Woman Fitzpatrick, Kathleen


Written by Susan Foley and Charles Sowerwine, The University of Melbourne

Kathleen Elizabeth Pitt, or Fitzpatrick as she later chose to call herself, was born on 7 September 1905 at Omeo, Victoria, second of four children of Henry Arthur Pitt, civil servant, and his wife Gertrude Augusta, née Buxton. Kathleen grew up shy and lacking self-confidence but resolutely feminist. She recalled that her education-at Loreto Convent (Albert Park and Portland), Presentation Convent (Windsor) and Lauriston Girls' School-largely lacked stimulus. At the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1926) she studied English and history. As taught by (Sir) Ernest Scott, history enlarged her imagination and academic ambitions. Scott, whose first wife was the daughter of the English birth-control reformer Annie Besant, was, according to Fitzpatrick, 'a confirmed feminist and he practised almost positive discrimination in favour of women students, because he knew that we lacked self-confidence and needed support' (Fitzpatrick, 'A Cloistered Life', p. 122). At Melbourne, Pitt also became an editor of the new student newspaper Farrago, and was active in student societies ranging from the Literature to the Melbourne University Labor clubs.

With Scott's support, Pitt proceeded to the University of Oxford (BA, 1928; MA, 1934). She found her fellow students and indeed the whole institution snobbish and contemptuous of women, and she miscalculated the effort involved in completing a second degree in two years instead of three, with the result that instead of the predicted first-class result, she received only a creditable second. She was forever convinced that this meant that she was no academic. But, as she noted: 'My time at Oxford aroused my latent feminism and made it conscious' (Fitzpatrick, 'A Cloistered Life', p. 122). She remained a conscious feminist for the rest of her life. In 1958, as Associate Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, she gave a prestigious address discussing the role of women, in which she explicitly acknowledged her reading of Simone de Beauvoir's work The Second Sex, which had been translated in 1953 but which had still not entered mainstream culture.

Scott restored her confidence and found her a stopgap lectureship at the University of Sydney (1929). There followed a tutorship in English at Melbourne, from which she resigned to marry Brian Fitzpatrick in 1932. The marriage was over by 1935 and they were divorced in 1939. She began a business course at Melbourne Technical School and was soon teaching typing and commercial English there.

In 1938, Fitzpatrick returned to tutor English at the University of Melbourne. Then Scott's successor, the young Professor R. M. Crawford, intervened: in 1939 she was appointed a lecturer in the department of history. It is, however, indicative of the all-pervasive sexism of the day that she felt it necessary to reassure Crawford about her commitment to the position would not be reduced by any domestic temptations: 'My situation now is that I have no children, have been separated from my husband for more than a year and have my full time and undivided attention to give to my work. I think this is the information you were seeking when you asked me if it was my intention to devote myself seriously to academic work' (Grimshaw and Carey, 'Foremothers', p. 354).

Fitzpatrick was a watchful, sympathetic teacher with presence, elegance, wit and theatricality. She held her audience firmly, without apparent effort, and moved at a gentle pace suited to her packed audiences of first-year students. But she undervalued the scholarship implicit in her teaching. She also carried heavy and varied administrative responsibilities, particularly during Crawford's extended periods of ill health. In World War II she was president of the Council for Women in War Work. She supported the foundation of University Women's College (1937), University House (1952) and the university Staff Association (1944). A foundation member (1956) of the Australian Humanities Research Council, she also served (1960-67) on the interim council of the National Library of Australia.

Fitzpatrick was promoted to senior lecturer (1942) and associate professor (1948). But when, in the early 1950s, a second chair in history was created for which it was widely expected Fitzpatrick would apply successfully, she refused. The cumulative effect of defeats from the Oxford time on and of the general disparagement of women academics had taken their toll. Lack of time and accessible sources limited her publications, but she was also demoralised by a series of apparent false starts. A planned textbook was stillborn when another historian got in first, and her confidence in her generally well-received Sir John Franklin in Tasmania (1957) was ruined by one savage review.

In 1962, tired, frustrated, and distressed by the impact of an academic dispute on her department, she justified early retirement by her wish to complete a long-cherished study of Henry James. Its rejection by publishers devastated her. A commissioned history of Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne (1975), gave her a new project, and her memoir, Solid bluestone foundations (1983)-which she thought lightweight-achieved sustained success. In 1964 she served on a committee to advise the State government on the site for La Trobe University and from 1971 to 1975 she sat on the council of the University of Melbourne. She was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws (1983) by the university and in 1989 was appointed AO.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick died on 27 August 1990 at East Melbourne and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery with Catholic rites. From her estate, sworn for probate at $2,747,031, she left a large bequest to the University of Melbourne Library to buy books. Her greatest legacy was one she refused to recognise: the enduring influence of her lectures. Appropriately, an annual lecture is given in her name.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection

  • Papers of John Andrew La Nauze, 1911 - 1990, MS 5248; National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • Anderson, Fay, An historian's life: Max Crawford and the politics of academic freedom, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Victoria, 2005. Details
  • Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, Solid bluestone foundations and other memories of a Melbourne girlhood, 1908-1928, Macmillan, South Melbourne, Victoria, 1983. Details

Book Sections

  • Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, 'A Cloistered Life', in Grimshaw, Patricia and Strahan, Lynne (eds), The Half-Open Door: Sixteen Modern Australian Women Look at Professional Life and Achievement, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, New South Wales, 1982, pp. 118-133. Details

Edited Books

  • Anderson, Fay and Macintyre, Stuart (eds), The Life of the Past: the discipline of history at the University of Melbourne 1855-2005, The University of Melbourne: Department of History, Melbourne, Victoria, 2006. Details

Journal Articles

  • Grimshaw, Patricia, and Carey, Jane, 'Foremothers: Kathleen Fitzpatrick (1905-1990), Margaret Kiddle (1914-1958) and Australian History after the Second World War', Gender and History, vol. 13, no. 2, 2001, pp. 349-373. Details

Online Resources