The NSW State Archives and Records’ exhibition Blaze: Working Women, Public Leaders features fascinating stories of women trailblazers in the public sector.

Listen to Nicole and Tess on 2SER here. 

Among the many inspiring women featured in the exhibition is Margaret Harper, a paediatrician and infant health pioneer in Sydney. There’s also Rosette Edmunds, our first female professional town planner. Edmunds worked as an architect from 1926 until 1941 and was appointed Civic Survey Officer in 1946 for the Cumberland County Council which oversaw the master plan for Sydney. It also includes Ida Leeson, the first woman appointed as Mitchell Librarian, Margaret Whitlam, the Rachel Foster Hospital, Rose Scott, Dame Marie Bashir, Lucy Osborn and many, many more!

Another of the women whose achievements are celebrated in this exhibition is the Aboriginal activist from the 1930s to the 1980s, Pearl Gibbs and this is who I wanted to talk about this week. The theme for this year’s NAIDOC Week was ‘Because of Her We Can’, and Pearl Gibbs’ contribution to the fight for Aboriginal rights and justice should be celebrated by all of us.

Mrs Gibbs, Aboriginal Welfare Board, 16 August 1955. Pic: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (GPO2 06644)

Mrs Gibbs, Aboriginal Welfare Board, 16 August 1955. Pic: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (GPO2 06644)

She was born in La Perouse in 1901 and worked as a domestic worker in the Potts Point area. She spoke out against the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board’s control over Aboriginal people in the 1930s and, in 1954, became the first woman to be elected to the board.

Gibbs was a true trailblazer. In addition to her work with the Aborigines Welfare Board, she was the first Aboriginal woman to speak on radio, making a speech on 2GB in 1941. She also spoke at Speakers’ Corner in The Domain in 1937, climbing a ladder to her soapbox, and later recalled how she ‘shook’ and ‘shivered’ because she ‘was so fighting mad’ at the injustices faced by Aboriginal people.

In 1938, she joined the Aborigines Progressive Association and was one of the organisers of the ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ that was held at Australian Hall on Elizabeth Street in Sydney on 26 January 1938.

Gibbs also founded the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship with Faith Bandler in 1956,  a group formed to campaign for equal pay and citizenship for Aboriginal people.

She suffered personal tragedy when her three children were removed from her care by her estranged British husband.

People have often spoken of Pearl Gibbs as ‘before her time’. Aboriginal poet Kevin Gilbert described her as someone who ‘lived and breathed, ached and bled Aboriginal affairs’.

Find out more about Pearl Gibbs and many other trail blazing women in the Blaze exhibition, which is showing at the Whitlam Institute at the Female Orphan School at Western Sydney University’s Parramatta campus. It closes on 27 July so get cracking!

For further information, head to the NSW State Archives and Records website: https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/archives/exhibitions/blaze

If you can’t get there physically, the exhibition is also available online via the e-catalogue here.

Aborigines day of mourning, 26 January 1938 Left to right: Pearl Gibbs, Marj Tucker, Wiliam Ferguson, Jack Patten, Bill Murray, unknown, Maggie Murray (the mother of Pearl Gibbs), unknown. The photograph appeared on the Letters page of the magazine and was taken by a passer-by, C Sorrell of Marrickville courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (a429004 / Q 059/9) (Man magazine, March 1938, p108)

Aborigines day of mourning, 26 January 1938 Left to right: Pearl Gibbs, Marj Tucker, Wiliam Ferguson, Jack Patten, Bill Murray, unknown, Maggie Murray (the mother of Pearl Gibbs), unknown. The photograph was taken by a passer-by, C Sorrell of Marrickville and appeared on the letters page of the magazine. Pic courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales (a429004 / Q 059/9) (Man magazine, March 1938, p108)

Other reading:

Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!

Listen to the podcast with Nicole & Tess here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Tess Connery on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15 to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

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