Gracia Baylor is the first woman to have been president of the Shire of Healesville (1977) and one of the first 2 women to be elected to the Victorian Legislative Council (1979). Her parliamentary intervention helped preserve the Queen Victoria Hospital site as the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, and she served as a foundation trustee of the Centre and chairman of its Trust. She has been an active member of the National Council of Women at state, national and international levels, serving as president of the National Council of Women of Victoria 1990–1993 and president of NCW Australia 1997–2000. In 1999, Gracia Baylor was made a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of her services to parliament and women’s affairs.
Gracia Baylor was born in Brisbane in October 1929, the daughter of Herbert David Parry-Okeden, a grazier and businessman, and Hilary May (née Webster). Her father’s war service in the RAAF meant that the family moved several times, and Gracia was educated at Somerville House school in Brisbane, Queen’s Church of England Girls’ Grammar School in Ballarat and the Collegiate College in Hobart. In 1950, she completed a Diploma of Fine Arts at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne, and subsequently trained as a secondary school teacher. Also in 1950, she married John du Frocq Freeman. She trained at Mercer House, a training college for teachers in independent schools, from 1951 to 1957 and taught at Alexandra College, Hamilton, from 1957 to 1959. After her second marriage in 1959 to Richard Patrick Baylor, a solicitor, she worked as a law clerk in her husband’s firm in Healesville. This marriage produced 4 children, 3 boys and a girl.
When Baylor moved to Healesville in 1962 with 4 pre-school children and found there was no kindergarten in the community, she became involved in the campaign to establish one. This led her to stand for the shire council in 1966. She served as a councillor from 1966 to 1978, becoming the first woman president of the shire in 1977. Male opposition to her presidency was overcome by the wide cross-party community support she received and by her high public profile. Baylor was president of the Victorian Local Government Women’s Association in 1973–1974 and national vice-president 1974–1975, actively supporting women to stand for local government. She remained strongly involved in community services including the Healesville Hospital Auxiliary, the Healesville Tourist Promotion Association, the Maroondah Half-way House refuge for women and other community organisations. She has also been an Anglican vestry member and synod representative.
Gracia Baylor joined the Liberal Party of Australia in 1958 and was secretary of her local branches, Healesville 1968–1973 and Kinglake 1973–1978. She was a member of the Liberal Party state executive 1972–1977. On 14 July 1979, she and Joan Coxsedge became the first women members of the Legislative Council of Victoria. In her inaugural speech, Baylor pointed out that this day was also the 190th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. She held the seat of Boronia for the Liberal Party for 6 years, serving on the Subordinate Legislation Committee (1981–1982) and the House and Social Development Committees (1982–1985). She was parliamentary spokesperson for senior citizens from November 1982. In 1985, Baylor resigned to contest the Legislative Assembly seat of Warrandyte at the state election on 2 March, but lost to the sitting member.
Gracia Baylor’s work in the Legislative Council was closely involved with issues affecting women. Her advocacy helped bring in a program ensuring that car safety baby capsules were available to all parents. When the government of John Cain introduced a bill to raise revenue by selling various portions of crown land, she exposed a provision ‘buried in the middle’ to sell off the historic Queen Victoria Hospital site. Her intervention meant the hospital, established in 1896 by Victoria’s first woman doctor Constance Stone with funds raised by Victorian women’s organisations, now became the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre, a focal point of reference for women to access services and facilities. Baylor has been a trustee of the centre since 1994 and chairman of the QVWC Trust since 1999.
Baylor joined the National Council of Women of Victoria in 1984, and became actively involved from 1987. She was state president 1990–1993, and won election as National Council of Women of Australia president in 1997. She took office with a program of reform: to bring the image of the NCWA into the 21st century. Structural reforms implemented included reorganising the national Board to include in its membership state presidents or their nominees, and monthly meetings by teleconference, both of which had been broached under Gwen Roderick’s presidency. The greatest challenge was a constitutional issue that had been discussed and debated over many years: the anomaly existing in Tasmania of 2 independent councils of NCW. Tensions had long festered between the Hobart and Launceston Councils but, by the mid-1990s, they were unable to work together on any matters affecting their state, or to agree on resolutions at a national or international level. After long and difficult negotiation, the NCW Coalition of Tasmania Inc. was established in 2001, consisting of 3 Councils (Hobart, Launceston and Devonport).
Baylor was also active at an international level, attending the International Council of Women Executive meeting in Oxford in 1999, and the ICW Triennial Conference in Helsinki in July 2000, where NCWA successfully moved a motion calling for a review of the ICW’s assets and financial operations. Baylor also attended the 1999 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women as a member of the ICW delegation, and took part in drafting the Optional Protocol to the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
While Baylor was president of NCWV she simultaneously embarked on a new venture, enrolling at Deakin University and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1993.
Gracia Baylor’s other memberships include the Commonwealth Advisory Board for Equal Employment Opportunity for Women 1999–2002; the Ministerial Advisory Committee to the Hon. Sherryl Garbutt, minister for women’s affairs 1999–2002; the Defence Reserve Forces Council since 2000; the University of Melbourne’s Human Ethics Committee 1987–1991; the Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown Memorial Trust (chairman 1990 to 2008, when she retired on the Trust being handed over to the University of Melbourne; she remains a member of the Trust committee, which acts as a selection committee); Victoria Women’s Council 1991–1999 (deputy convenor); ‘Women Shaping the Nation’ Centenary of Federation Committee 2000–2001; and various local government and parliamentary positions 1978–1996.
In the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Gracia Baylor’s distinguished public service was recognised in her appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to parliament and women’s affairs. In 2003, she was admitted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.
‘I’ve always believed in equity … that women should have equal opportunity to share the decision-making processes of the nation at any level, whether it be parliamentary, corporate or at a local level.’
Explore further resources about Gracia Baylor in the Australian Women's Register.