was fantastic.

So you did an honours degree, and then what about postgraduate work? Did you think of going on to doing that?

No. I didn't really want to do postgraduate work at that time. I mean we were just recovering from a dramatic and traumatic world war, and I wanted to get into the world and find out what it was about, and find my way. I didn't think of continuing on. I couldn't have - I don't think I could have borne spending more years chasing a very narrow specialty. And so I left university and went into - well I did actually interview with the head of the Lucas Heights research but by that time my husband was courting me, and Sydney was then a long way from Perth, and I just sort of deferred and deferred and finally I didn't go. I then fell into teaching when I was looking for jobs, and teaching became my speciality. I'm not a trained teacher, but because my mathematics, in particular, was always in demand, mathematics teachers are always in demand - I was always - it was always very easy for me to get positions in teaching.

Did teaching come naturally to you?

I think it did. I think I developed - although I wasn't trained to teach - I think I developed the skills of transferring my information and my principles to my students. My first introduction to teaching was when I was shown a room with something like fifty-five fifteen year old boys in it, who all hated school and hated mathematics and particularly didn't like women, and so there's a pile of books, now go and teach. Now that is really jumping into the deep end. So I realised I had to be something more than just that sort of thing. And I think I developed special skills of explaining the elements of mathematics all my life really. Particularly when I went to tertiary education and the Edith Cowan University.

To learn how to effectively teach calculus which is a fascinating tool - it's an absolutely fascinating tool - and statistics which is also a fascinating tool, to people who hadn't done more than three years high school was a challenge. But I was very proud of the way I was able to do it. But I had to go right back to basics. I had to forget all the teaching I had had at university from the professors, which was dull, boring and - and concentrated on the end result, on the right answer, because nothing was not related to life and the world. So I - what I developed in my mathematics, was relating the mathematics to life and the world and the usefulness of it. And it was quite an inspiration for me really, because I'd never realised mathematics was so exciting until I started to teach it.

You yourself hadn't ever been taught in an exciting way?

Not at the universities, no.

What about at school? What got you interested in maths when you were at school?

Well I think even at school they didn't teach it in a related way, relating it to the world. It was a matter of getting the right answer. My first mathematics was when I was at primary school and my teacher was an untrained, what we used to call a 'monitor'. And she didn't have as much mathematics as I was expected to learn. So I just used to get the papers from the Education Department and try and fumble through them myself. And I developed a technique of looking at the answer, looking at the problem, and working out how they got to the answer. That's pretty hard isn't it?

So you'd look up in the answer in order to work out how ...

(overlapping) I'd look up the answer and work out how they must have got it. But it was just oriented to getting the right answer which was nothing to do with the world.

In those days particularly it was considered very unusual for a woman to be good at maths. Did you find that? Did you find people were surprised that you were?

Yes. People are still surprised about women that do mathematics. And I don't know what the statistics are, if I can use that term, on women maths teachers now, but I suspect they're very, very low compared with women in the humanities and social sciences. It still persists, this attitude that women can't do maths, are uncomfortable with maths, or they don't have the right sort of brain for mathematics. That's an absolute myth really.

Did you enjoy the teaching?

Yes I did enjoy teaching. I enjoyed being associated with students and I think the only thing that I didn't enjoy was having to repeat the same thing many, many times. That's why I found it was easier, when I was - when the children were young - I didn't teach full-time. I taught on what we called a 'relieving' basis. I was not allowed to be permanent because I was married. And my husband was expected to support me for the rest of my life. So I was called Mistress on Supply which is a very sexist type of term, isn't it? So I was able to just pick it up when I wanted to, drop it when I wanted to and just teach for small sessions. But when I got into regular teaching, and particularly after my husband died and I then was the only breadwinner - and of course I was - became permanent and all of those sorts of processes. I was rather pleased sometimes when there was a change in the curriculum, and you could change things around a little bit, or you had a different group of people. I found the repetition of year after year of doing similar things sometimes a bit boring.

Is this a characteristic of your life? [INTERRUPTION]

Is this a characteristic of your life generally that you're always looking for something new, something fresh? Do you get bored with things fairly easily?

I don't know. [INTERRUPTION]

Your first teaching job was with fifteen year old boys. When did you start teaching adults?

When I went to Edith Cowan University really. That was because I was being worked so hard as a maths teacher in the high schools and I had teenage children in high school. I found I was going home too tired to really spend my time with the children. And so I resigned from the Education Department, and said, 'I really can't do this any more, it's just too much, you're working me too hard'. And then, within a month, I got a call from what is now Edith Cowan University, asking me to relieve a certain lecturer who was going away to Britain for twelve months, and I put it off and put it off, and finally because it was getting later and later I said, 'Well I'll try it'. And that started me on my professional career with the tertiary education. He didn't come back and I was there for something like 25 years, I suppose it was.

If you had to sum up what you did in teaching maths which your teachers at university hadn't done for you, how would you characterise your style of teaching?

I had to almost rewrite the books. I had to get examples, particularly in behavioural statistics, and in calculus. Behaviour - I had to get examples, and make up examples that related to something that we understood. And I think that was what I had to do. Ah, my first group, as I said, the first group I had in tertiary education came from all over the place. Some had no mathematics, some had a unit at university, and I was supposed to be teaching them calculus. And I went to the principal and I said, 'I can't do this. Half of them are so fazed by what you are asking me to do, they can't handle it. And the other half are totally bored'. And when I found that my - my predecessor had been just showing videos all day, I realised I had a problem. But I certainly sorted that course out, so that it became more relevant and more teachable. And so I think I managed to handle the crises that were obviously evident in that type of teacher education, and develop my own techniques, and adjust.

During the period that you were teaching, what kinds of changes have you seen in the education system?

I'm sort of in the - spent half my life in the education - state - secondary education, and there were not really major changes there, except that women were able to move out from marriage and become permanent. But in the tertiary system, it's changed dramatically. The changes have taken place such as amalgamation of a range of tertiary institutions into one, which happened in all the states, and did happen in Western Australia. And that caused a multitude of different courses, whereas I was in a specialist teacher training, and in those days the only teacher training organisation - suddenly we had to think of all sorts of things to do. You know, think of something, we'll teach it. And all the other educational institutions took up teacher training. And of course teacher training courses have changed. They went very academic. We had to put tertiary mathematics into our teacher training, and suddenly it was dropped out. So that sort of ebb and flow of philosophies and policies, persisted right through that particular later period.

And what did you make of it all?

Well, I suppose it's very difficult to appreciate some of the changes. They were not done for education reasons. Ah, I also found a drop in the evaluation of the methods of teaching, and a rise in the appreciation of the qualifications of the person. And also a big drop in the permanency. It became very difficult to get permanent appointments. And I think that prevails today. It's contract work, and it even developed into the stage where if you were too long in one particular institution, you were not considered to be worth anyone else's interest. So there were a lot of psychological and philosophical changes in the staff of education.

And of course they were quite different to the seventeen and eighteen year olds that you normally - come straight out of school. And they were very good students. But they had different philosophies. Different reasons for doing it. They had thought it through. But they also brought with them some of the attitudes, particularly in mathematics, and computer education which was what I spent my last decade or so in - the technology and the mathematics was more of a barrier to those sorts of students, than it was to the young ones coming straight out of school. Schools had already had some sort of computer facility. And they were more ready to accept change. So there were changes like that. But the mature age students were really excellent. They really appreciated education, which is what young people don't always do.

How did you feel about the advent of computers and all the new things that you had to learn to teach? Did you find that difficult? To adjust to these new methods and techniques?

Ah not really. I and my boss were the team that introduced the first computer into anything other than technological training. We introduced a computer in the maths course. We decided that mathematics should be supplied with some sort of computer base in education. And we introduced the first one in the state. And it was a matter of, 'Hands up who can handle a computer?' And I said, 'Well I'm a physicist and a mathematician, I should be able to handle computing'. And I took it on. And that proved to be the direction I finally finished up in - was computer education, and computer mathematics education. It was very much based on computing and the use of the technology.

Has it been very important in your life to constantly find new challenges, things that will stop you from getting bored?

I don't recognise that as a sort of restlessness, that I must find something new. I find newness is pretty much thrust onto you. I don't believe I'm constantly looking for something new. I think more I'm quite prepared to accept it, and quite prepared to meet challenges. I don't think there's any doubt about that. But I don't think I seek out - and sometimes I think change for change's sake is something to be resisted. And it has to be analysed. But change for change's sake seems to me to happen quite often without any challenge, and I would prefer to challenge some of those attitudes.

Going back in time now a little, and changing direction a bit - when did you first get interested in boys, not as brothers, but as boys? Do you remember?

I suppose it was high school really. I - up till that time, boys were just part of the scene, and I was one of them. I did everything they did, and there were not girls anyhow in my family anyhow, so I was just one of the boys. And I think at high school when I started to get interested in boys, and had to go through my first period on my own, those sorts of things that happen when you're away from home. But I think then I got interested in boys, but we lived in a boarding school at Northam, in a boarding house. The Country Women's Association ran this house for country girls. And it - we were really locked in, we really were. But I think it - it wouldn't have made much difference. I was just too terribly shy with boys to have made - to have been able to flirt and - much as I would have liked to have. So I guess in high school.

You started dreaming in high school?

Oh yes, yes, I wondered about the future. I wondered about who was I going to marry? I always knew I wanted to marry somebody. This prince was going to come on his horse and carry me off, and we were going to be happy every after. And where will I be in 1970? Trying to cast my mind into the future. I knew that I wasn't going to be back on the farm. Now, where was I going to be? I was very curious about [it]. I suppose a bit apprehensive about it as well.

So when did you first start meeting boys?

I guess [at the] University of Western Australia when I came down to UWA. It's the first time I was sort of free. I was in a boarding house. Ah, I was boarding with a lady, actually the mother of Senator John Coulter during the war, and I was mixing with boys, but there were not many boys there, of course. There were no - there were not many. All the ex-servicemen were away. There were a few students. We were a very small university in those days. But I started to mix with boys then and get to know a few of them.

You were very shy?

Yes, I was. Yes, I hadn't ... I'd come, still come from the country with no more communication skills than you need to talk to your own family. And I found it hard to talk and flirt. I admired girls who could.

Who did, but they must have - you must have been able to get on well with the boys because of your brothers. Did you find that your approach to them was more like it had been with your brothers, or did you just become tongue-tied with them?

Oh, I don't know, I don't think they were quite like brothers. But in later years when I was being courted by my husband, I noticed that to get on with boys, you had to stand on the rugby field, on the side, and watch the boys play. And I didn't want to do that. [INTERRUPTION]

What did you learn about how to get on with boys?

Well I discovered that to be popular with boys, it appeared you had to be able to go and stand on the side of the rugby field and flutter you eyes and clap your hands, and I really wanted to play hockey. I found that a bit difficult when I found that all of these girls, who were a bit interested apparently in all the men and particularly, and as well, my husband - not my husband, my boyfriend - he was very happy with having those other girls there. And what should I do? But I wanted to play hockey. And he didn't come and watch me play hockey. No. So I was learning.

Did you find that the fact that you were so good at athletics, and that you were doing mathematics and physics, was a little bit daunting for the boys at that time?

It could have been. I don't know. Not the right boys I don't think.

So, was your husband your first real boyfriend?

Yes, he was.

How did you meet him?

He was one of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme ex-servicemen who came back after World War Two. They picked up their education with the support of the Federal Government. and went into tertiary education. And he was in one of the groups I was tutoring when I was doing my honours degree at UWA. He was one of the many.

So what did you think of these guys coming back from the war? That must have been a huge influx into the lives of the girls of Western Australia?

Oh it was, yes, and particularly into the UWA. But I had - was also teaching before that at Perth Technical College, where I was teaching servicemen, some of them twice my age, some of them with much more knowledge of electronics and radio, because they'd come out of planes, than I had. But I had a specific course to teach them to qualify. I was constantly being challenged by these elder - older gentlemen, not elderly gentlemen, and I just had to be very careful that I stuck to what I was doing, and didn't start trying to pretend that I knew more than they did in some of those special fields. So that was another challenge.

You didn't find that too daunting?

No, I didn't. It was a job that I felt I had to do. No. What would you do? You wouldn't resign, no. I think I earned their respect by not pretending anything. But I think they got to know that I knew more than they did in what they had to pass.

What attracted you to your husband?

Well, he was a big strong man and he really loved me. He courted me hard for many years, about five years. And, ah ...

You weren't sure?

No I wasn't sure what marriage would do. I wasn't sure about him. I wasn't sure about myself - it was all very new. So we finally married.

And what made you decide to do that?

I think it was a matter of making a decision. It was drifting on, and drifting on, and I felt I had to make a decision. And I never regretted making that decision.

So you got married after the triumph at the London Olympics.

Yes, that's right.

How did he cope with that, as your boyfriend?

Not well, not well. But at least he remained faithful to me through all of those months in which I could have been off with other fellows, meeting other people. But he remained terribly loyal, and never, never wavered in the fact that I was the one he wanted to marry.

Do you think he felt threatened by your success at all?

Probably, but to his credit - I mean he was called Mr Strickland quite often and he didn't like that, but he was pretty fair, and pretty accepting, but that was a long time ago. I mean men these days accept that their wives maintain their single names for certain purposes. All of my daughters-in-law, two of them, have retained their single names. But in those days it wouldn't have been thought honouring your husband if you didn't do that.

Why did you decide to keep it?

Keep my single name? I didn't keep my single name. I married de la Hunty. But I - the name still stuck with me, and now I get more Strickland perhaps than de la Hunty, and I've been de la Hunty longer than Strickland. But the sporting name stayed with me. But when I went away in 1952 he and I decided that as I'd been Strickland up till 1950, I should run under Strickland. And then I checked it out, and there were no problems there according to all the authorities. So I said I wanted - when I told the Athletics Union that I would, I wanted to run under my single name, they apparently didn't think it was quite nice. So they must have registered me under both names. So when I won my medal in Helsinki, I was watching the scoreboard, and it came up under both names, plus my initials, and they couldn't fit it on the board. So someone must have been thinking, and they just wiped the whole lot and just put Strickland back on the name. So, but, you know. I felt Strickland was the one I needed to stay with. It was the one I was known by. And he was quite happy with that.

So that means in 1952 you had two names and two national anthems at Helsinki.

That's right, yes. Maybe that's what confused them.

Maybe that was the year of big transition in the life of everybody.

Yes, yes.

In your marriage then, as time went on, you were really pioneering a way of living which was still fairly unusual at the time, because you had your athletics career, you had your teaching career, and your marriage, and your children. Did your husband's attitude to all of that change during the time that you were married to him?

I think he became more acceptable - acceptance - I think he accepted it as time went on, and partly because being a geologist, he was away sometimes for six months of the year. And I had the big responsibility of running the home and managing the children. He was away sometimes so long the children didn't know him when he got home. You know, when you've got a little tiny child that - when your husband comes to the door back from six months away, the child hides behind you out of fear of this stranger. It's a bit daunting, for both the father and for the child. So I think he knew that I was carrying this responsibility, and I didn't train all the time. That was one of the good things about my life.

I only taught when it suited me, and that was only in - a fortnight here, a week there. Really just for the extra money. And my mother was always a very willing babysitter in the time - the school time that I needed a babysitter. And it, it worked out quite well. I didn't have athletics all that time. Over the period of my athletic career, I wasn't every year pressured into - and doing - high pressure training work. There weren't the opportunities. I just would fall back into just being a mother, being a temporary teacher, doing a bit of sport, perhaps hockey or athletics. Then I'd pick it up again later. And that allowed me to, I suppose, maybe a new way, but in a very satisfactory way in my view, of not deferring children, not deferring the other things that mattered to me in life. And making it a more - less of a demanding sporting life.

You achieved a real balance in the way that you managed your life. But you still had quite a lot to cope with. How do you think you managed to keep all these things going, all these different strands to your life, in balance?

I guess it's a matter of time management, but also I then picked up these most interesting and essential roles in the environment. I began to be invited to be part of a range of environmental issues. I became involved with the formation of most of the conservation groups now in Western Australia. There was hardly one you could name that I didn't have a role in the formation of it, so that became a very compelling part of my life.

Yes, we'll come back and talk about that more later. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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