Woman Daniels, Verna Kay (1941 - 2001)

17 June 1941
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Historian and Public servant

Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Kay Daniels was a leader in the history profession, who made a significant contribution to Australian history, especially women's history, social history and colonial history.

Verna Kay Daniels was born in Adelaide on 17 June 1941, the first child of tramways worker Norman Daniels and skilled dress-maker Jean Daniels (née Fulwood). She was raised in a working-class culture dominated by sport and Methodism.

Daniels began her education at St Morris Primary School in Adelaide, where her academic ability was recognised early and she graduated as school dux. She then attended Norwood High School in Adelaide, excelling in academic studies, as well as sport (tennis and hockey). In 1957 she was awarded the University of Adelaide's Annie Montgomery Martin Medal and Prize for Modern History in the Leaving Certificate examinations. Daniels studied at the University of Adelaide during the glory days of the History Department, where she was taught by Ken Inglis, Peter Phillips, Ian Turner, George Rudé and, the then Head of Department, Hugh Stretton. She also undertook teacher training at the Adelaide Teachers' College. After graduating in 1963 with a BA (Hons) in history, she briefly taught at Clare High School, South Australia. Daniels was awarded the University of Adelaide's prestigious George Murray Travelling Scholarship, which enabled her to undertake doctoral studies in England. Following Stretton's advice, she eschewed the more usual choice of the University of Oxford, instead opting for the University of Sussex in Brighton, England-a new university at the time. She wrote an interdisciplinary thesis on literature and society in England in the 1890s entitled '"New Grub Street" 1890-96: Publication of Novels', supervised by labour historian Asa (now Lord) Briggs and literary critic David Daiches and examined by the great cultural studies scholar, Raymond Williams, at Cambridge.

In 1967 Daniels was appointed lecturer in history at the University of Tasmania, where she continued to teach until 1988 and exercised an ever-widening influence. Daniels was influenced by the British social history movement. Teaching 'history from below', she focused on the experiences of ordinary, often marginalised, people, investigating how they exercised agency and became politically conscious. Daniels taught and published widely in the fields of women's history, social history and colonial history and developed an early women's history course and a new Master of Humanities degree. At the University of Tasmania, she inspired several generations of devoted students to research in colonial history and, in particular, in heritage history. Amongst Daniels students were writers Amanda Lohrey and Richard Flanagan, historian Vicki Pearce, and town planner Greg Young. Marilyn Lake was also involved in Daniels' Hobart feminist history circle in the early 1970s, which produced the radical feminist newsletter Liberaction, edited by Daniels and Shirley Castley.

Daniels fostered interest in Tasmanian history, making a significant contribution to preserving the material culture. Notably, she was a leading figure in the fight to preserve Hobart's Cascade Female Factory and the forgotten wharf-side district of Wapping. The Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies was proposed by Daniels in 1984 to promote research by encouraging and assisting publication of research and providing professional advice to researchers. When the Centre was established, Daniels was acknowledged as it co-founder.

The need to address women's under-representation in history remained a driving imperative in Daniels' scholarly career. With a grant funded from the International Women's Year project, she designed and supervised a project that set out to unearth in Australia's official archives all materials relating to women. The resulting publication, Women in Australia: an annotated guide to records, co-edited with Mary Murnane and Anne Picot, was published in 1977. The first published bibliography of women's history in Australia, Women in Australia did much to open up new research in the field. In 1979, she co-authored, Uphill all the Way, a documentary history of women in Australia. In 1984 she published So much hard work: women and prostitution in Australian history, and in 1998, Convict Women, a study of the experiences of convict women in Tasmania.

Daniel's interest in Australian studies and history led to her policy work in the Commonwealth Department of Communications and the Arts in Canberra. In October 1984 she was appointed by the then Minister of Education, Senator Susan Ryan, as full-time chair of the Committee to Review Australian Studies in Tertiary Education, taking leave from her academic position to undertake the task. The resulting report, Windows into Worlds, led to the establishment of many Australian Studies centres, and to the increased Australian content of much of tertiary education. Daniels was subsequently appointed by Cathy Santamaria to a senior position in the Department of Communications and the Arts, and moved permanently to Canberra in 1989. She provided intellectual leadership in cutting edge areas such as cultural policy, intellectual property and copyright, including moral rights and indigenous rights, all matters of vital importance. Daniels was also the principal intellectual force behind the 1993 cultural policy statement Distinctly Australian, and also had significant input into its successor Creative Nation.

Daniels was awarded an adjunct professorship at Macquarie University, due to commence in March 2002. However, terminal illness intervened, preventing her from taking up this position. The University of Tasmania conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) shortly before her death in 2001. In 2002 the School of History and Classics, the University of Tasmania established the Kay Daniels Prize in Social History. In 2003 The Kay Daniels Award was established to honour her work as a historian and public servant. It is a biennial award, sponsored by members and associates of the Australian Historical Association, the University of Tasmania and the Port Arthur Historic Site.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Damousi, Joy, 'Kay Daniels, convict women and 19th-century Tasmanian history', Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 16, 2011, pp. 37-45. Details
  • Evans, Caroline, 'Kay Daniels: Her Teaching and its Legacy', Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 16, 2011, pp. 47-53. Details
  • Roe, Jill, 'Kay Daniels: 1941-2001', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 33, no. 119, 2002, pp. 186-189. Details

Online Resources