This Encyclopedia had its origins in an Australian Research Council Linkage grant under the leadership of Professor Patricia Grimshaw at the University of Melbourne. The project, which ran from 2011 to 2013, brought together researchers from the Australian Catholic University, the Australian National University, Griffith University and the University of Melbourne and Linkage partners from the Australian Nursing Federation, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Archives of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Foundation for Australian Women and the National Library of Australia. While not a formal Linkage partner the History Teachers Association made a valuable contribution to the project.
Announced on the day on which Australia's first female Governor General administered the oaths of office to its first female Prime Minister, the project was particularly timely. The primary focus of this Encyclopedia, however, is not on the many women who exercise leadership in contemporary Australia, but rather on their foremothers, the women who occupied leadership positions during the twentieth century, at the beginning of which white Australian women were amongst the first women in the world to be enfranchised. Australia provides an interesting arena in which to study women's leadership. Its early enfranchisement of women opened pathways to power from which women in other countries were excluded for most of the next quarter century. First-wave feminism had also opened higher education to women with graduates increasingly able to base their claims to leadership on professional competence rather than moral authority. While several of the prominent early graduates struggled to gain acceptance in their professions, they were able to use their qualifications to take a leadership role without paid employment, recasting their involvement as an obligation that came from their higher education.
Existing theories of leadership struggle to explain the varied ways in which women have contributed to their communities. Drawn largely from the areas of business and management they take a narrow view of leadership, understanding female participation primarily in terms of a deficit model, positioning women within or in opposition to models developed by and for men. The Encyclopedia embraces a broader definition, using as a guide the ability to influence and enlist followers in a process of bringing about change. Through a selection of thematic and individual entries, it explores understanding of leadership both within the women-only organisations that sought to inject a female voice into a male-dominated world, and in situations in which women entered as individuals into previously male-only spaces. What the entries show is that while there is no single model of women's leadership, there are significant clusters of characteristics that make that leadership distinctive in particular times and places and in relation to particular activities.
The general patterns of leadership and their variations are most apparent in the thematic entries, which cover leadership in a particular occupation or field of work and activity over the entire century. While we make no claims that the themes chosen for analysis are comprehensive, an attempt has been made to cover a wide variety of professional and other spheres of paid work, a range of voluntary activities, different types of community engagement including the arts and culture, science, religion, philanthropy, politics, international cooperation, and industrial and social movements, and varied perspectives according to race and ethnicity as well as place. There is ample room for further work on these themes as well as the exploration of others not covered, such as specific areas of the arts and media and sport, a wider spectrum of professional groups and work activities, a broader range of religious affiliations, and the growing number of individual ethnic groups. We hope those who consult this Encyclopedia will take up the challenge of extending its coverage.
Authors of the thematic entries included here have stressed different styles and philosophies of leadership across the spectrum of activities in which women have engaged—from a complete rejection of the concept in favour of collective responsibility to acceptance of the hierarchical patterns characteristic of the more traditional masculinist notions of leadership. While the entries show that the latter tended to be more common in the earlier part of the century, there were clearly spheres of activity where this was not the case (such as among Indigenous women) and where it was modified by a growing emphasis on networking and mentoring. As second-wave feminism gained traction from the 1970s, the emphasis on collective responsibility expanded. But, in spheres such as the media and the corporate business world that remained predominantly masculine domains or where leadership was concentrated in male hands, women continued to struggle to have their voices heard and perspectives considered. Nevertheless, the twentieth century undoubtedly saw an expansion of fields in which women were able to exercise influence and bring change to leadership ideas and practice. Up to the middle of the century, these fields were predominantly voluntary and focused on philanthropic, religious, political and cultural objectives; the second half of the century saw the expansion of professional and industrial areas of organisation and activism, and the emergence of new ones in the form of specific interest groups and social movements.
The Encyclopedia also includes over 600 individual entries, with the focus being on women not already well documented in existing online resources. The entries vary in length and detail, the most extensive being those derived from interviews conducted as part of the partnership with the National Library. A second group derives from interviews undertaken by the late Jane Elix exploring the contribution of women to the environmental and consumer movements, and from other interviews conducted amongst Indigenous women in Western Australia. A third group, in the form of exhibitions, provides biographical descriptions of the work and achievements of the 26 women who have led the large umbrella organisation, the National Council of Women of Australia, up to 2006, and the emergence of leaders within the Australian Nursing Federation. The largest group of entries are short biographies, written from existing print and digital resources, focusing on women who have exercised leadership across a range of fields during the twentieth century. Finally, there are short entries that point readers to existing sites where information about the subject's leadership can be found, particularly in The Australian Women's Register, the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the online collections of essays and special editions of journals associated with the project. Limited by the short time span of the funding and the range of authors prepared to contribute, the Encyclopedia makes no claim to be an exhaustive listing of women who exercised leadership in twentieth-century Australia, but rather offers a sampling across the very wide range of activities in which they rose to the fore as their opportunities expanded.
The first conclusion to be drawn from the individual entries is that women came late to leadership, peaking at the age of fifty to sixty but persevering well into their senior years. This means that a study of women and leadership in the twentieth century encompassed women born well back into the previous century. Amongst women born in the nineteenth century, leadership was disproportionately exercised by those who were not partnered, a statistic made even more significant given the high rates of marriage in colonial society. During the twentieth century, changes in household technology and, more importantly, the increasing ability to control family size, freed a far greater proportion of partnered women to move into positions of leadership, producing patterns that are far more representative of the community as a whole. The role of education is also important, with the first generation who accessed tertiary education playing a disproportionate role in the early years of the century. For women born in the twentieth century, tertiary education became almost a prerequisite for leadership, even though women continued to be underrepresented in the tertiary sector until well into the 1970s.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, most women leaders were working in a voluntary capacity, asserting a right to speak vested in them by virtue of their class position. They displayed redoubtable organisational skills, bringing meaning to their lives through their community involvement but within a strictly gendered sphere. By century's end women were exercising leadership across a very wide range of occupations, claiming a right to speak, often in the face of considerable resistance. Although not all of the leaders profiled here would consider themselves to be feminists, many were beneficiaries of feminist achievements, initially through the expansion of educational opportunities, and later through legislation to remove gender discrimination and, in some cases, to mandate affirmative action. Feminism allowed some women to assert more definitively the right to a single life, providing them with the opportunity to devote to their career the single-mindedness that was previously the preserve of men. It also gave to women a willingness to question the status quo and to strive to enter previously all-male domains.
There are many women leaders who give little credit to feminism for the success they have achieved. Although they would accept the label of trailblazer, they see their success as the result of individual effort, reshaping their career ambitions to match that of their male colleagues, and modelling their public selves in order to fit that mould. Others depict their leadership as the result of a call that they were unable to resist, despite the opposition they encountered. Whatever their motivation, all trailblazers had to learn to function within a world made by men, and to develop ways of leading within such environments that minimised gender differences. Nevertheless, some still found that when they did succeed their achievements were demeaned, with the leadership positions they occupied being redefined in feminised terms.
Leaders who understand their success in feminist terms are more likely to minimise their individual achievements. Rather, they acknowledge the importance of mentors and role models, female friendships and networks and supportive partners and families. They constitute their leadership not in terms of individual ambition but rather depict themselves as falling into leadership as a result of taking a stand on an issue they considered to be important. They emphasise the importance of collaboration and see the credit as something that should be shared. Leadership, they argue, is task focused, and achieved by working within a group rather than ahead of it, nurturing and empowering others rather than advancing the self. At both extremes, and all points in between, leadership is not without its costs, measured in terms of relationships with family and friends, and in the dangers involved in stepping outside the norm.
Any attempts at categorisation, however, create an artificial model, detracting from the rich picture the Encyclopedia captures of the diverse ways in which women exercised leadership in the first century of Australian democracy. These are women of the pre-Google age. While many were richly rewarded for their achievements, their stories run the risk of fading as those who remember them pass on. The Encyclopedia stands as a more permanent memorial.