Kath Watson Scholarship for Women a fitting legacy for champion of education

Dr Kathleen Watson AM

Dr Kath Watson AM is no stranger to struggle. Scholarships helped her gain an education and become one of Victoria’s first female principals of a co-ed high school. Now a scholarship in her name is helping other women in need.

“I was born in 1927, a child of the depression. My father was a soldier in World War I and ex-servicemen’s families were seriously affected by the depression. Things were really tough.

I started school in 1932. I didn’t have much chance of going to university, but my parents had a strong view about the importance of education, especially for girls. They encouraged me to keep going.

My brother Tom is a couple of years older. He was brain damaged at birth. My parents wanted to make sure he was safe so they sent me off to school early to look after Tom, even though I was not yet five. In those days there were no provisions for people with a disability. We had a very good life together – I looked after him all his life.

I won a junior scholarship which paid my high school fees. I decided to become a teacher. A teaching scholarship saw me through my Bachelor of Arts Degree and Diploma of Education on the condition that I was bonded to the Education Department (sounds like serfdom, doesn’t it?) to teach in Victoria.

I became an active member of the Victorian Teachers Union and we fought for permanency for married women. In those days, if a woman was single and then decided to get married, she had to resign. She could return a week after the honeymoon but was no longer entitled to a permanent position. We then agitated for equal pay for equal work, which was eventually phased in over five years by 1970.

"I’m so impressed with all the women who have received the scholarship. Recognition is very important for women, especially for women who've had a tough life."

I decided to apply for principal positions late in 1969, as these were now open to women in co-ed high schools. I was fighting for equality and I knew I was just as entitled to these positions as men. I became principal at Collingwood High School and eventually principal of Mitcham High School (now Mullauna Secondary College).

My association with Swinburne began in 1992 when I was asked to represent the outer eastern region on the Swinburne Council. I was very impressed with Swinburne’s attitude to staff and students and their support for disadvantaged people.

Tom died thirteen years ago. With no close relatives, I decided to leave my estate to set up a scholarship for disadvantaged women over 25 years of age to study at Swinburne, and the Kath Watson Scholarship for Women was born.

I’m so impressed with all the women who have received the scholarship. Recognition is very important for women, especially women who have had a tough life. They struggle against all odds to get a tertiary education. Swinburne has now included the scholarship as a part of its annual appeal, and donations come in from all sorts of people.

After I retired from teaching I was nominated to become a Member of the Order of Australia (AM). Many people left messages of support, including the caretaker of one of the schools I worked at. They were so pleased for me and I was 'just a teacher'. More recently Swinburne has given me an honorary doctorate. I’m overwhelmed. I’m quite happy to wear this Swinburne pin, as it says what I think about Swinburne."