A deftly constructed mix of learned research and rollicking readability.
In 1915 a young woman by the name of Violet Wallace managed to enrol in the Engineering Diploma course at a Sydney technical college. The first woman in Australia to study engineering, she would go on to blaze a trail right until her death in the early 80s.
Violet became a lynchpin in the early years of domestic electricity, radio, signalling, and women in the forces. Her signalling school, situated in an old woolshed on Sydney Harbour, trained thousands of men and women to send and receive Morse Code. What is particularly remarkable is that she never accepted payment, and funded the entire school herself. When there was a shortage of male signallers during the Second World War, Mrs Mac fought for “her girls”, becoming instrumental in the birth of the WRANS, WAAF and AWAS.
Although Mrs Mac was awarded the O.B.E. in 1950 for her incredible service, she has since been largely forgotten by the general public: but never by the people she trained, nor those who worked with her.
David Dufty’s delightfully readable book paints a balanced and respectful portrait of a force-of-nature. It is also a journey into the history of the Australian forces, feminism, signalling, aviation, radio, and even Sydney herself. There is a fascinating fact in seemingly every paragraph. Dufty has had access to some of the people who knew Violet, ensuring that this never becomes a dry list of life achievements, and that Mrs Mac herself jumps off the page.
It is clear that Dufty knows how to tell a story, weaving related facts and references into a narrative that moves at a cracking pace. The only low point is the ending, which seems abrupt and in need of some kind of epilogue.
If you have any interest in communications, Australian history, the women’s movement, aviation, or militaria, this book will not disappoint. If you have never head of Violet McKenzie, you will fall in love with her by the time you turn the last page.
Oh, and Mrs Mac is forever honoured at the Australian National University, where there is now a Florence Violet McKenzie Chair at the College of Engineering and Computer Science (currently held by Professor Genevieve Bell).
If Mrs Mac were alive today, she would no doubt be a showing Bill Gates a thing or two.
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: April 2020