Tribute to Australian Women in History

Published: 3/11/2022

Throughout the years, Australian history has seen some fiercely passionate, powerful and inspirational women who have been pioneers for women's rights, equality and racial justness and who have helped cement a path for careers in aviation, literature and politics.

We take a look at 14 famous Australian women who will forever be remembered for being pioneers in a world dominated by their male peers and who should remind us of the endless potential there is in all of us.

Miles Franklin (2nd from left). Image collections of the State Library of NSW.
Miles Franklin (2nd from left). Image collections of the State Library of NSW.

Fanny Cochrane Smith | 1834 - 1905

Tasmania born Fanny Cochrane Smith was taken from her parents when she was only five years old and fostered. Spending her childhood in white homes and institutions, she later became a domestic servant at Wybalenna Aboriginal settlement where she and others suffered abuse.

After Wybalenna closed, Fanny and her family were transferred to Oyster Cove where she later married an English lawyer and ex-convict. Together they ran a boarding house in Hobart on their 100 acres of land given to Fanny as a grant from the government for compensation to Aboriginal people.

On her property she hosted Church in her kitchen until she donated some of her land to the community to build a church. Very aware that she was the last person on earth who knew her native language, stories and songs, she gave recitals and danced across Tasmania to protect it.

Best known as an Aboriginal linguist, Fanny Cochrane Smith will be forever remembered for her commitment to preserving her family's heritage, culture and history.

Renowned Tasmanian Aboriginal singer Fanny Cochrane Smith recording into a newly invented Edison phonograph in Sorell, early 1900s. Copyright Libraries Tasmania/Archives: Arch Rollings Collection.
Renowned Tasmanian Aboriginal singer Fanny Cochrane Smith recording into a newly invented Edison phonograph in Sorell, early 1900s. Copyright Libraries Tasmania/Archives: Arch Rollings Collection.

Dame Nellie Melba | 1861 - 1931

Dame Nellie Melba is an Australian operatic soprano who rose to international acclaim during the late Victorian era and early 20th century.

Performing on some of the most prestigious opera-house stages in the world she was the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician.

Passionate about opera from a young age she entertained Melbourne crowds with her voice and piano playing. With a perfect pitch and a natural ability to entertain, she eventually embarked on a professional tour in Victoria in the mid 1880s before taking to the stages of Europe where she found international fame.

Edith Cowan | 1861 -1932

Edith Cowan is one of the faces on the Australian fifty dollar note which commemorates her achievement as the first Australian woman to serve as a member of parliament.

Dealt a sad childhood, when Cowan was six, her mum died in childbirth and ten years later her depressed, alcoholic father shot his second wife and was hanged for her murder. These life experiences saw Cowan encourage women in Perth to broaden their knowledge and read books by American feminist authors. By the late 1890's her name was synonymous with the women's suffrage movement in Western Australia.

At the start of the new century, Cowan helped establish the Children's Protection Society and Children's Court in 1907 and became the first woman appointed to its bench in 1915. Cowan then went on to become one of Australia's first female justices of the peace in 1920 and in 1921, aged 60, she became the first woman to be elected to parliament. This was a huge achievement considering she advocated for state kitchens, child payments to mothers and childcare for working mothers.

Vida Goldstein | 1869 - 1949

Vida Jane Mary Goldstein was an Australian feminist and social reformer who helped women gain the right for vote. One of four female candidates at the 1903 federal election, it was the first that women were eligible to stand and although she lost the election, she continued to fight for women's rights. Her efforts paid off and women were finally given the right to vote in 1908.

Goldstein ran for federal parliament in 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1917 however lost on every occasion. These moments of defeat didn't define her though and she continued to fight for men and women to have equal pay and equal property rights.

Her commitment to equality also took her internationally, attending the International Woman Suffrage Conference in the US in 1902. She wasn't afraid to give speeches to huge crowds in England in 1911 and was asked in 1919 to represent Australian women at the Women's Peace Conference in Zurich, Switzerland.

Great suffragette demonstration in London : Mrs Andrew Fisher, Mrs McGowen and Miss Vida Goldstein from Australia
Great suffragette demonstration in London : Mrs Andrew Fisher, Mrs McGowen and Miss Vida Goldstein from Australia

Louise Mack | 1870 ...

Marie Louise Hamilton Mack was an Australian novelist, poet, journalist and children's writer. Travelling to Europe during the First World War Mack served as the first women's war correspondent and is best known for her writings and involvement during this period. She was also the first Australian to study the Germans so closely, on one occasion, while under shell-fire for over 2 days, she was courageous enough to pass through German blockades to reach the city of Brussels.

Her brave efforts earned her much fame back home in Australia and many would gather in Australian streets and theatres just to hear her story.

Muriel Matters | 1877 - 1969

Muriel Lilah Matters was an Australian-born teacher, journalist, educator and actress who campaigned for the right of women to participate in all social matters by having a right to vote.

Championing women and children's rights and living standards, Matters had an enormous contribution in the suffrage movement in the UK. A moment in 1909 Matters was particularly remembered for was when 'that daring Australian girl' made worldwide headlines after organising a 25 metre balloon with 'Votes for Women' written in large letters to be flown across the skies of London.

Votes For Women Airship 1909
Votes For Women Airship 1909

Miles Franklin | 1879 - 1954

Stella Maria Miles Franklin, or known simply as 'Miles' in life, is one of Australia's most celebrated writers and feminists best known for her published novel My Brilliant Career in 1901.

Franklin grew up on her family station in NSW and being a gifted child she was encouraged by her family, tutors and teachers at school towards her passion for literature. Franklin, who although lived a happy childhood, didn't like the idea of domestic conformity that her mother and others were forced to play and was determined not to waste her talents and instead strived for a career.

Like female authors before her, Miles had to fight for value in the masculine dominated world of literature and publishing. Following her success with her first book it was only upon her move to America in 1906 that she would find her voice again.  Returning to Australia in the 1930s Miles re-entered the literature scene where she remained active for the remainder of her life - her very happily, unmarried life.

Elizabeth Kenny | 1880 - 1952

Sister Elizabeth Kenny profoundly changed the lives of polio sufferers and helped advance rehabilitation medicine.

A self-trained nurse in the Australian bush, she developed new methods for treating patients of poliomyelitis. Her techniques challenged the conventional treatments at the time, which created conflict between her and doctors. Eventually, medical professionals compromised their beliefs, incorporating her treatment as 'The Kenny Method' becoming regarded as best practice to treat polio until a vaccine was distributed in 1955.

You can read Sister Elizabeth Kenny's full length tribute here.

Sister Elizabeth Kenny with patient in Queensland polio clinic. Picture: Supplied
Sister Elizabeth Kenny with patient in Queensland polio clinic. Picture: Supplied

Fanny Durack | 1889 - 1956 and Mina Wylie | 1891 - 1984

Australian swimmers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie were the first Australian women to become Olympic champions after winning gold and silver in the 100m freestyle - they were also the first women in the world to win medals for swimming.

Not an easy achievement for the pair, they were told they shouldn't appear in competitions where men were present, added to the fact that Australian officials said there was no money left to send them to the games, it was left up to a massive outpouring of support from the community that raised them the funding. A moment that changed their lives and the world of womens swimming forever.

Maude Bonney AM, MBE | 1897 - 1994

Maude Rose "Lores" Bonney, was an Australian aviator who set world records for flying and is most famously known for being the first woman to fly solo from Australia to Britain.

After only one year of flying lessons, Bonney flew from Brisbane to Wangaratta in 1931 breaking records in both time and as the longest distance ever flown by a woman on a single flight. She also became the first woman to circumnavigate Australia in 95 hours total air time - even surviving a mid air collision in the process after a plane flew too close trying to allow its passengers to take her photo.

In her most heroic flight she became the first ever person to fly from Australia to South Africa in 1937 which was a journey of more than 29,000km.

Maude Bonney among many honours in her life was inducted into the Australian Aviation Hall of Fame, appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire and Member of the Order of Australia.

Maude Bonney was the first woman to fly from Australia to England solo.
Maude Bonney was the first woman to fly from Australia to England solo.

Margaret Tucker MBE | 1904 - 1996

Margaret Lilardia Tucker was an Aboriginal Australian activist and writer who was one of the first Aboriginal authors to publish an autobiography in 1977.

Forcibly removed from her parents when she was 13, Tucker was taken to a girls training school to be trained as a domestic servant before she was finally reconnected with her own people when she was 18. Fondly remembered for her beautiful singing voice, during the war years, her voice helped her organise social occasions for the Aboriginal community where she performed in a group to raise funds for the war effort.

Tucker began her political life in the mid 1930s with the Australian Aborigines League, becoming treasurer in the 1950s. In the 1960s, together with her sister, they were instrumental in forming the United Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women - the first national body for Indigenous Australian women.

Margaret Tucker's biography, If Everyone Cared, was the first to shine a light on Aboriginal life stories and the difficulties Aboriginal people faced growing up in the early years of the 20th century.

Gladys Elphick MBE | 1904 - 1988

Gladys Elphick was a Kaurna woman of Ngadjuri descent and is best known as the founding president of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, which later became the Aboriginal Council of South Australia in 1973.

Known to the community as Auntie Glad, the council became the centre from which many important social changes took place. Early work led to the establishment of a medical service, legal service and an Aboriginal Community Centre.

Respected and loved by all who knew her she was recognised in 1971 when appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and also named South Australian of the Year in 1984.

Beryl Mills | 1907 - 1977

Beryl Mills, became a household name after she became the first woman to win the inaugural Miss Australia Quest pageant in 1926. A national role model, she was a beauty queen, a librarian and thrived as an advertising agent in a male dominated industry. What makes Mills such a great woman is that although she could have walked through life with her looks and fortune, she still strived to be the best woman she could be.

You can read Beryl Mill's full length tribute here.

Beryl Mills in her new Chrysler convertible. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales.
Beryl Mills in her new Chrysler convertible. Photo care of State Library of New South Wales.

Ruby Payne-Scott | 1912 - 1981

Ruby Payne Scott was one of the first radio astronomers in the world. An extremely gifted physicist, mathematician and engineer she was a trailblazer for working women in Australia during the 1940s.

Australia's contribution to physics would not be where it is today without Payne-Scott's exceptional talents and pioneering efforts and her success in the face of discrimination was nothing short of inspiring. Her legacy has a great deal we can certainly all draw from.

You can read Ruby Payne-Scott's full length tribute here.

The late Ruby Payne-Scott who would have turned 100 on May 28.
The late Ruby Payne-Scott who would have turned 100 on May 28.

Vivian Bullwinkel AO, MBE, ARRC, ED | 1915- 2000

Vivian Bullwinkel was an Australian Army Nurse Sister during the second world war who was the sole survivor of the tragic Banka Island massacre in Sumatra on 16 February 1942, where twenty one of her comrades were murdered by Japanese troops. The courageous feats Bullwinkel endured as a prisoner of war following the event is a true example of the bravery and heroism Australian women championed during the war.

Australia's most distinguished war nurse, Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel Vivian Bullwinkel's legacy will live on forever thanks to her heroism, strength and determination.

You can read Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel's full length tribute here.  

Matron Vivian Bullwinkel with some of her nursing staff at Fairfield Hospital.
Matron Vivian Bullwinkel with some of her nursing staff at Fairfield Hospital.

By Kirsten Jakubenko

Sources:

  • https://blogs.slv.vic.gov.au/our-stories/8-women-from-australias-history-you-should-know/
  • https://www.rahs.org.au/fanny-durack-and-mina-wylie/ 
  • https://www.rahs.org.au/edith-cowan-1861-1932/ 
  • https://www.rahs.org.au/womens-history-month/
  • https://www.rahs.org.au/miles-franklin-1879-1954/ 
  • https://www.visitvictoria.com/see-and-do/art-and-culture/history-and-heritage/victorian-stories/dame-nellie-melba 
  • https://kids.britannica.com/kids/article/Vida-Goldstein/631525 
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maude_Bonney 
  • https://www.nma.gov.au/explore/features/indigenous-rights/people/margaret-tucker 
  • https://ieusa.org.au/so-who-was-muriel-matters/ 
  • https://www.nma.gov.au/explore/features/indigenous-rights/people/gladys-elphick 
Women's Freedom League caravan tour: Muriel Matters seated in the window, [in Guildford, Surrey], 1908
Women's Freedom League caravan tour: Muriel Matters seated in the window, [in Guildford, Surrey], 1908

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