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Eileen Daphne Gollan (1918–1999)

by Susan Magarey

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Eileen Daphne Gollan (1918–1999), feminist, historian, and activist, was born on 4 May 1918 in Birmingham, England, youngest of three children of Welsh-born Marjorie Emmeline, née Gold, and her husband English-born Montague Morris, munitions worker. The family migrated to Australia in the 1920s and faced difficult times after 1929: Daphne’s father and siblings lost their jobs, her mother died of cancer in 1931, and she and her brother suffered from tuberculosis in 1934. Growing up in the Depression had ‘radicalized [her] for life’ (Gollan 1980, 315). She was sent to a Catholic school as a weekly boarder but was expelled for refusing to subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Her early radicalism was influenced by her father who ‘had worked his way from High Church of England through Protestant fundamentalism and Lloyd George liberalism to a humanist socialism, pulling my conservative mother and the family after him’ (Gollan 1980, 314). She won a bursary to Sydney Girls’ High School where she won prizes, and, following her family, at twelve became ‘consciously a socialist’ (SLNSW MLMSS 8042).

In 1937 Morris began studying at the University of Sydney (BA, 1941), taking classes in English, history, and philosophy. She also started working as a library assistant at the Mitchell Library (1937–44). The next year she joined the Communist Party of Australia, both because the communists seemed ‘the only political organisation which actively stood for socialism and opposed fascism,’ and because she found it ‘shocking and conspiratorial’ (Gollan 1980, 316). When the National Youth Parliament formed in 1941, she was a founding member and secretary. On 10 May 1941 she married Robin (Bob) Gollan, a schoolteacher and fellow communist, at St Philip’s Anglican Church in Sydney. In 1943, with her husband away on war service, she arranged attendance at a day nursery for their son and returned to work.

Gollan found employment with the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia as a librarian in the research department (1945–47), a post which included being one of the official transcription stenographers for proceedings of the Balmain ironworkers’ strike in 1945. Later she would transform that experience into an analysis of those events, published in Labour History (1972). When her son started school, she worked with the New Housewives’ Association as assistant secretary (1948) and secretary (1948–49). She accompanied her husband to Britain where he worked (1950–51) on a doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Returning to Australia, they settled in Canberra in 1953 when he accepted a post at the Australian National University (ANU).

First noticed by police in the early 1940s for her political activity, Gollan was considered by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) to be a security risk. This meant that in 1953 she was denied employment at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library, despite the chief librarian, (Sir) Harold White, being ‘particularly anxious to appoint her’ (NAA A6119, 677). The following year she secured a job at the ANU as a library assistant. At the same time, she studied Russian at Canberra University College, with support from her employer. She began to read widely in the history and politics of the Soviet Union, which reinforced her growing disillusionment with ‘a highly authoritarian elitist form of Marxist commitment’ (Gollan 1980, 328).

Having held various positions in the university, Gollan resigned in 1961 to become a full-time student at the ANU (MA, 1967) with a scholarship stipend. Her scholarly and linguistic abilities enabled her to become an ANU postgraduate exchange scholar to Moscow State University (1962–63). Back in Canberra she wrote her thesis, ‘Bolshevik Party Organisation in Russia, 1907–12,’ an analysis of its growing authoritarianism, which helped frame her critique of Communist Party hierarchy.

In 1966 Gollan was appointed as a tutor in history, and in 1970 was made a lecturer. She and her colleague, Bruce Kent, transformed a survey course on European history into a new ‘Modern Revolutions’ course, a thematic study of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements and regimes in France, Russia, and China. It was popular with students, who coupled their classroom analyses with various radical social and political campaigns, including ‘the student education campaign’ of 1974, which ultimately led to the establishment of a women’s studies course.

A founding participant in the Canberra Women’s Liberation group in 1970, Gollan was one of its senior intellectual adherents. She offered the personal example of a woman gaining a lectureship at a time when such an achievement was difficult. Her contributions to discussions were invaluable, she wrote often hilarious minutes of the meetings, and, as a brilliant cook, frequently shared home-made cake. She provided important expositions on anarchism for a conference in 1975 and insightful analyses of the inadequacies of Communist Party assumptions about gender relations, and the nature and operation of families. In the 1980s she marched with the Women Against Rape in War, wearing a conservative coat and skirt, a contrast with the other protesters who were mostly undergraduate students.

In 1983 Gollan retired from the ANU and returned to Sydney. Joining the newly formed Greens, she ran unsuccessfully for the seat of Sydney in the House of Representatives in 1984 and for election to the Senate in 1987. Her marriage had ended in divorce in 1967. Later that decade she formed a passionate and political relationship with Nick Origlass, a Trotskyist and trade unionist. They shared a commitment to participatory democracy, socialism, and environmental protection. Though their relationship continued until his death in 1996, he remained married to his wife Joan. Gollan and he had fortnightly weekend trysts, which she described as ‘very frolicsome’ (Greenland 1998, 239), in a cottage on the edge of Mittagong.

On 4 October 1999 Gollan died at Glebe, survived by her son, Klim, and daughter, Kathy, and was cremated. A learned and witty lecturer, a warm, wise, and generous colleague, and a stirring orator, she had been at the heart of an array of political actions from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. Her storytelling gift lives on in a memoir, first delivered at a 1978 conference where, as a colleague Julia Ryan later recollected, ‘she was a consummate performer’ (Kent, Ryan, and Magarey 2000, 10). An episode in this work displays her irreverent humour: when the Communist Party was declared illegal at the outbreak of World War II, members were required to invent false names. Rather than a commonplace pseudonym, she invented an unforgettable one, ‘Cleopatra Sweatfigure’: ‘There was a pause,’ she recalled, ‘then the comrade from the Central Committee said, “That’s enough, comrade. We are not joking. This is a serious matter”’ (Gollan 1980, 318).

Select Bibliography

  • ANU National University Archives. AU ANUA 19-3939, Gollan, Daphne
  • Gollan, Daphne. ‘The Memoirs of ‘Cleopatra Sweatfigure.’ In Women, Class and History: Feminist Perspectives on Australia 1788–1978, edited by Elizabeth Windschuttle. Melbourne: Fontana, 1980: 313–329
  • Greenland, Hall. Redhot: The Life and Times of Nick Origlass 1908–1996. Sydney: Wellington Lane Press, 1998
  • Kent, Bruce, Julia Ryan, and Susan Magarey. ‘Obituary: Daphne Gollan 4 May 1918–4 October 1999.’ Australian Feminist Studies 15, no. 31 (2000): 7–31
  • Magarey, Susan. Dangerous Ideas: Women’s Liberation—Women’s Studies—Around the World. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2014
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 677
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 678
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 8042, Daphne Gollan papers, ca. 1918–2002, with the papers of Bob Gollan and Nick Origlass

Additional Resources

Citation details

Susan Magarey, 'Gollan, Eileen Daphne (1918–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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