Florence Violet McKenzie, who would later take on the name Mrs. Mac by her students, was the first female electrical engineer in Australia and founder of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. McKenzie trained thousands in emergency signaling before, during and after World War II and remained a lifelong supporter of women pursuing education in technical fields.
Violet was born in 1890 as Violet Wallace. She was the second child of Marie Annie and James Granville, both of whom were English born. Her father James died when she was young and so when her mother remarried in 1894 to George Wallace, Violet too adopted George’s name.
Violet received her early education at the Girls’ Public High School in Sydney and initially enrolled in the University of Sydney where she passed both Chemistry and Geology. Then, Sydney Technical College invited Violet to move to Ultimo and pursue an Electrical Engineering diploma, which she became the first woman in Australia to be awarded in 1923.
Beginning a Career and Breaking Down Gender Barriers
In 1921, while Violet was studying, she purchased and ran a radio sales and repair shop in Royal Arcade, Sydney. This is where she met Cecil Roland McKenzie, who was one of her customers. The two fell in love and got married in 1924.
In addition to becoming the first woman in Australia to win a degree of its kind, she also became the country’s first female certified radio telegraphist and first woman member of the Wireless Institute of Australia.
She didn’t stop with simply becoming the first woman to hold these roles though. In 1934, Violet founded the Electrical Association for Women. The Association helped women use electronic kitchen and other modern appliances, learn about electronic safety, attend meetings and more. She also published several books and essays about using electricity while cooking, children’s safety with electricity and she even corresponded with Albert Einstein.
World War II
With war approaching, McKenzie joined the Australian Women’s Flying Club where she served as treasurer. She also trained women pilots to use Morse code and recognized the need to train women as wireless telegraphists and in 1939, Violet and Cecil formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. Before the war even began, McKenzie had trained nearly 1,000 women. She went on to train another two thousand. Despite public resistance to women joining the forces, a third of McKenzie’s students did. In 1941, she was appointed an honorary flight officer in WAAAF for her work.
After the war, she went on teaching and by 1952, she had trained 2,540 civil airline crewmen and 1,050 merchant navy seamen. Despite being highly regarded and producing well trained students, her school was never officially recognized.
In her later years, McKenzie closed her school and was appointed OBE. Later, in 1964, she served as the patroness of Ex-WRANS Association.
McKenzie, or Mrs. Mac as her students called her, died 1982. She spent her life helping others--from elevating women in the field of technology, to helping the Allies during the war by making sure armed forces were properly trained in emergency signaling. Her persistence, interest in her students and passion toward advancing women in technological fields made an impact and are remembered.