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Woomera’s women : rolls and roles of film : camera operators on the Anglo-Australian rocket range 1947-1970.

Barber, Stella M. (2020) Woomera’s women : rolls and roles of film : camera operators on the Anglo-Australian rocket range 1947-1970. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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With the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, Australia hosted with the UK one of the few global centres dedicated to the research, development and testing of rockets, jets and other long-range weapons, including Britain’s atomic warheads. By the mid 1950s a new purpose-built town had been constructed in the Australian desert, named “Woomera”, with a population of 7,000 at its peak. No expense was spared in establishing the testing grounds, laboratories and infrastructure – which included a security cleared film laboratory and production facilities at Salisbury near Adelaide – to support the Anglo-Australian Joint Project’s research and experimentation.

This dissertation examines pioneering work undertaken by women at Woomera and Salisbury within the context of Australia’s broader social history. Women’s roles at Woomera were initially expected to be traditional – supportive wives and mothers. My research features the women who undertook new roles operating the sophisticated kinetheodolites and Vinten cameras that filmed and tracked the rocket firings, and the women referred to as “computers” who assisted in the pre- and post-production process, including data evaluation. Previous studies of Woomera (e.g., Morton, 1989, Southall 1962) exclude any detailed mention of this industrial phenomenon – women as camera operators and data analysts/computers. My dissertation addresses this significant gap in the literature as the first systematic oral history of these secret Cold War undertakings.

The gendered aspects, political economy and unique cohort of this research radically challenges the normative assumptions concerning Australian women and workplaces during what is commonly perceived of as a conservative era. Recent scholarship (e.g., Shetterly 2016) in the United States and the United Kingdom has highlighted work of female mathematicians during World War II and the space race. Given the age of these trailblazing women, it is timely that due attention be given to Australia’s “hidden figures”.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences
United Nations SDGs: Goal 5: Gender Equality
Supervisor(s): Broderick, Mick, Gibson, R. and Williams, D.
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