Woman Beaurepaire, Beryl

Dame

Occupation
Feminist, Meteorologist, Servicewoman and Women's rights activist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in 1923, Dame Beryl Beaurepaire was a leading figure in the late twentieth century feminist movement. The elder daughter of Vera and Ted Bedggood of the famous Bedggood shoe brand, Dame Beryl grew up in a comfortable home in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. While completing her secondary education at Fintona Girls' School in Balwyn, Victoria, under the influence of Margaret Cunningham, whose mantra of 'You can do anything' was credible because, according to Beryl, 'she had done everything'. Beryl had hoped to enter the family business, but her uncle believed it to be 'no place for a woman'(Australian Biography, 2007). Instead, she completed one year of a Bachelor of Science Degree at the University of Melbourne, filling in time until 1941 when she was old enough to join the war effort by enlisting in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). Her application to join the meteorological section was initially given short shrift, on account of her gender. But persistence, a meeting with the Director of the WAAAF and a determined desire to be a scientist - 'we didn't join the WAAAF to be public servants'(Australian Biography, 2007) - resulted in her eventual appointment as a meteorological observer at an operational training unit in Sale, Victoria. It was a telling portent of things to come. Dame Beryl Beaurepaire has held a lifelong commitment to advancing the rights of women in Australia.

After serving in the WAAAF, she married (in 1946) Ian Beaurepaire of the Olympic Tyre dynasty. She had twin boys, and settled down to being a homemaker but found herself 'bored to sobs'. Her determination to do something about her situation brought her into conflict with her famous father-in-law, Sir Frank, over her right to travel with her husband. According to Sir Frank, wives were not supposed to travel with their husbands on business, they were supposed to stay at home and mind the children. Beryl stood firm: 'If I don't go, Ian doesn't go,' she said. 'But, you can't stop him', said Sir Frank, but Beryl had discovered that, in those days, wives had to sign their husbands' passport applications. 'And of course he didn't know that, and so I went,' she said. (ABC Wisdom Interviews, 2005) Beryl Beaurepaire was not only determined, she was always well prepared. It was a hallmark of her leadership.

As Lady Mayoress, during her husband's term as Melbourne's Lord Mayor (1965-1967) Beryl threw her energy into community and charity work rather than the social whirl, recognising this as an area where she could make a difference. She also confronted the sexism of a council which had only one female member, Clare Cascarreth, determined to change its boy's club rules. Arguing that women were more likely to have to change multiple times a day for functions than were men, she insisted that they needed bathroom and changing facilities within the town hall. 'Beryl's Dunny' was a 'domestic battle' but she refused to back down.

Another 'terrible row' came about over gender segregation at council dinners. Even after the election of a female councillor, tradition dictated that the Lord Mayor's Dinner was an all male affair, given to acknowledge the contributions of the city's business leaders and public figures. The Lady Mayoress held a separate event for women guests, who could listen to the after dinner speeches from the balcony. During Dame Beryl's tenure as lady Mayoress, the French Consul, who would normally have attended the Lord Mayor's dinner, was not invited because she was a woman. Dame Beryl was infuriated by this rudeness, and campaigned for the tradition to change. Although it took several years change came eventually, during Irving Rockman's tenure (1977-1979). 'Oh,' said Dame Beryl, 'that did create a storm.'(ABC Wisdom Interviews, 2005) Not that she was concerned about creating controversy or a precedent. She developed a significant public profile through doing so, and served on the boards of many organisations in Melbourne, including the YWCA (1969-1977) where she was a member of the national executive, and the Citizens Welfare Service Victoria (1970-1986) where she was Vice president.

Her political nous and ability to influence people impressed such key Liberal party figures as Sir Robert Menzies and Sir Henry Bolte. She chaired the Women's Sections of both the Victorian (1973-1976), and Federal (1974-1976) party organisations and served on its Federal Executive. She was also vice-president of the Victorian Division from 1976 to 1986. Although always allied with the Liberal Party, Beaurepaire had the great talent of being able to work effectively across the political divide. She had a good relationship with both Labor Prime Ministers on the 1970s and 80s, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke, and on some social issues felt more comfortable with their party than her own. This explains why she never moved into parliamentary politics. 'I'm not one to toe the line,' she says (Australian Biography, 2007), '...and I realised if I got into parliament, I would have to abide by the party rules, and that would restrict me. So I thought I could have more influence by being in the organisation and working behind the scenes. And I still think I did the right thing by working in the administration, because I now know that a lot of the things I put in place did come to fruition, which must not be talked about because the governments think they did it themselves'. (ABC Wisdom Interviews, 2005)

One of her most significant leadership roles was that of convenor of the National Women's Advisory Council (NWAC) established by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in 1978. In her four years in the role, Dame Beryl brought together women of diverse backgrounds and political persuasion. Some women from her own party complained she had moved too far to the left, while radical feminists said she was too conservative, but her focus was on the practical rather than the political. She tried to ensure that the council's focus always remained on women and their needs, be that child care, equal pay, equal opportunity at work, or the right to a safe abortion.

Being a trailblazer never frightened Beryl Beaurepaire. In 1982, she was the first woman appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial, serving as chair between 1985 and 1993. Many were horrified that a woman 'would speak on behalf of out fallen diggers'. But council recognised in her the ability to call upon huge networks to raise money for important projects. She rode out the storm and was instrumental in bringing home the Unknown Soldier. (ABC Wisdom Interviews, 2005)

Interviewed well after she had retired from public life, Beryl Beaurepaire was firm in her belief that a good education was the first plank in any leadership platform because it gave girls confidence in their ability to take on the world. Reflecting on her own importance to the Australian women's movement in 2007 she said, 'I hope I've helped to give women more confidence in themselves - to just try'. Good networks, preparedness and determination to see a job through were also important to Dame Beryl Beaurepaire's effectiveness as a leader, as were maintaining a thick skin and aiming high. If you need something done she said 'Don't fiddle about, go straight to the top! You might not get there, but you always have to try!' (Australian Biography, 2007).

Published Resources

Books

  • McKernan, Michael, Beryl Beaurepaire, University of Queensland Press (UQP), St Lucia, Queensland, 1999. Details

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Title
Dame Beryl Beaurepaire
Type
Audio Visual
Date
2007
Place
National Film and Sound Archive
Publisher
National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA)

Details