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Eileen Daphne Gollan (1918–1999)

by Bruce Kent

from Australian Feminist Studies

Daphne Gollan, by Mike Finn, 1977

Daphne Gollan, by Mike Finn, 1977

ANU Archives, 1885/144862

It is with utter desolation that I record here that Daphne Gollan has died.

Others have done much to capture Daphne, so I am, with their permission, reproducing here an obituary by Bruce Kent—Daphne’s much-loved friend and colleague— published in the Canberra Times (and in shortened versions in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age), and another by Julia Ryan—a leading Canberra feminist—published in Capital Women.

I want to add something of my own, too. I’ll do that after the others. — Susan Magarey


Daphne Gollan: Historian, Feminist and Participatory Democrat
Daphne Gollan began her career as a history teacher at the Australian National University in 1966 when she was in her forty-eighth year. Her appointment to the History Department reflected Professor Manning Clark’s practice of recruiting talented people with variegated backgrounds and divergent political outlooks. The remarkable reputation which she acquired before she retired to Sydney in 1984 was founded on her elegant and witty lecturing style and her warmth, wisdom and generosity of spirit in day-to-day contacts with students, colleagues and feminist groups. Her ‘libertarian socialist’ views also resonated with the anti-authoritarian climate of the 1960s and 1970s. It is unlikely that the intellectually demanding, but popular, year-long theme courses she taught could be offered in the semesterised and managerialist universities of today.

The outlook and personal qualities that Daphne Gollan brought to the ANU in those halcyon days were well honed before she joined the staff. Insight into her earlier life is provided by her sparkling autobiographical essay ‘Memoirs of Cleopatra Sweatfigure’. There she recollected that ‘she considered herself a socialist’ from the age of twelve because of the onslaught of the depression on her ‘respectable poor’ family of recent English migrants. In the early 1930s her father lost, never to retrieve, his job and meagre savings; her older siblings were unemployed for prolonged periods; her mother died of cancer without being able to farewell her family, which had scattered in search of work; and Daphne herself contracted tuberculosis.

Apart from instilling into her a lifelong distaste for the capitalist system, these experiences forged a sardonic humour in the face of adversity. During a friendship of over thirty years I learned that there was no such thing as flu; that the cancer which afflicted her late in life had been contained by ‘slash and burn treatment’; and that a subsequent series of debilitating strokes simply entailed learning how to ‘fall elegantly’.

Many children would not have reacted so robustly to misfortune. Daphne had, in fact, already revealed an independent cast of mind when she was expelled from a genteel Catholic boarding school for refusing to subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Sydney Girls High School, where she frequently topped her year and which she remembered so fondly, proved far more congenial to such a free spirit.

The sluggishness of the recovery from the depression, and the sympathy of the western democracies for the fascist and authoritarian regimes in Germany, Italy and Spain in which workers, liberal intellectuals and minorities were repressed, predisposed Daphne, in common with many of her thoughtful contemporaries, to communism. On the eve of the Munich crisis in 1938, when she was a twenty-year-old employee of the Mitchell Library and ‘staggering through’ an Arts degree as an evening student at Sydney University, she joined the Party. She did so, she records, not because of any particular affinity for the Soviet Union, but because the Communists seemed ‘the only political organization which actively stood for socialism and opposed fascism’. Part of the attraction of the Communist Party was also, she admitted, that she found it ‘shocking and conspiratorial’.

Although Daphne was to remain a Party member until the 1970s out of loyalty to her dwindling band of comrades, she was as sceptical about democratic centralism (‘Stalinistspeak’ for unquestioning obedience to the Party line) as she had been about transubstantiation. A number of experiences reinforced her transition to libertarian socialism, or even anarchism. In 1945, some years after marrying Robin (Bob) Gollan, a budding historian of the Australian labor movement, she left the Mitchell Library to work in the Research Department of the Ironworkers’ Union. Here she witnessed a growing confrontation, which she was to chronicle meticulously in later years, between the rebellious ‘Trotskyist’ rank and file of the Balmain Branch, led by her future soulmate, Nick Origlass, and the Communist union leadership, which rigged ballots and insisted on rigid labour discipline in support of the ‘anti-fascist patriotic war’. She subsequently witnessed the rigours of Stalinism in the early 1950s when she visited Eastern Europe, but not Russia. After Bob was appointed to the ANU in 1952 Daphne took her first steps towards investigating the situation in the Soviet Union by learning Russian under T.H. (Harry) Rigby. By 1962 she was sufficiently  fluent to venture as an ANU exchange student, at the age of forty-four, to Moscow State University, where she read the works of nineteenth century Russian populist thinkers. On her return she published a bleak report on the life of foreigners studying in Moscow, and stressed the obstacles to any meaningful contact with Russian students. Her preoccupation with exploring the tension between the Soviet leadership and the Russian masses was reflected in her mid-1960s MA thesis which analysed the growing authoritarianism of the Bolshevik Party between 1907 and 1912.

In 1966 Daphne was appointed by Manning Clark to contribute the Russian component of a traditional survey course on modern European history which I was teaching. By the late 1960s we had transformed the unit into a thematic study of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements and regimes in France, Germany and Russia. One of its objectives was to show how revolutionary leaders divorced themselves from, and sometimes repressed, the masses who had propelled them into power. Another was to shed light on the role of women in precipitating the French and Russian revolutions. Such matters could only be explored effectively in a full-year course. Because Departments still had control over how they imparted their disciplines it was possible to run a complementary honours seminar which analysed the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary thinkers of the countries under scrutiny. This attracted a most impressive body of students, many of whom have become academics or distinguished themselves in other fields.

Success bred success. Before long, Wang Gungwu, the distinguished Chinese historian, and David Marr, a leading authority on the Vietnamese revolution, added substantial Chinese and Vietnamese segments. By this time it had become necessary to divide the course into alternating units specialising on advanced nations such as France, Germany, and Spain or less developed societies like Russia, China and Vietnam. It is difficult to say who was responsible for this pedagogical ferment, since everyone contributed. Two things are certain. The Modern Revolutions enterprise would have been unthinkable if Daphne had not joined the Department; and it did not survive her retirement in 1983. By then, of course, the era of semesterisation and managerialism was dawning. Soon very few staff or students would have the time or the temerity to collaborate in such stimulating courses.

In the course of the 1970s Daphne’s attention had, in any case, become divided between the problem of authoritarianism in the public sphere and that of patriarchalism within the family, which she now regarded as the major obstacle to achieving an egalitarian society. Her historical insights and experience of left-wing politics helped to ensure that Canberra’s first Women’s Liberation Group, which she joined in 1970, eschewed hierarchical organisational structures. Although she assumed no formal leadership role, her ‘Cleopatra Sweatfigure’ memoir has been an influential reference point since it was presented to the first Women and Labor Conference at Macquarie University in 1978. She also provided crucial support to the successful campaign of ANU students for a Women’s Studies Programme; and she was to be seen marching with the Women against Rape in War, wearing a conservative coat and skirt, on Anzac Days in the 1980s.

It was in character that, after her retirement to Sydney, Daphne would become a Greens candidate, pledged, among other things, to demolishing the monorail, in the federal elections of 1984 and 1987. Even more predictable was her close personal and political liaison with Nick Origlass, the scourge of the Communist hierarchy of the Ironworkers Union, who used his power base in Leichardt’s Athenian-style ‘open’ Council to channel the opposition of local residents to property developers. When Nick, the orchestrator of the participatory democracy for which she longed, succumbed to a stroke in 1996, the light went out for Daphne; and she became increasingly frail—if outwardly crack-hardy—until she suffered a fatal heart attack while reading her morning newspaper on 4 October.

Daphne Gollan doted on young people, in whom her hopes for a better society resided. She pampered her students, and was always available to counsel them individually. Colleagues who had reservations about such solicitude were themselves subverted by her outrageous hospitality. Surviving her gourmet dinner parties was like keeping afloat in heavy surf. The courses kept rolling in, like waves, in sets of three. The unwary guest was in danger, to use one of her expressions, of sinking without trace. Such has not been Daphne’s fate. She, and her project of an egalitarian and participatory democracy, will live on in the minds of the thousands whose lives she has touched.

Daphne is survived by her former husband Bob, her children, Klim and Kathie, and her grandchildren Sophie, Dashiel, Rosa, Matilda and Isobel.

Original publication

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Citation details

Bruce Kent, 'Gollan, Eileen Daphne (1918–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

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