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Schrödinger's historian

In 1935, quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised the thought experiment known as 'Schrödinger's cat', which illustrated our fundamental uncertainty about the physical world. Today, Professor Emerita Marian Quartly is exploring our past with the same understanding - that 'truth' is entirely a matter of which side of the box you are on.

Marian might be technically retired, but she continues to make inroads into modern Australian history, taking on subjects like forcible adoption and the history of mainstream women's opinion over the 20th century.

The National Council of Women of Australia (NCWA) is helping fund the project on women's opinions (along with the Australian Research Council), which is fitting. As Marian says, 'in many ways, the NCWA represented the mainstream of feminism - at least until the 1970s and early 1980s when the women's movement split in all directions. Until then, however, it was very representative.'

Marian is also writing a history of adoption, which she describes as a 'huge project', ranging across all of Australia's states, and reaching from the early 20th century until today.

'It takes in all forms of adoption, right up to international adoption. We're in our third year out of the four years of the project.'

The adoption project is more than an academic pursuit - it will work towards giving a voice to the biological mothers of adopted children.

'Aboriginal children who were taken, and adopted, and put in institutions, have been apologised to. The families in general have been apologised to. Now the relinquishing mothers are trying to get an apology, and an investigation, out of the Senate. They're driven by the desire to make everyone in the community - particularly their children who they gave up for adoption - know that they didn't necessarily give them up voluntarily at all. The important thing is that they desperately don't want to be thought to have given up their babies voluntarily. And the validation of people's memories is actually one of the most important things that we can do.'

Marian is more interested in how the mothers relate to the past than the accuracy of their memories.

'You can get utterly different understandings of what happened in a process, and what the outcomes were, depending on who's looking at it and who's looking back, and what point they're writing from. It's wonderfully vexed - none of it is simple. That's why I don't really look for truth in history. I'm much more interested in what I can learn about what people feel and think when they tell their stories.'

She also acknowledges the 'democratic bent' she has in her approach to history:

'I've been increasingly interested in all the other sorts of history that are around us. Often the genealogists and local historians have a much better knowledge of the sources. I'm now actually in some genuine community projects: the Notting Hill Community Association (NHCA) and the Notting Hill History Group. We've brought out one little history already, which is basically recorded memories - we tape people, transcribe it and put it in a book, and we're trying to do more work like that. I'm actually at the coal-face now, which is good.'

Marian has a longstanding interest in the history of the family, which is why her planned magnum opus will be an essay collection on the changing nature of the family in late 19th century Australia.

'I think that there have been such enormous changes to what might be called a family over that period - in terms of gender roles, in terms of family size, in terms of family structure. I mean, what is a family? The notion of the family has changed, and the reality of the family has changed, demographically and every other way. That's what I want to get a take on.'

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Projects 2004 2013

Research Output 1998 2015

Respectable Radicals: A History of the National Council of Women of Australia 1896-2006

Quartly, M. & Smart, J. B. 2015 Clayton VIC Australia: Monash University Publishing. 497 p.

Research output: Research - peer-reviewBook

Open Access

Australian Women's Non-Government Organisations and Government: An Evolving Relationship?

Smart, J. & Quartly, M. 2 Oct 2014 In : Australian Feminist Studies. 29, 82, p. 347-351 5 p.

Research output: Other - peer-reviewArticle

The Australian National Council of Women: Its relations with government to 1975

Quartly, M. & Smart, J. 2014 In : Australian Feminist Studies. 29, 82, p. 352 - 365 14 p.

Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

Forced child removal and the politics of national apologies in Australia

Cuthbert, D. M. & Quartly, M. 2013 In : American Indian Quarterly. 37, 1-2, p. 178 - 202 25 p.

Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle