Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following contains images of deceased persons.
1. Catherine Helen Spence, writer and Australia’s first female political candidate.
Catherine was born in Scotland and emigrated to Australia with her family when she was 14. She began writing for The South Australian and had her first novel, Clara Morison: A Tale of South Australia During the Gold Fever, published in 1854. In 1897 she became Australia’s first female political candidate.
2. Edith Cowan, politician and the first woman elected to an Australian parliament.
Familiar to most Australians as the face on our $50 note, in 1894 Edith co-founded the Karrakatta Club, a women’s group that successfully campaigned for the vote for women. She was also co-founder of Western Australia’s National Council of Women and played a central role in the building of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in Perth. She founded the Children’s Protection Society and campaigned for the creation of children’s courts. During the First World War she was chairperson of the Red Cross Appeal Committee and in 1920 she became one of the first female Justices of the Peace. That same year she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and was elected to the Legislative Assembly, holding her seat until 1924.
3. Dame Nellie Melba, opera singer.
Making her professional debut in Melbourne in 1886, Nellie went on to achieve fantastic success in Europe and was one of the biggest celebrities in the world. She created a music school in her hometown of Richmond, Victoria, which she later merged with the Melbourne Conservatorium. When war broke out in 1914, she raised over 100,000 pounds for war charities, and was honoured as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire as a result. In 1927 Nellie became the first Australian to appear on the cover of Time magazine. French chef August Escoffier created a number of dishes in her honour, including Peach Melba.
4. Jane Foss Barff, academic and educationist.
Part of the second group of women to enrol in the University of Sydney, Jane graduated with first-class honours in 1886 and in 1889 became the first woman in Sydney to achieve a Masters of Arts. She was a founding member of Sydney University Women’s Society in 1891 and remained a vocal advocate for women’s education her entire life.
5. Miles Franklin, author and feminist.
Born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin in 1879, she wrote her most famous novel My Brilliant Career when she was just a teenager. She continued writing for the rest of her life, and was a passionate supporter of Australian literature, leaving a bequest in her will to establish a literary award - The Miles Franklin Award.
6. Fanny Cochrane Smith, Tasmanian Aboriginal linguist.
Fanny Cochrane Smith was born on Flinders Island in Tasmania in 1834. She was proud of her Aboriginal identity, and in 1899 and 1903 recorded songs on wax cylinders that are the only recordings ever made of Tasmanian Aboriginal song and speech.
7. Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie, Australia’s first female Olympians.
The Stockholm Olympics in 1912 were the first to hold women’s swimming events, and champion swimmers Fanny and Mina rallied to be able to attend. They were at first refused permission, but the NSW Ladies Swimming Association finally allowed them to compete if they paid for their own travel and living expenses. Fanny went on to win gold in the 100m freestyle event, and Mina won silver. In the late 1910s, Fanny held every world record in women’s swimming.
8. Louise Mack, first female war correspondent.
Born in Tasmania in 1870, Marie Louise Hamilton Mack published her first novel, The World is Round in 1896. She became a columnist for The Bulletin in 1898 and published a collection of poetry in 1901. That year, she travelled to Europe, and didn’t return to Australia until 1916. She reported from the front line during the First World War for the Daily Mail and Evening News in England.
9. Louise Lovely, Australia’s first Hollywood star.
Born Nellie Louise Alberti in 1895, Louise Lovely started acting at the age of nine. She moved to America in 1914 and the following year starred in Father and the Boys with Lon Chaney. After achieving success in Hollywood, she returned to Australia with her husband, Wilton Welch, in 1924. They conducted a talent search to support young actresses, and Louise hired 20 to star in Jewelled Nights, which she wrote and directed in collaboration with her husband.
10. Beryl Mills, the first Miss Australia.
Beryl, from Western Australia, became the first Miss Australia in 1926. She attended the University of Western Australia, where she won swimming and diving championships and was captain of the hockey team. This helped her to nab the beauty queen title, as the selection criteria included education, sporting ability and poise. With her mother and Sir Frank Packer, Beryl went on a promotional tour of America, where she was presented as the ideal Australian girl. She went on to found the Beryl Mills Advertising Service, before becoming a librarian for Packer’s Consolidated Press Ltd. She moved to the US in 1946 and became a member of the Red Cross, taught first aid and started a volunteer rescue service.
11. Dame Jean Macnamara, doctor and scientist.
A lifelong advocate for children’s health and welfare, Jean became a resident doctor at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne in 1923, despite the initial reluctance of hospital authorities. While there, she participated in research into polio that helped in the development of a vaccine. She later became an adviser on polio to authorities around Australia. She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1935.
12. Maude Bonney, aviator.
Preferring to be known as “Lores” Bonney, she learnt to fly secretly, but when her husband found out he bought her her own plane. She set the records of longest one-day flight by a woman (1600km) in 1931, the first woman to circumnavigate Australia by air in 1932, the first woman to fly from Australia to England in 1933, and the first person to fly from Australia to South Africa in 1937.
13. P.L. Travers, actress, journalist and author.
Most famous for her Mary Poppins series, the first of which came out in 1933, Pamela Lyndon Travers began writing and acting when she was still a teenager. She moved to England in 1924, where she dedicated herself to writing. She was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1977.
14. Dame Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to the Australian Federal Parliament.
Dame Enid Lyons was the wife of Joseph Lyons, the Premier of Tasmania and later Prime Minister of Australia - but after his death in office in 1939, she became a politician herself. In 1943, she was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. In 1949 she became the first woman to hold a seat in the Federal Cabinet. She was made a Dame of the Order of Australia in 1980.
15. Dr Beryl Nashar, the first female Dean of Science in Australia.
She was the first Australian woman to be awarded a Rotary Foundation Fellowship, which allowed her to study at Cambridge University. She went on to study at the University of Tasmania, where she became the first Australian to receive a PhD in geology. She was the founding Professor of Geology when the University of Newcastle opened in 1965, and four years later became the first female Dean of Science in Australia.
16. Kathleen Gorham, ballerina.
Kathleen danced for the Borovansky Ballet from 1943 until it disbanded in 1960. She danced in Paris and London for the following two years, before becoming prima ballerina in the newly created Australian Ballet in 1962. She was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1968.
17. Evonne Goolagong Cawley, tennis player.
Evonne was one of the world’s leading tennis players in the 1970s, at one stage becoming the number one female tennis player in the world. She won 14 Grand Slam titles and was honoured as the Australian of the Year in 1971, a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1972 and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1982. In 1988 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She has been the Sports Ambassador to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities since 1997, and runs an annual Goolagong National Development Camp to help Aboriginal children to play competitive tennis.
18. Ita Buttrose, journalist and businesswoman.
Ita became a copygirl for the Australian Women’s Weekly at just 15, and by the age of 23 she was made editor of the women’s pages of The Daily Telegraph. She was the founding editor of Cleo in 1972 and became the editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1975. In 1981, she became the first female editor of a major Australian metropolitan newspaper when she joined The Daily Telegraph. In the 1980s she was Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on AIDs and is currently President of Alzheimer’s Australia. She received an Order of the British Empire in 1979 and became an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1988.
19. Cathy Freeman, sprinter.
Cathy first represented Australia at the age of 16 in the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, becoming the first Aboriginal runner to win a Commonwealth gold medal. She was the first Indigenous Australian track and field athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, winning silver in Atlanta in 1996 and gold in Sydney in 2000. In 1990 she was Young Australian of the Year and in 1998 she was named Australian of the Year. She established the Cathy Freeman Foundation in 2007 in order to promote educational opportunities for disadvantaged Indigenous children.
20. Quentin Bryce, Governor-General of Australia.
Quentin studied Arts and Law at the University of Queensland and when she became a teacher there in 1968, she became the first female member of their law faculty. She was a founding member of the National Women’s Advisory Council, and became the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner in 1988 until 1993. She was appointed Governor of Queensland 2003 and became Australia’s first female Governor-General in 2008. She was named a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2003 and a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 2011.
21. Julia Gillard, first female Prime Minister of Australia.
Whether you agree with her politics or not, there’s no denying that Julia Gillard has played an important part in Australian history as the country’s first female Prime Minister. She worked as a lawyer from 1987, and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998. She entered the shadow cabinet in 2001 and became Deputy Leader of the Opposition in 2006. In 2007 she became Australia’s first female Deputy Prime Minister and in 2010 became the first woman to lead the Labor Party, as well as the first female Prime Minister.