Three members of the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps, l-r Violet McKenzie, Pat McInnes, Esme Kura Murrell c1940, courtesy Australian War Memorial P02583.001

Three members of the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, l-r Violet McKenzie, Pat McInnes, Esme Kura Murrell c1940, courtesy Australian War Memorial P02583.001

As it’s International Women’s Day this Friday, today I thought it would be good to highlight the lives and achievements of some of the courageous and inspiring Sydney women who have made it possible for us to live the way we do in Sydney today. Here are five I think we should all know about. 

Listen to the whole conversation with Lisa and Julia on 2SER here 

1. Violet McKenzie (1890-1982)

Florence Violet McKenzie was a pioneer in Australian radio and electrical engineering.

She founded the radio magazine Wireless Weekly, and was one of the first female graduates from technical college as an electrical engineer. Consequently, she had a lifetime commitment to technical education and training, especially for women.

She helped establish the Electrical Association for Women in 1934, to educate women about this new fangled thing called electricity and published an Electric Cookery Book in 1936.

With the outbreak of WW2, McKenzie founded the Womens Emergency Signalling Corps and during the course of the war she she taught thousands of women, and soldiers, to use radio for signalling.

Lillian Fowler, Australia's only woman mayor, PIX, 23 April 1938, p20

Lillian Fowler, Australia’s only woman mayor, PIX, 23 April 1938, p20

2. Lillian Fowler (1886-1954)

Lillian Fowler was the first female alderman,or councillor, in New South Wales and became the first female Mayor in Australia.

She served on Newtown Municipal Council for twenty years (1928-1948) and was mayor from 1938 until 1939. She went on to serve on state parliament, elected as the Member for Newtown from 1944 until 1950, and was among a small handful of women elected to state parliament at that time.

Lilian Fowler was a formidable woman whose clarity of convictions, confidence and outstanding organisational skills helped her smash through the glass ceiling of politics.

She opened up opportunities for women while helping the most marginalised people in society. As President of the Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee in the mid-1920s, Lilian Fowler placed pressure on NSW Premier Jack Lang to introduce the widows’ pension and child endowment.

One of her achievements as an alderman on Newtown Council was the creation of a number of children’s playgrounds in the Inner West, and this has been commemorated with the naming of a park after her in Newtown.

Ida Leeson 1933, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (P1/977)

Ida Leeson 1933 Pic: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (P1/977)

3. Ida Leeson (1885-1964)

This is one for all you library lovers and historians out there. Ida Leeson was appointed in 1932 as the second Mitchell Librarian, at the State Library of NSW.

The appointment was made despite opposition among library trustees to a woman being placed in the role; but the structure and pay levels were decreased to ensure that glass ceiling of Principal Librarian wouldn’t be breached. This attracted much criticism from feminists, such as Jessie Street.

Ida had started at the New South Wales Public Library in 1906, as a library assistant. When the public library were bequeathed David Scott Mitchell’s collection, Ida was transferred to the newly created branch of the Mitchell Library, where she was one of the librarians responsible for sorting the collection. In July 1916 she was promoted senior cataloguer, Mitchell Library, and, in June 1919, to one of the Public Library’s senior positions, principal accessions officer.

In her role as Mitchell Librarian from 1932 she consolidated the Library’s position as the preeminent repository of Australian and Pacific historical documents.

(You can read more about Ida Leeson and some other outstanding women who’ve helped shape the State Library of NSW on the State Library’s blog here.)

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)

4. Pearl Gibbs (1901-1983)

Pearl Gibbs was an Aboriginal leader who organised and inspired a range of organisations working for Aboriginal rights from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Born in La Perouse, Pearl Gibbs grew up in Yass and Bourke. Her experience as a young domestic servant in Sydney in 1917/18 helped politicise Pearl to the injustices of the Aboriginal Welfare Board. In 1937 she travelled back to Sydney and began work for the fledgling Aborigines Progressive Association with Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten.

Pearl became active speaking at the Sydney Domain, and got involved in a number of groups, connecting white and black activists. She was involved in the Union of Australian Women and the Committee for Aboriginal Citizenship, and became secretary of the Council for Aboriginal Rights when it was formed in 1952.

In 1956 Gibbs drew together significant people and sparked the formation of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which was an energetic and stimulating advocate for Aboriginal rights and a fertile meeting place for black and white activists until the late 1960s.

LLouisa Lawson, aged 50 c1898 Pic: Dixson Library, State Library of NSW (DL PX 158, 24)

Louisa Lawson, aged 50 c1898 Pic: Dixson Library, State Library of NSW (DL PX 158, 24)

5. Louisa Lawson (1848-1920)

Writer, publisher, inventor and activist, Louisa Lawson influenced Sydney life at the turn of the twentieth century in many ways.

Louisa was a radical publisher and a feminist, and in 1888 she founded The Dawn a journal for women. In 1889, she launched Sydney’s campaign for votes for women by establishing The Dawn Club, a social reform club for women, ‘for mutual development, mutual aid and for consideration of various questions of importance to the sex’. It attracted attendances of around 50 women to its fortnightly meetings.

This group only lasted a couple of years; its purposes overtaken by the Womanhood Suffrage League, formed in 1891. Lawson was involved in this for acouple of years, but preferred the Women’s Progressive Association, which had a greater focus on women’s labour.

Women over 21 were enfranchised in New South Wales in 1902, in the footsteps of federal parliament. At her death, she was called ‘the mother of womanhood suffrage in New South Wales’.


To browse all things women on the Dictionary of Sydney, take a look at our subject listing Women with lots of links to entries, images and entities (short listings).

There are several interesting overview articles in the list about the lives of women in Sydney to have a look at, for example:

Grace Karskens, Barangaroo and the Eora Fisherwomen,
Kate Matthew, Governesses,
Delia Falconer, A City of One’s Own: Women’s Sydney,
Catherine Bishop, Women of Pitt Street 1858,
Catie Gilchrist, Women and World War I,
Lisa Featherstone, Birth,


Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa!  You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio

Listen to Lisa & Julia here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney. 

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