Woman Swain, Shurlee (1948 - )

Natimuk, Victoria, Australia
Academic, Historian and Social worker

Written by Rosemary Francis, The University of Melbourne

Shurlee Swain was born in Natimuk, Victoria in 1948. Her father was a grocer and her mother a teacher. In 1951 the family, which included an older sister, moved to Ringwood, in suburban Melbourne, where she attended the local primary and high school. She completed her tertiary education at the University of Melbourne BA (Hons), Diploma of Social Work and PhD (history) in 1977. On completion of her PhD she returned to social work in Geelong until the birth of her first child in 1977, having married in 1974. She was to have three children.

In 1978 she commenced her academic career as a tutor in Australian Studies at Deakin University, Geelong, working for Renate Howe. Later she undertook contract employment at the University of Melbourne which continued after she accepted a continuing part-time position lecturing in history at the Australian Catholic University (ACU) in 1991. This position became full time in 1998, and she progressed to a professorship in 2007. Work /family balance was an ongoing issue. Although her husband and mother were supportive, she felt a continuing responsibility for moulding her career around the needs of her children.

Shurlee was acutely aware of gender issues in the History Department at the University of Melbourne, both as a postgraduate student and staff member. Although she had topped the Honours List, she was not offered a scholarship to study in the UK as had been the custom. In her view the History Department, which men dominated, did not envisage women as the future of the profession. When she returned to the Department as an employee, however, she was a beneficiary of the changes wrought through the efforts of feminist academics such as Professor Patricia Grimshaw, who became an important mentor. The work environment was less oppressive at ACU where females were in the majority, although men were more numerous in senior positions. Swain has been a mentor for increasing number of history academics at ACU. Her commitment to feminist principles meant that she alerted her female colleagues to the gender issues that will inevitably arise with women always expected 'to do extra' if they are to be seen as committed academics (Interview).

Shurlee Swain exercised her leadership in different ways. In her local community she was Chair of the Playgroup committee and later the primary school council and served on the board of a local welfare agency. In career terms she demonstrated her leadership in her research capacity and ability to attract research funding through collaboration with a network of academic colleagues. Her research interests are in Australian social history, including social welfare, women's, family and indigenous history. In recognition of her contribution she was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 2007.

Swain's research has helped repair people's lives and to inform policy and service development, particularly in relation to Government inquiries into child migration, children in institutional care and forced adoption, as all of them make an appeal to history. Her contribution has served to validate the testimony of the victims of abuse. After presenting evidence at the request of an inquiry she witnessed the visible relief of victims when she could tell the inquiries that 'what they tell you is what happened' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Shurlee Swain interviewed by Rosemary Francis in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 12 December 2012, ORAL TRC 6290/34; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

See also