Third Age: Generations of Girls Reaching for the Stars

Stars are way above my head. A sad thing about old age for me is realising how little I know about them, despite Brian Cox’s best TV efforts. Yet the stars and the moon, viewed with all my ignorance, have comforted me throughout my life. Why don’t I know their structure, their real place in the universe?

Well, I don’t. My brain just doesn’t have that sort of bump in it. But thinking of their beauty, their transcendence, the metaphors they offer so generously to writers (Shakespeare was obsessed with the moon and the stars) for everything lovely and everlasting – a “the vision splendid” – has to be enough for me. I see them every night that they make their appearance. I greet the moon in all her phases and idiotically relish names like gibbous, waxing, waning, apogee, perigee… And when it is cloudy I mutter “the moon sleeps with Endymion and would not be awaked”. For me, poetry began as a child, looking at the moon and the stars and wanting words for them. Now my muttered adoration sometimes stirs the dog next door.

Fortunately, other women before me made it their serious life’s work to understand the universe. Sometimes pitied, underrated by some male astronomers, they did what women have always done: made themselves useful; worked for next to nothing. A few were rich and endowed the work of others. Some were poor, but oh, so smart, their work in the 19th century still important today.

Dava Sobel has written a book called The Glass Universe (clever title) which I snatched up because its subtitle was The Hidden History of the Women Who Took the Measure of the Stars. I learnt about women used as human computers to interpret observations and photographs by male astronomers of Harvard College Observatory from the late 19th century onwards.

third-age-girls-reaching-stars-adelaide-reviewDava Sobel, The Glass Universe, 4th Estate

Though they weren’t much talked about at the time, it seems though these women were well enough known in scientific circles at Harvard. No doubt some men felt bad that they were assigned on little or no pay to the “grunt” work. One started her working life as a maid in an astronomer’s household, some had degrees. A very few went on to recognised academic places but mostly they were just there, for years, playing key roles in the development of knowledge of the stars. This is a serious history, not particularly easy reading, but the value of the women’s scientific work, and their touching stories, passion and humility, and sometimes proper anger, are there to be mined.

The recently released movie Hidden Figures, is adapted from another book about women and science, by Margot Lee Shetterly. It is about the unsung role of female African- American mathematicians in key space missions at NASA in the sixties. A “summary and analysis” of that book is available online for about $6.

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To understand how and when times changed so radically for young people, it is fun to read the year books of your school over several generations. Girls of successive generations of the same school are fascinating. I’ve just read a proper, illustrated history of my old school, St George Girls High School, Kogarah, NSW, which is celebrating its centenary. Novelist Christina Stead attended St George in 1916, and there are many distinguished old girls.

That the school commissioned a professional historian, Pauline Curby, to write the book – and we are talking here about a state, not a private school – is significant. Such luxury would have been unimaginable in my day. It was and remains a no-fee, all-girls, academically selective school. Those qualities, single sex and selective, have survived the swings and roundabouts in public education since WWII. Private school education was unthinkable for most girls who came from a then predominantly working class area between the Cooks and Georges Rivers, south of Sydney; and even reasonably well-off parents might have though it too swank (“it would give her ideas above her station”). At St George, the girls were not denied academic excellence. There was often inspired teaching: science classes (but physics was thought to be “not for girls” even in the late ‘40s), English literature and grammar, history, Latin, maths, French, German, art, geography… careers advice was not really on the agenda. Although our teachers were all university graduates, they didn’t talk much about their tertiary education years. My contemporaries were never advised to “follow your dream”.

What dreams anyway? It was a man’s world then. St Georgians were educated for excellence in a narrow field of jobs; and learning was for its own sake.

But there’s always one, thank heaven: the English mistress, Hilda Mackaness, who took us leaving honours girls aside in our final school days and gave us hints of what MIGHT be. And yep, she whispered “writer” to me. I knew from the flushed cheeks of other honors girls that she had probably, subtly, suggested such daring departures from the norm to them. What we call today having a dream. But the graduating class of ’53 mostly had modest, parent-instilled “dreams”.

We knew a lot about duty. And aspired to speak nicely. Like the young Queen, in fact, whose reign began in our final years. I was asked to make a short speech about her in a coronation assembly which I delivered in an absurd imitation of her voice then… high pitched, English: posh clarity in words I can still recall. “The ‘Quin’ is to all British people, the supreme symbol of unity, so that what is done for her is done for all.” Did we think: the queen has a bloke’s job; maybe we…?

When a young person asked me in what year I went skiing with my school, I laughed. Amazing how this changed so radically and quickly, just after us, in the ‘60s. The class photos look less restrained, the teachers younger, jollier. St George blossomed. A summer uniform at last. New amenities were introduced and a school dance. By looking at the group photos you can discern the freer air. I found that a relief. There is a sniff of aspiration in the air, rebellion even?Girls seem a different shape now. Not our postwar skinny figures.

And from there on, everything changed but academic excellence, the raison d’etre of a selective school of girls who made it there via an IQ test at age nine and were regularly streamed into St George via two years in an opportunity class for the brightest. Don’t you dare mention elitism.

third-age-girls-reaching-stars-adelaide-reviewPauline Curby, Independent Minds, University of NSW Press

It is still a very special school, preferred, desired, perhaps more than private schools. It inspires lifelong devotion (one ‘old girl’ of my year gave birth, fell back on the pillows, and gasped: “A girl. To go to St George!”)

St George Girls High School now has an enrolment of “more than 900 very clever girls, from predominantly non-English speaking backgrounds,” Pauline Curby writes. Teachers “are keenly aware of the need to do everything in the school’s power to promote resilience and sound mental wellbeing at a time when young women are subject to unprecedented stress”. Yikes, I don’t think my teachers cared overmuch about my feelings. All you need to get the best is a good brain, hard work and the luck to be chosen for these attributes. So there we have it. The world changed but the school’s spirit was fought for, and was maintained.

We weren’t intellectual snobs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. How could you feel better than others in a world that had such a miserable, restricted view of girls and women? After a class reunion in 1983 I wrote there were enough brains in that room to power several countries. That, writes Pauline Curby, might be said of any St George generation.

Happy hundredth, funny old school. Funny old youth.

Header image: St George students, 1953. (Photo courtesy Shirley Stott Despoja)

@MollyFisher4

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