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Think big in small moments: A sociologist inspired by ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Dorothy Broom, one of 40 women selected by ANU’s Gender Institute as one of ANU’s Inspring Women.

Emeritus Professor Dorothy Broom is an acute observer and a teller of emblematic stories in which the personal and professional are powerfully fused.

Now at the University’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, she is forever mining her personal background and experience for flashes of illumination and insight into research questions which she weaves into her writing whether recounting personal experience on the subject of breast cancer, or revealing personal struggles on the subject of mothering, or admitting to performance anxiety when writing about international trade agreements.

Dorothy will view any subject from the inside out before flipping the view and doing so many times for clearer focus. Her mirroring and telescoping view of the world is that of a sociologist – which came as a surprise to her.

Dorothy’s rebellion against her sociologist father ended with her becoming a sociologist in-spite of herself. “I was determined I wasn’t just going to follow in the paternal footsteps but I discovered when I took sociology courses as an undergraduate that I think like a sociologist and I’m interested in sociological questions.”

To her, thinking like a sociologist means, “when I look at an issue or an event, something that’s going on in the world and sometimes even how an individual is behaving, I want to know what is it about the social context that generates that.”

Despite the position of observer that sociology necessitates, Dorothy is not dispassionate and has always aimed for “a kind of continuity between the inside and outside.”

“Every once in a while I think I have achieved congruence between my deepest values and commitments and how I operate as an academic and as an activist,” she reflects.

Dorothy’s sense of social justice was evident early: she recalls a time in the early 1950s visiting her maternal grandparents in east Texas. “We went into a department store and there were two drinking fountains, one said ‘white’ and one said ‘coloured’. I was about four. “Oh, coloured water, cool!” and I wanted to drink out of that fountain because I thought it would be a rainbow, instead of regular old clear, ‘white’ water.”

Her high school years in Austin, Texas, were comparatively liberal by comparison, but even so there was segregation. “I found it outrageous, incomprehensible, how could this be?”

“The movie theatre where we went was segregated and so a number of us boycotted the theatre.”

Dorothy’s father was Leonard Broom whose area of speciality was socio-economic stratification and race and ethnicity or what the Santa Barbara Independent called, in its obituary (he died aged 98 in 2009), a “life-long interest in social inequality and discrimination against minorities”. In 1955, Leonard Broom and Philip Selznick published a bestselling introductory sociology text that was prescribed for decades in many American universities. He is also credited with being an active and influential voice in the development of sociology in Australia.

Leonard spent more than a decade in Australia as a research fellow, honorary fellow and professor emeritus at ANU. Dorothy was first introduced to Australia as a school girl boarding at Canberra Girls Grammar. Remembering this takes her back to her first year of high school in 1958 and further inequity that she encountered: the Protestant/Catholic divide in Australian society.

“I just didn’t get it. What were they talking about? I wasn’t going to ‘dis’ people because they were Catholic,” she recalls.

While Dorothy absorbed her father’s sociological bent, her parent’s relationship – his dominating career and personality, her mother’s supporting role – converged with her early feminism to strengthen her determination to chart her own course. It was her mother, Gretchan, who surprised her by indicating that she was not to become a hostess to somebody else’s life.

“I think I was about to clear the table,” she explains, “while my dad and a colleague were having a conversation that I was involved in, and my mum said, no, I was not to do that, I was to continue on with my conversation. The implicit message was, ‘you are a participant in that conversation and you’re not to abandon it for domestic duties.’”

“That single remark alerted me to how subtle it can be, how easy it can be to fall into a secondary role, or how a million little things can eventually add up to a secondary role that was never intentionally chosen. It’s not always a matter of a major, conscious decision: ‘I’ll be a housewife and mother and not have an independent life.’ It may never have been a big choice like that.”

Gender equity has remained central to Dorothy’s academic and professional life. Academically it is seen in her work in the Women’s Studies Program in the 1980s, in her research on women’s health centres and examination of the gender dimension in population health. Professionally it is evident in her nurturing of a work culture that supports women through an understanding of the multiple demands often placed on them and valuing their ideas as well as their outputs. She has guided, mentored and sustained women as they advance in their careers. This achievement was acknowledged by ANU in 2012 when Dorothy was recognised as an International Women’s Day ‘champion’ .

Leonard remained a large presence throughout Dorothy’s life but she feels that he changed substantially in later life. “When I was growing up,” she recalls, “he was pretty didactic, he knew the truth and he told us.” But then something happened.

“My son Robin was born while they were living in Canberra and I think it was that little boy who had a lot of influence. He was a bit intimidated by his grandfather but he was not about to be silenced by him as a lot of other people were, including my brother and me.”

“Robin would just look at him and his eyes would fill with tears and he would say, ‘Leonard you shouldn’t have did it,’ and I think that toddler got through to his grandfather.”

Leonard began to converse. “During the last 20-or-30 years of his life, he would ask me questions and be clearly, genuinely interested in the answers. He wasn’t telling, he was asking and that was really powerful.”

Dorothy’s father and her parents’ relationship (not so much her mother per se because while “a great mum she was so much in his shadow”) were clearly a huge influence on her. But, otherwise, her life does not throw up the more usual range of mentors, influencers and inspirational figures.

“I think that my guides and mentors are not famous people; they’re people whose lives shine in a certain way, not because they tick off achievements but because of how they live and who they are. And most of what matters in the world is done by apparently ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

For Dorothy, these are people who achieve what she herself strives for: their “inner life and outer life are congruent. ”

To explain, Dorothy tells a riveting story, ordinary in setting, but ringing with inspiration. She was on a train in America and a violent altercation took place in the corridor by her roomette. Paralysed with fear she didn’t, couldn’t, intervene. A man was injured. Back in Australia, the incident had such a powerful effect on her that she spoke about it to her Canberra Quaker meeting.

It unleashed the most extraordinary sequence of stories, from witnesses, participants and perpetrators, all, thought an astonished Dorothy, from a community of people who have a commitment to non-violence.

Among the stories, one woman told Dorothy of an experience similar to her own but with a different ending. The woman was on a commuter train and there were two men in the aisle, yelling at each other and squaring off for a fight.

The observer was a very small woman but she got up and stood in between them. “I thought big!” the woman said.

“Oh, you knew you would be safe!” said several people listening to her story. “No! I didn’t know anything,” she said, “I didn’t think, I just did it!”

“The image of her, this little pip-squeak of a woman between a couple of big guys who were getting ready to land some punches was really powerful for me,” Dorothy says.

Then, about a year later, there was an episode on an O’Connor footpath in which a couple of men were hurling insults and beginning to push each other around. “I was right there, and there was just a split second when I thought, ‘I’m not going to just walk on by, I’m not going to stand here and watch this happen’. So I stood in between them, just because I had that image of my small friend doing it.”

“It was a brief moment in her life and a brief moment in my life, except that I was shaking for hours afterward. But no punches were landed. It was hugely empowering for me: a small act of peacemaking, inspired by someone else’s example.”

This, then, is what inspires Dorothy – the courage to turn values into action.
Written by Garry Sturgess and published with the kind permission of the Australian National University’s Gender Institute