It’s Biography Week at the State Library of NSW and so today on 2SER Breakfast with Tim Higgins we delved into the Dictionary to reveal the extraordinary life of Florence Violet McKenzie, Australia’s first female electrical engineer. You can listen to the podcast here.
My first encounter with Violet McKenzie was through my retro Sydney cookery book collection. I was blown-away when I read about her life in the Dictionary of Sydney. Cookery was really just a small part of a wider agenda for this ambitious, driven woman.
Born in 1890, Florence Violet McKenzie (nee Granville) became fascinated by electricity at a young age, playing with batteries and light globes. After graduating from Sydney Girls’ High School, Florence tried to study for a diploma of electrical engineering at the Sydney Technical College at Ultimo, but was told she couldn’t enrol unless she ws working in the trade. So she printed some business cards, scanned the newspapers for electrical jobs, scored a contract in Sydney’s west, and returned to the college with the proof. She was duly enrolled and became Australai’s first female electrical engineer when she graudated in December 1923. Her diploma is held in the collection of the Powerhouse Museum.
In 1922 Violet, as she was know, opened The Wireless Shop in the Royal Arcade and later published The Wireless Weekly with three other collaborators. The Wireless Shop was the place to be for Sydney’s radio experiments and hobbyists. At this time she also became the first Australian woman to take out an amateur radio operator’s license, and she was also the first female member of the Wireless Institute of Australia.
In the 1930s McKenzie turned her attention increasingly to teaching other women about electricity and radio. She embraced electricity whole-heartedly, believing that electricity could save women from domestic drudgery. To this end she founded the Electrical Association for Women in 1934. Two years later she compiled the first “all-electric cookbook” – a copy of which I have in my Sydney cook-book collection. A real classic!
McKenzie is best known for her volunteer war effort. She set up a signal instruction school, the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, initially for women to teach them telegraphy so that they could replace men in this reserved civilian occupation. But such were Mrs Mac’s teaching skills, that during World War Two over 12,000 servicemen were also trained in morse code. The training of female telegraphists ultimately led to the establishment of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service – the WRANS.
We have a lot to thank Mrs Mac for. She was a talented and strong woman, who led by example, and used her abilities to transform the lives of thousands of people. While she would never have called herself a feminist, she worked tirelessly to educate and train women and improve their everyday domestic lives. To the end she was proud ot the contribution she made to women’s technical education. Two days before she died in 1982 she told a friend: “it is finished, and I have proved to them all that women can be as good as, or better than, men.”
The Dictionary of Sydney collates and connects the stories of many fascinating Sydneysiders – why not browse through our list of people mentioned in the Dictionary and discover more about Sydney’s communities. Happy Biography Week!