GALE, Gwendoline Fay. AO. BA, PhD, Duniv (Adelaide), Hon Dlitt (UWA). Honorary Fellow, 2001. 1978. Panel A.
(Deceased), 2008-03-05
Human geography

Fay Gale’s long and lasting love was the world and its geography. As a young dsylexic girl growing up in the South Australian towns that her father’s job as Methodist Minister took her, she enjoyed reading maps more than words. She was always interested in the evidence of the world around her - the immediate qualities of places and landscapes, the raw material of knowing, and of being there. She was an explorer and a formidable walker who loved to be on the move. The field trips she ran as a teacher at Walford Girls’ School in Adelaide (where Fay spent most of her life) and later at the University of Adelaide, were transformative experiences for her students. I was one of them and write as one would not be who I became were it not for Fay.

Like that of her close friend, Dame Roma Mitchell, many ‘firsts’ distinguished Fay’s life. Not all of them can be covered here, in spanning the disparate fields of university administration, Indigenous affairs, the advancement of women and juvenile justice. Among the ‘firsts’ that mark her contribution to Geography and the Social Sciences, she was the first Honours Geography graduate of the fledging Department of Geography at Adelaide University in the early 1950s. In turn, in 1962, she completed a PhD (under the supervision of Sir Archibald-Grenfell Price and Graham Lawton) to become the first female PhD graduate in Geography at that university. In 1978 she became Professor of Geography at the University of Adelaide, the first woman professor at that university and joining a handful of women professors nationally. She served terms as councillor and (first female) President of the Institute of Australian Geographers, Fellow and (first female) President of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and (first female) President of the Association of Asian Social Science Research Councils. In 1989 Fay was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to Social Science, particularly in the fields of Geography and Aboriginal Studies. This impact was also acknowledged in 2001 with an Institute of Australian Geographer’s medal in honour of Griffith Taylor – the experience of meeting whom, in 1952, she claimed determined her to become a professional geographer.

Fay’s influence on the thinking of many of the undergraduate and graduate students she supervised at Adelaide was profound. She might have felt a minority in the department in which she accepted a lecturing post after raising two young children, but her impact was lasting and far-reaching. With fierce determination, she promoted a new sort of Geography at Adelaide that stood at an angle to the prevailing scientific and quantitative modes of enquiry of the 1970s. In the vein of her mentor Anne Marshall, Fay’s self-styled synthesis of strands of Human and Physical Geography occupied the interface of ‘culture’ and ‘environment’. This was a Geography that in the Australian context had, for Fay, to acknowledge the continent’s distinctive geomorphology, biogeography and climate, but also had no option but to register the landscape imprint of the different cultural orientations of the people who populated it.

Fay’s holistic vision of the subject matter of Geography was not at the expense of an academic speciality. Her research and charismatic teaching set in train an influential ‘cultural turn’ in strands of Australian Geography. Fay convinced many of us - Jane Jacobs, Richard Baker, Joy Wundersitz, myself, to name only a few students - that people’s cultural orientations to the world in colonised settings like Australia could not be divorced from the workings of power and inequality. For Fay, Geography was a thoroughly material condition. With a commitment that did not crusade and a passion that did not preach, she provoked in many of her (even undergraduate) students an impulse to question the self-proclaimed superiority of colonial thought and rule in Australia. Fay’s was an intensely situated cultural analysis then, an insistently Antipodean one that sharpened the intellectual stakes of a critical Cultural Geography that a number of us carried forward.

Fay inspired in her creative thinking ‘with’ interfaces. Her work dwelt at the intersections of the physical and human worlds; the real and the humanly perceived worlds; and, in a little known but persuasive essay, the unlikely bedfellows of culture and science. There were other awkward intersections, too, from which Fay did not shy and on which her geographic imagination lighted – not least, the realms of ‘city’ and ‘Aborigine’. Her book in 1972 titled Urban Aborigines - that grew out of her PhD thesis on so-called part-Aborigines in South Australia (1964) - was an original exposition of people who moved to the cities after generations of restriction to isolated rural areas. These were people who did not fit the cherished anthropological mould of supposedly real Aboriginal people, by which was usually taken to mean the traditional people, the desert people. Fay had a more immediate interest in people like her three foster-sisters in suburban Adelaide - people who were not of a time ‘back then’ or a place ‘out there’. These neither ‘black’ nor ‘white’ people were living on the fringes of both those spatialised categories; at the edges of towns she visited (by truck) during the 1950s and 1960s - from Oodnadatta in the north of South Australia, to Bordertown in the south, to Yalata in the west. Fay was deeply motivated to study people she thought were slipping through the cracks of different worlds, to help them find a voice, and especially the mothers who had been stripped of their children by government policies of forced removal that Fay came to publicly condemn and help reform. Praise be, she lived long enough to hear the ‘sorry’ word uttered officially some 40 years after her scholarly and policy interventions.

Fay’s themes, then, embraced a wide range of academic disciplines - Geography, Anthropology, Sociology, History, Politics, Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies and Cultural Studies. Her ‘intersectional thinking’ made her a consummate social scientist. Just as she was interested in the double disadvantage of ‘mixed descent’ people, so did her work on the complex lives of contemporary Aboriginal women register the additional identity marker and positioning of gender. Her work in the 1990s with Joy Wundersitz (and others) on the over-representation of young Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, combined quantitative and qualitative data to expose race, as well as class, bias in the administration of justice in South Australia. And when Fay became a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1978, she lost little time working the role out of Canberra to convene some important multi-disciplinary research with the Australian Academy of Science. Leading teams of social and natural scientists into remote parts of Australia, Fay conducted field-based observations and interviews with tourists at Aboriginal rock art sites in Kakadu, Uluru, Broken Hill, the Flinders, Kuringai Chase, and the Burrup Peninsula in the Kimberley. Ever the pragmatist, her work with Jane Jacobs on the protection of cultural property in an age of tourism struck a balance between allowing tourism access, ensuring sites were not damaged, and guaranteeing that Aboriginal people participated meaningfully in the management plans adopted. A fully engaged type of scholarship, her work on National Parks informed her own policy input as a Commissioner with the Australian Heritage Commission between the late 1980s and mid-1990s.

Fay’s gift with networking extended internationally to include the role of chairing the Asian Association of Social Science Research Councils (AASSREC, 2001-2004). During this time of retirement she continued to publish, serve on advisory boards for a range of causes, and accept appointments to the Prime Minister’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council, the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, and the Australian Research Council (among others). Fay was also very active after retiring from the posts of Vice Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (1990-1997) and presidency of the Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committee (1996-1997), in the role of President of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1997-2000). Fay worked hard to encourage the multi- disciplinary character and scale of Academy workshops, while also seeking to strengthen the policy impact, funding base, and gender balance of the Academy Fellowship. Fay was an energetic facilitator, bringing together scholars from ASSA and AASSREC at this time to work on UNESCO-funded projects about the Asia Pacific region.

By way of concluding, I offer some words to evoke the person that was Fay Gale. It is hard to measure the benefit that is gained from being exposed at an early age to a woman who teaches, organises fieldtrips, advises the government, manages staff and budgets, publishes, lectures, runs an international conference, supervises graduate students, applies for grants to do still more, and yet whose door remained open to all. It is only as one moves further along one’s own academic career that it is possible to grasp the extent of Fay’s achievements. Part of the key to her success was her exquisitely-tuned mix of personal and professional qualities. For me, these were compassion together with coolness; her willingness to empathise, but also to know when to detach; a matter-of-fact pragmatism combined with a deep respect for ideas and scholarship; a steely strength that was gracious; a charisma without pretension. From the creek-bed on the undergraduate excursion, to the lecture theatre at Adelaide, to the Aboriginal mission at Hermannsburg on an Honours field trip, to her office in Perth as UWA’s Vice Chancellor, to the lobby of the Canberra hotel where she stayed while presiding over the Australian Vice Chancellor’s Committee, to the Paris headquarters of the UNESCO National Commission for Social Science whose Australian sub-committee she chaired, to the airport lounge where she and I worked on Inventing Places (1992), she shaped the direction of my life, as she did so many students who went on to pursue a range of professions. Fay leaves an inestimable legacy that is not possible to squeeze into mere words here. I write for countless others in thanking and paying tribute to her.

For further information and a list of Fay Gale’s publications see:

Kay Anderson, FASSA

Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the numerous colleagues and friends of Fay, especially Jane Jacobs, Joy Wundersitz and Sue Richardson whose inputs helped me strike the tone and content of this piece.