Woman Kirkby, Diane Elizabeth


Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Diane Kirkby is a leader in the history profession, who has contributed to labour history, US and Australian women's history, cultural history, and the field of law and history in Australia and New Zealand.

Kirkby was born in Walgett NSW, the second of three daughters born to Eric David Kirkby and Marjorie Victoria Gramshaw. Her father came from a pastoral family in Moree, NSW, and had served in the Middle East during Second World War. Her mother was a trained nurse who had done a second certificate in obstetrics at Crown Street Women's Hospital in Sydney, and then gone bush nursing. They married in Sydney in 1945 and, two years later, took up a soldier settlement block, grazing sheep and cattle in far north-western NSW. There Kirkby began her formal schooling, in correspondence lessons supervised by her mother. Her childhood in the country was mostly spent outdoors, helping with the sheep when needed, and immersing herself in books her mother borrowed from the Bush Book Club. At six she went away to boarding school, first to the Church of England Girls School at Tamworth and then to the Presbyterian Ladies College, in the Sydney suburb of Pymble. Holidays were often spent travelling to and from Sydney, and enjoying the beach and other attractions of city living. She completed her secondary education at Camden High School where her father's failing health had forced his retirement.

After being awarded her BA from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 1972, Kirkby embarked on a career as a librarian. She holds a professional certificate in librarianship from the Sydney Technical College, and for several years worked as a children's librarian before taking on work at the UNSW Library and as a research assistant to Frank Crowley, head of the School of History. This was the start of Kirkby's academic career. From UNSW she moved to the University of Sydney, undertaking research work for John Manning Ward who invited her to tutor part-time in US history. She holds an MA on comparative US and Australian history (1976) from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she also did her doctoral studies and was awarded her PhD for her thesis Alice Henry: the National Women's Trade Union League of America and progressive labor reform, 1906-1925 in 1982. She was inspired to undertake women's history by attending the first Women and Labour Conference at Macquarie University in 1978, and presented her first academic conference paper at the second Women and Labour Conference, held in Melbourne in 1980.

Following her return to Australia, Kirkby worked for a time tutoring in Economic History and as a researcher in Industrial Relations at the UNSW, before commencing a fixed-term appointment as a Senior Tutor in Legal Studies at La Trobe University in 1982. There she worked closely with Christopher Tomlins and Ian Duncanson, who with Wilfred Prest from the University of Adelaide, in 1982 organised the first Law and History conference held in Australia. This was the spark which ignited a new field. The conference became an annual event. Kirkby convened the next five conferences until she went on maternity leave in 1988 and the conference moved away from La Trobe. In 1985 Kirkby was awarded a Fulbright post-doctoral fellowship to return to the US for further research on US women's working history, which she spent at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In that project Kirkby led the way for historians in using photographs and visual sources as texts (Labour History, 1991) a methodology she elaborated in analysis of cinema (Australian Historical Studies, 2006) and subsequently incorporated in her teaching of US history and art history.

From 1989 to 1990 Kirkby was a Lecturer in History and then held a Research Fellowship for Women with Career Interruptions at the University of Melbourne, a position she resigned to join the History Department at La Trobe in 1991. She continued her involvement in the development of the field of law and history, as a founding member of the executive of the Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society from 1994, in subsequent conference organising (most notably the Empires/Colonies/Legal Cultures conference in Melbourne in 1998); in editing collections of the conference papers and publishing anthologies; in attracting and supervising postgraduate students; and in her own research with Hilary Golder on married women's property reform in Australia. After her several contract positions she gained tenure in 1994, and was promoted to Professor of History at La Trobe in 2008.

Kirkby is the author of Alice Henry, the power of pen and voice: the life of an Australian-American labor reformer (1991), which won the WK Hancock Prize awarded by the Australian Historical Association; Barmaids: a history of women's work in pubs (1997); Voices from the ships: Australia's seafarers and their union (2008) short-listed for the Frank Broeze Prize in Maritime History; and The Australian pub, with Tanja Luckins and Chris McConville (2010). She is the editor of Sex power and justice: historical perspectives of law in Australia (1995); Law, history, colonialism: the reach of empire, with Catharine Coleborne (2001); Dealing with difference: essays in gender history and culture with Patricia Grimshaw (1997); Dining on turtles: food feasts and drinking in history, with Tanja Luckins (2007) and Past law, present histories (2012). Her publications also include Hidden lives: stories of everyday Australia: family life in the 1880s: women in World War II, with Katie Holmes (1997). She is working on two further books, To Sydney via Suva: the trans-pacific life of journalist Jennie Scott Griffiths, and, with Alice Garner, a history of Australian-American Fulbright scholars.

Kirkby has held a C.H. Currey Fellowship from the State Library NSW and visiting Fellowships at the Humanities Research Centre, State University of New York at Stonybrook, and Wolfson College Oxford. She was Vice-President (1995-1996) then President of the Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society (1997-2001), Secretary of the Australian Historical Association (1996-1998), National Convenor Australian Network for Research in Women's History (1996-1998). She was a Member of the State Selection Committee of the Australian Fulbright Commission Victoria (1995-2000). She was co-editor of Australian Historical Studies (2009-2011), is currently editor of the Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society E-Journal, and has served on the Editorial Board of Law and History Review (1999-2013), the Australian Journal of Legal History (1995-2005) and the New Zealand Performance Based Research Fund, Humanities and Law panel 2003-12.

Kirkby was elected to the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia in 2005 and the Australian Academy of Humanities in 2011. Her partner is Alexander Hyslop; they have a son (b. 1986) and a daughter (b. 1988).

Additional sources: Personal communication between Diane Kirkby and Sharon M Harrison, July 2013.

Published Resources

Edited Books

  • Who's Who in Australia, Crown Content, Melbourne, Victoria, 1927 - 2013. Details

Online Resources

See also