Woman Barlow, Mary Kate

Charity Worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Mary Barlow was born in Ireland in 1865, to John McDonagh and his wife, Helena. She came to Australia in 1884, and three years later married the architect John Barlow. Together they had three children. Her initial entry into charitable work was as a fund-raiser for institutions designed by her husband, but in 1911 she joined the new Catholic Women's Association of New South Wales, taking the presidency three years later and remaining in the position until the year of her death.

Barlow, credited with knowing 'how to court the patronage of the Sydney clergy and hierarchy, without succumbing to them' (Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney website), guided the Association through the difficult war years, and oversaw the foundation and administration of its hostels for working girls. Although its primary activity was fund-raising through social activities, Barlow used the association's conferences to articulate a role for Catholic women in the public sphere, while always carefully eschewing political partisanship. In 1929, for example, she drew the members' attention to the importance of providing care for Catholic immigrant girls (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 October 1929).

Through the Association, Barlow gained entree into wider social circles, serving on the committees of the National Council of Women, the Victoria League, the Society of Women Writers, the Good Film League, the Prisoners' Aid Society and the Women's Loyalty League. During the Eucharistic Conference of 1928, she presided over the women's conference out of which the Australian Council of Catholic Women was formed (Australian Women's Weekly, 30 September 1933). She was also the first editor of the Catholic Women's Review.

Barlow accepted existing definitions of women's place and was uncomfortable with some of the opportunities opening up to younger women, regretting the 'lessening of the influences of home life' and warning young women about the dangers of 'pernicious literature' and 'fashionable frocks', blaming 'modern women' for the 'decline of chivalry among men' (Register News-Pictorial, 15 October 1929).

In recognition of her contribution to the Catholic Church, Barlow was awarded the cross of Leo in 1917, and made a dame of the holy sepulchre in 1928. She died in Sydney in 1934.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • McDonald, Eleanor, 'The Catholic Women's League: the first twenty five years', Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, vol. 7, no. 1, 1981, pp. 3-14. Details

Magazine Articles

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources

See also