Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting

Elaine Polglase

Quakers are told to live adventurously.  Elaine was living adventurously long before she ever knew about Quakers – although like many people, when she discovered Quakers she realized “I have been a Quaker all my life; I just didn’t know it”.

When Elaine left school at the age of 15 she was expected to marry and live a fairly predictable life.  In fact she never married, and was one of those who blazed the way for women in many fields which had been considered beyond their capabilities.

Elaine’s first job was with the post office in the overseas telephone exchange.  It was interesting work as the telephonist was expected to listen to the conversations and advise speakers when their time was up!  She found adventure in travel.  In the 1950s she hitch-hiked around Europe – always dressing well in order to get better quality lifts!  She took the Ghan to Alice Springs, and visited New Guinea, staying in a village without vehicles, radio or electricity.

During the 1950s and 60s Elaine was a volunteer visitor at the Far West Children’s hospital which treated children from the far west who needed long-term treatment – sometimes lasting for years.  As some children had no friends or relatives in Sydney, and their parents could not afford to visit, the hospital visitor was the only person who could give them individual attention.  Later, when she went to work in New Zealand, Elaine missed the children so much that she became a visitor at the Beramphore Orphanage, taking the children on trips to the zoo or the pictures.  Again, these were children who received very little individual attention, although most did have a parent who visited from time to time.

In 1956 Elaine went to New Zealand to work for the NZ Post Office.  While she was there she saw an advertisement for people to train as Assistant Air Traffic Controllers in the new Wellington Airport.  In response to her application she received a very curt reply, which made her so angry she rang up to protest.  As a result she was given a job – the first woman to work in this field in New Zealand.  The equipment used at that time was radar, the telephone and the teleprinter.  The Air Traffic Controllers were taken flying during which they acted as radio operators to understand the pilot’s perspective.

After doing this job for 4 years she returned to Australia and applied for similar work.  She was told this was not a woman’s job, even though she had good references.  So at the age of 35 Elaine went to TAFE to study Personnel Administration, and eventually got a job with CSR as a Safety Officer.  One of the questions she was asked at the interview was whether it would worry her if she had to go to a meeting and was the only woman present.  She was able to reply, “I belong to an Astronomical Society.  I am the only woman member and I am the President.”  CSR owned a number of factories, mines and even cattle and sheep stations.  Elaine travelled around giving safety training based on the history of accidents at that place.  She quickly learnt to identify work place hazards, often to the surprise of those who had walked past them every day without noticing.

Elaine says her interest in astronomy came from her father, who was a seaman.  One of her great pleasures was travelling to watch solar eclipses, of which she has seen seven in various parts of the world.  Her other great interest is embroidery.  (It seems unlikely that a man has so far been the President of an Embroiderer’s Guild!)

Elaine’s family were not religious, but Elaine always felt the need of a spiritual life.  As her parents were nominally Anglican, she started going to the Anglican Church, but it was a high church and she felt her musical talents were not up to the sung service.  When her brother married a Presbyterian she started going to the Presbyterian Church with her sister-in-law, and found this more to her liking.  While in New Zealand she became an elder in the church – this was before the Australian church appointed female elders.  Elaine was not entirely comfortable with the role, which involved home visits.  The purpose of these visits was pastoral care, but those visited often thought they were being checked up on!  Later, when she became a Quaker elder, she was more comfortable with the role.

Elaine discovered Quakers through another interest – bird watching.  On a birding trip to Lamington National Park she met Helen Linacre.  At this time Elaine says she was “tired of being preached at”.  It wasn’t the content of the preaching that annoyed her, but the assumption that one person should always talk and the others always listen.  She was interested to hear how Quakers worshiped as equals, and she came to Quakers bringing with her a rich load of experience.

In addition to acting as an Elder, Elaine coordinated Quaker Learning for Wahroonga Meeting and was on the library committee. In her eighties she transferred the library catalogue onto the electronic database. She employed a tutor who came to her unit to assist her with anything she did not fully understand about the database or any other computer matters. She also was the FWCC representative for several years and visited other Meetings to present about FWCC. She enjoyed going to Yearly Meeting and to continue conversations year after year with Quakers from around Australia. She continues to attend and contribute to Wahroonga Meeting.

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