The effect Australia’s women have had on our country is undeniable yet oft-forgotten. In March we celebrate both Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day – what better time to look back and share the stories of women from our past? We’ve compiled some highlights below.


Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein, 1912. Source.

Vida Goldstein (1869–1949) was born in Portland, Victoria. She was a pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement.

Vida’s activism started in the 1890s: she helped her mother collect signatures for the Woman Suffrage Petition in 1891 (it amassed almost 30,000 signatures) and joined numerous reform organisations and activities, including the Anti-Sweating League, which campaigned against sweatshops and for a minimum wage. Suffrage became Vida’s main interest between 1899 and 1908. She travelled to the USA in 1902 to speak at the International Woman Suffrage Conference.

She was also one of the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament, having contested for the Australian Senate in 1903 as an Independent candidate, proposed by the Women’s Federal Political Association (of which she was president). She won just over 51 thousand votes but lost the election; she would contest for parliament four more times (1910 and 1917 for the Senate, 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives).

Vida worked for numerous social reforms—equal property rights for man and wife, for example. She also campaigned for peace: she was the chairman of the Peace Alliance, formed the Women’s Peace Army in 1915 and represented Australian women at a Women’s Peace Conference in Zurich.

Margaret Tucker

Margaret Tucker, If Everyone Cared

Margaret Tucker, 1977. Source.

Margaret (Lilardia) Tucker (1904–1996) was born at Warrangesda Mission, near Darlington Point, NSW. She was an activist and writer. When she was 12, police took Margaret from her mother and sent her to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls. She was trained as a “domestic” and spent 11 years serving white families.

Margaret began campaigning for Indigenous rights in the 1930s and, in 1932, was one of the founding members of the Australian Aborigines’ League (AAL). In 1938, Margaret represented the AAL during the Day of Mourning protest, ran on the 150th anniversary of British colonisation of Australia. She formed part of the delegation to meet Prime Minister Joseph Lyons to discuss the demands of the Aborigines Progressive Association (the protest’s organisers).

She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1968 in honour of her activism. In 1977, her autobiography If everyone cared was published, becoming one of the first books to garner mainstream attention on the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians.

Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters, ca. 1902-ca. 1912. Source.

Muriel Matters (1877–1969) was born in Bowden, Adelaide. She was a suffragist, lecturer, journalist and more.

Muriel’s best known for her work with the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and their work to enfranchise women in the UK. Muriel was arrested in 1908 after she chained herself to an iron grille in the ladies’ gallery of the House of Commons to agitate for women’s suffrage. The next year, she scattered WFL pamphlets across London from a dirigible she had hired.

In 1924, Muriel stood as a Labour candidate for the House of Commons for Hastings. She was unsuccessful, receiving 28.6% of the vote (which was an improvement over the previous Labour candidate). 

Muriel also gave lecture tours around Australia. The first series was in 1910, where she discussed her time spent in Britain fighting for change; the second series was in 1922 and on the ideas of Italian educator Maria Montessori. 

Vivian Bullwinkel

Vivian Bullwinkel at the Australian General Hospital.

Vivian Bullwinkel (far right) at the Australian General Hospital, ca. 1945. Source.

Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel (1915–2000) was born in Kapunda, South Australia.

Vivian was an Australian Army nurse during WWII and the sole survivor of the Bangka Island Massacre in Sumatra, 1942. During the massacre, she was struck by a bullet which passed completely through her body. She feigned death until the attackers left. She was eventually found and taken into captivity, where she stayed for three and half years.

Vivian left the army in 1947 and became Director of Nursing at the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. She later spent time as as a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial and then president of the Australian College of Nursing

Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell

Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell

Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell before setting off, 1927. Source.

Jean Robertson and Kathleen Howell were the first women to drive across Australia and the first to establish a speed record for doing so.

In 1928, they tried to break the Fremantle to Sydney land-speed record. Car trouble and flooding got in the way but they did set the record for Fremantle to Adelaide by travelling 2824 km in 2 days, 9 hours and 57 minutes.

Kathleen and Barney

Kathleen Howell and Barney the dog, 1927. Source.

In 1930, they set off on a journey from Australia to England by car. They drove to Darwin and, from there, made their way through Malaysia, India, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Europe before reaching England in February 1932. They even made time to take part in Italy’s Monte Carlo Rally on their way through.

Jean Galbraith

Moira Pye and Jean Galbraith

Moira Pye (left) and Jean Galbraith, ca. 1930-ca. 1965. Source.

Jean Galbraith (1906–1999) was a botanist, gardener and writer. She was born in Tyers, Gippsland, where she lived her entire life. She began training herself in botany as a teenager and, despite not having any formal qualifications, became highly regarded in the field.

She published her first articles—about native birds for a journal—at the age of 19 and began a monthly column about native plants for a gardening magazine the next year. Jean spent the next 70 years writing about her gardening, guides to native wildflowers, botanical articles, children’s stories and even poetry. Jean’s first book, Garden in a valley, an autobiography, was published in 1939 (it was republished in 1985); she went on to publish a multitude of others.

Prostanthera galbraithiae, commonly known as Wellington mint-bush. Source: Melburnian/Wikipedia.

Prostanthera galbraithiae, commonly known as Wellington mint-bush. Source: Melburnian/Wikipedia.

Jean co-discovered a flower endemic to Victoria, commonly known as Wellington mint-bush. It was named after her: Prostanthera galbraithiae

Isabella Fraser

Isabella Fraser

Isabella Fraser, 1932. Source.

Isabella Fraser, born in Ballarat in 1881, was the first female staff member here at the Library (according to our listed public service lists). She started work here in 1908 and  became an Assistant here in 1924. She was likely performing the duties of a librarian or library technician but she wasn’t a librarian by title.

Women that wanted to work in the Library faced discrimination for a long time: they couldn’t become full librarians until 1926 and that’s on top of a variety of discriminatory legislation from the Victorian Public Service (VPS) in the 1880s and 1890s that limited who could work in the VPS (no married women, for example), what roles women could fill and prevented promotions.

Isabella was still an Assistant in 1941 and appears to have left the Library by 1955, by which time there were many female librarians.


More to explore

Read more women in history blog posts.

This article has 34 comments

  1. Thank you

  2. So interesting and inspiring. Thanks you 🙂

  3. Margaret Bywater

    Excellent article thank you, Cory. I appreciate the inclusion of Jean Galbraith whose Garden in a valley is a wonderful treasure of a book. When I worked at East Gippsland Regional Library in Bairnsdale more than 50 years ago, JG was a regular visitor to the library and an active Field Naturalist.

    You could also have included Doris Blackburn (1899-1970). Doris Blackburn was born in Hawthorn, Victoria, active in politics, social concerns, and peace. Together with Douglas Nichols founded the Aborigines Advancement League. She was the member for Burke from 1946-1949. I remember my mother being an admirer of Mrs Blackburn, whom she met through the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Doris and Maurice Blackburn’s papers are held in the State Library.

    • To Margaret Bywater,
      Thank you for looking into the article of Australian women at midnight to prove your dedication to the topic of our great nations females. I am also pleased by the amount of effort inserted into your long and detailed comment.

  4. Amazing !

    Thank you

  5. Marion Gaylard

    Thank you ..very interesting and worthwhile.I would have preferred to read, “Women who wanted to work in the Library..”

  6. Leslie Stewart

    This is a good list of great Australian women but there are many more as you know, however one woman which could be considered for a listing is Blanch Biggs. Born in Scotsdale Tasmania she studied medicine at Melbourne University and on graduating went to the mission field with the Anglican Church to Papua New Guinea where she worked tirelessly for many years before returning to Brisbane where she died.

  7. Had not heard of most of these women. Thanks for sharing this list!

  8. Fascinating! Thanks!

  9. wonderful to be celebrating and sharing. So many stories to tell. So many brave, committed women

  10. WOW!! Love it! Thank you for stirring curiosity and a wonder. Keep it up!

  11. May I suggest you add Enid Lyons to your list? She was wife of the Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. Her speeches on equality during the 30s are amazing as she campaigned with her husband – a former State Premier of Tasmania. She even stood in a state election when Joe was Premier. She doesn’t have the stridency of Vida and her message was accessible to all. She also became one of the first Federal members of parliament in1943 – just four years after Joe’s death. On top of that, she raised 13 children! A truly amazing Australian. See Lyons’ biographies in the La Tribe room.

  12. Love learning things like this

  13. Great to read about these inspiring women. Sometimes we take for granted the rights snd freedoms we have as women today. Reading these articles reminds us that female rights and independence are relatively recent achievements.

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  15. I had the privilege of working at Fairfield Hospital during Vivian Bullwinkle’s time as Matron. She left Victoria to wed in Western Australia.

  16. Thank you! We need to expose these women’s histories and such inspiring lives to students and the public as much as possible. It’s timely. We have a long, long way to go to even up the score of the patriarchal society we are just emerging from. Many of us not unscathed. It successfully dominated our thinking for – far too long. This involves total respect for these women, and holding up their amazing lives and their progressive and compassionate work as examples for us to follow..
    They showed us how to be proud of ourselves and that – we can do it!

  17. Thank you for the article. Role models for our young women of today and good to hear more about determined and committed Australian women from earlier times.

  18. Maybanke Wolstenholme would be an excellent addition to your list too!

  19. All very remarkable women, I’m especially pleased Vivian Bullwinkle has made this list. So many more deserving women I can think of.

  20. Great to read about Vida Goldstein. My great great grandfather managed at least one of her campaigns for parliament. His interest stemmed from his activity in the temperance movement where concern for the lot of women and children’s suffering at the hands of men who drank their wages was one of its social justice platforms. The La trobe library has our family photo of Vida together with Miles Franklin.

  21. Such fantastic women here! Thank you for this list, especially including my personal hero, Lt. Col. Vivian Bullwinkle.
    I was also particularly interested to hear about Isabella Fraser, the first woman who worked at the State Library of Victoria.

  22. Thank you for this list. It’s a wonderful starting point for many of the quiet achievers who happened to be female. I’m getting interested in some of the first female doctors such as Dr Constance Stone and the initial Queen Victoria Hospital for Women

  23. Appreciate the information in this post very much. Women of strength, character and perserverance. Would love to have seen Sister Elizabeth Kenny (treatment for Polio) included.

  24. Will there be some further women listed in March 2019 – why not focus on Victorian women and challenge each state library to contribute their own women to a longer list?

  25. Thanks for an informative article.

  26. Cr Kristina Barnett

    It’s the 100 year celebration of Susan Grace Benny, Australia’s first woman politician to be elected in Australia. In December 1919 , Benney was the first woman to be elected as a member of South Australia’s Brighton Council.

  27. Cheryl Pisterman

    Thank you for the article. We have come a long way but still a long way to go.

  28. This is gr8 I will use for International womens day 2020 and post on our school newsfeed. Thanks so much

  29. Great Post! Thanks for sharing such beautiful information with us. Please keep sharing.

  30. A great starting point for others to contribute some notables who have only surfaced in recent decades. Or simply start their own list every International Women’s day. Many thanks

  31. 1922 marked the beginning of the CWA.
    Grace Munro was our first President-Centenary 2022. What a legacy.

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