Doctor of Laws
15 February 2006 - Orator: Professor Harriet Bradley
It is often said that women act as the glue that holds communities and families together. If so, then Ellen Malos must be seen as Araldite or Loctite! It would be hard to find a better case of an engaged citizen than Ellen: she has been an exemplary servant to the city of Bristol and the University. And in another way Ellen’s life is a fascinating illustration of changes our society has experienced in the postwar epoch: the opening up of educational access to the meritorious, the gradual achievement of rights for women, and the patterns of international migration which are making this a multicultural world.
Ellen was born Ellen Scarlett in Ballarat, a gold mining town in Australia, of a family of Anglo-Celtic emigrants who in Ellen’s words were ‘respectable working class’. Her father was a skilled glazier and decorator and active in the labour movement; aged twelve he was involved in a newsboys’ strike! Her mother was a knitwear operative before giving up work, as was the custom of the time, to raise five children, of whom Ellen was the oldest.
Ellen was the first member of her family to go to university, fired by a love of books kindled by libraries at Methodist Sunday school and primary school. She applied for a bursary of £50 to Victoria State Education Department to help pay for clothes and books, and in return she had to pledge to work as a schoolteacher when she finished. She progressed to Melbourne University to read English and History and won a prize for her dissertation on Australian novelist Patrick White.
Thus began her journey from Ballarat to Bristol. It was while she was attending an Australian Student Labour Federation conference that she met a tall, dark Greek-Australian, John Malos, who became her husband. John was a trained engineer, but was fired on the spot when his political affiliations were discovered so he returned to complete a PhD in Physics at Sydney University.
Ellen soon discovered at first hand the problems of being a married women and wishing to work in the 1950s and 1960s, when a marriage bar still operated in some occupations. She was interviewed for an academic post but was asked how she intended to combine her ‘two jobs’. She replied that she didn’t regard marriage as `a job’; and unsurprisingly, didn’t get the post. Subsequently she took up supply teaching, while working towards an MA. Although she was teaching, as this was in New South Wales, she had to pay back to Victoria the two bursaries and a third of her university studentship. So, in her own words, she was ‘sort of bought by my husband from the state education Department of Victoria’.
Frustrated by the bureaucratic and political constraints of the Australian university system which were hampering both their careers, John obtained a fellowship in the Physics Department at Bristol in 1962, which then became a permanent post and Ellen found herself settling down for a new life in Bristol far from both their families. The idea was that she should complete a PhD on James Joyce and William Faulkner, but when she had her first child, Robert, it was indicated to her that it was ‘preposterous’ to carry on. There was no University Nursery in those days and the prevailing attitude was that a woman should stay at home and look after her children. However, though she eventually abandoned her PhD after the birth of her second child, Anna, Ellen did not become a typical ‘university wife’. Instead, fired by her own experiences she became part of the expanding Women’s Liberation Movement, attending its famous first conference at Ruskin College in 1970.
Madame Chancellor, it is not an exaggeration to say that Ellen became the hub of the thriving Bristol Women’s Movement in the early 1970s. The basement of her house in Waverley Road became the Women’s Centre where meetings of all sorts took place. It also became a refuge for women who were victims of domestic violence, the first of its kind in Bristol. On Saturdays the same space functioned as a pregnancy testing centre (in the days before home testing kits). After two years of campaigning the group acquired and managed three houses. So Bristol Women’s Aid was born.
The group took part in various other campaigns, including the fight for contraceptive rights, and support for low-paid working women such as the Ford machinists and the night cleaners. They produced briefings, newsletters and a journal called Enough, many of these being run off on a duplicator in the Women’s Centre. Ellen describes a typical week for herself during this period; ‘I would be going down to meetings, say three or four times a week. The phone would ring and somebody would come in at 11 or 12 o’ clock, 3 or 4 in the morning. I would go down and give them cups of tea, settle them in, whatever. It did become very much a life, more than a job, I suppose a vocation really for a while. There were vast numbers of people involved. The mailing list must have been 4 or 5 double-sided pages of A4’.
At the same time Ellen was caring for her two young children as well as doing part-time teaching jobs and extramural evening classes. She and John were stalwarts of numerous campaigning groups, such as the Labour Party and CND. (When I was an undergraduate I remember meeting them at the house of the then Professor of Econometrics, Alan Brown, where various bright young academics congregated; they made a striking and impressive couple, these two strong talented young Australians).
Her work with Women’s Aid and the adult teaching drew Ellen inexorably back to Bristol University. She had already collaborated on a book, Half the Sky. This was an introduction to Women’s Studies, although it is rumoured that the University Library once catalogued it under astronomy! Her love of learning undiminished, she took a Diploma in Social Administration wishing to strengthen her work as a practitioner with theoretical knowledge. She returned as a paid worker for Women’s Aid, but felt the desire for more intellectual stretching and in 1981 secured her first temporary teaching contract at the university. Many more were to follow. In 1984, together with Gill Hague another women’s refuge worker, she won a grant to study housing authorities’ responses to women with domestic violence problems. This was the start of a long collaboration and much valuable research into an area which had previously been academically ignored; it was funded by many agencies, including the Home Office. The work led to the establishment in 1990 of the Domestic Violence Research Group, which has gone from strength to strength. Ellen continued to work with Women’s Aid in an excellent example of city and university collaboration, helping them to secure funding when it was threatened. She also taught Social Policy and on the Masters programmes in Gender and Social Policy and Women’s Studies. Among her many publications, a classic was her edited collection The Politics of Housework which was a mainstay of my own Women’s Studies teaching at Sunderland University.
Madame Chancellor, it appears shocking to us now that Ellen did not get a permanent post at Bristol until she was sixty, after some 18 years’ service. Her contribution in the University community had been wide-ranging: from union activism, culminating in a year as President of the AUT Branch, to membership of Senate. She worked committedly to solve the problems of contract researchers, while innumerable people have benefited from Ellen’s support, kindness and steadfast friendship. At the end of her career she was finally rewarded with promotion to Senior Lecturer and remains an Honorary Senior Research Fellow.
Despite the scepticism of her early tutors, Ellen has always balanced her working life, with being a devoted mother and family linchpin, deeply involved in the lives of Rob and Anna, who are happily here today, and paying regular trips to her mother, brothers and sisters in Australia. A great sadness was the sudden and unexpected death of John in 1995. However, Ellen faced up to his loss with characteristic courage and determination; she has maintained the house they owned in Cythera, and keeps in touch with his family. She is active in Bristol in the Anglo-Hellenic Society though she tells me her Greek remains imperfect: when she tried to buy a screwdriver in Cythera, the shopkeeper was surprised to be asked for a crayfish!. An exciting new project involves collecting life-histories of these two diasporic families, British and Greek: a return to her old love, history, but also typically a new adventure for Ellen.
Madame Chancellor, I commend to you Ellen Malos, Women’s Aid pioneer, campaigner for Women’s Rights, Community Activist, Teacher and Scholar as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.