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Vale Joan Kirner (1938 – 2015): You leave a lasting legacy.

Date: 3 June 2015

Joan Kirner, Victoria’s first woman premier, passed away on Monday after succumbing to oesophageal cancer. She was only seventy-six.

Politicians from both sides of the political divide were united in their praise for Kirner, especially for her trailblazing work for gender equality and social justice. As Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, said in his official statement after her passing: ‘Through her decades of advocacy for gender equality, she fundamentally changed our party [The Australian Labor Party] and our society. In the process, she raised a generation of Victorian Labor women – one of whom became Prime Minister.’

Indeed, one of the most heartfelt tributes and messages of friendship came from that woman, Julia Gillard. She described Kirner as ‘one of the dominant influences in my life’ and one of the ‘truest of friends’. She summed up Joan Kirner’s importance when she said: ‘For a generation of Labor women, including me, she was an inspiration and a mentor. We admired her stoicism. We celebrated her policy achievements. We were guided by her wisdom.’

It wasn’t only Labor women Joan Kirner campaigned on behalf of. Her sphere of influence extended far and wide, including the sporting arena. A passionate supporter of the Essendon Football Club in the Australian Football League, Kirner was a firm believer that every industry was improved by the presence and influence of women. She was a flea in the ear of sports administrators who did not support her constant push for equity.  She was also a longtime friend of this project. In March 2013, as a Commonwealth Government Ambassador for Women, she and Dame Margaret Guilfoyle helped to launch the first project published by the Australian Women’s Archives Project, Faith, Hope, Charity: Australian Women and Imperial Honours, 1901-1989. She valued history and was keen to see women’s stories included, no matter their political persuasion.

Joan Kirner was very important to the establishment of the Victorian Women in Agriculture movement in the 1980s. The recently announced ‘Invisible Farmer’ project, jointly run by Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne, seeks to document the rise of this movement and Joan Kirner’s influence in it. Last Friday, the project officer was pleased to announce that Kirner had agreed to be interviewed about her role in this movement, and was determined to keep fighting to make visible the many and varied ways women contributed to and built the Victorian farming industry. Sadly, the news on Monday tells us an opportunity has been lost.

Given Kirner’s importance to the development of Victorian society since the late 1970s, I went looking in hope for other oral history interviews with her, that might be useful to the project team. I was saddened and shocked to find none! Of course, there are numerous radio, television and press interviews, many of them lengthy and in depth, but none conducted by a trained oral historian. What a tragedy. When we launched the Australian Women and Leadership Project in 2010, Joan Kirner was top of the list of women we hoped to interview, but sadly she felt too unwell at that stage to participate. Clearly, things didn’t improve. And now the richness of her story, as told by her, framed by her, reflected upon by her, is lost to us.

As an oral historian passionate about the need to preserve and document the stories of women from all walks of life, I beg of you: please don’t leave it until the last minute to tell your stories. Whether you be important to a nation, a state, a community, or your  family circle, tell your story. Write it, record it, bore your kids with it. Just make sure someone else besides you knows it.

Tell someone who cares.

Vale Joan Kirner (1938 -2015).


  1. Kim Rubenstein says:

    Joan Kirner’s sphere of influence was extremely wide and significant. In 1998 I was part of the Women’s Ticket running for a place on the elected section for the 1998 Constitutional Convention, supported through the Victorian Women’s Trust. (See description of this in I met Joan Kirner through that and other initiatives that she supported (including Mary Delahunty’s Catherine Helen Spence club) and was inspired by her commitment, warmth and humour. She will be sorely missed. This post is spot on- women’s lives should be recorded now! The importance of this message on recording oral histories is also foundational to the TBWL project – see

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