Woman Dowse, Sara

Feminist, Journalist, Public Servant and Writer

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

As a result of what she describes as 'a series of flukes', Sara Dowse joined the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1974 as head of its newly created Women's Affairs Section, thus becoming 'arguably Australia's first femocrat' (Interview). Her tenure in the bureaucracy was short but significant, as she took a leading role in developing a national women's policy, where no policy had existed before. 'I was very glad to be there at the beginning', she said in an interview in 1998. But it was stressful 'I was at the cutting edge … [N]obody's groomed to be at the cutting edge, least of all somebody who's only ambition was to be a writer' (Interview).

Born in Chicago in 1938, Dowse was twenty when she arrived in Australia, married to an Australian rugby player whom she met when they were both students at UCLA. Expecting a child and unable to get good work in the U.S. during a recession, John and Sara decided to move to Australia where John worked with his father in the building industry. Leaving behind a lifestyle of privilege - with a communist actor for a mother, a celebrity lawyer father and a blackballed writer step-father, Sara's home life had often been complicated but never deprived - they came to live in Sydney, in (then) working class McMahon's Point, where John's mother and father ran the pub. Sara studied part time at Sydney University, taking time out every so often to have children (she has five.) The family moved to Canberra where John had been offered work, in 1968.

After arriving in Canberra, Dowse worked as a journalist, publisher's field editor and tutor at the Canberra College of Advanced Education. She was much more connected to the cultural life here than in Sydney and was caught up in the political moment of the early 1970s, creating networks through the anti-Vietnam war movement, the lead up to the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972 and the women's movement as a member of Women's Liberation and the Women's Electoral Lobby-ACT. Through these networks she came to the attention of Elizabeth Reid, the newly appointed Ministerial Advisor on Women's Affairs, who, in 1973 gave her name to the then Minister for Labour, Clyde Cameron, who was looking for a press secretary and speechwriter. She accepted the short term contract and used the opportunity to brief the Minister for Labour on matters such as child care, part-time employment and equal pay. Her education in political processes was further extended in 1974 when she worked on Susan Ryan's first attempt at pre-selection to parliament. She learned that she operated well as an administrator and political advisor because she was detached. 'My ego was never involved in any of this, which is great if you want to get a job done', she says. 'I was simply interested in making life better for women if I were in a position to do so and finding out about how things worked' (Interview).

The Women's Affairs Section was created within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1974 to provide administrative support to Elizabeth Reid, with Dowse appointed as its Head. Under her leadership, it was renamed the Office of Women's Affairs. 'The volume of mail she received,' says Dowse, 'was bested only by the Prime Minister himself, no other minister in the Labor government received as much mail as Elizabeth Reid' (Interview). Content to head an office rather than work towards its becoming an department, Dowse argues that they were well-positioned 'within the central policy co-coordinating department in government'. 'No one minister could possibly be responsible for the range of activities affecting women,' she commented. 'Only the Prime Minister's department could take an interest in them all' (Why I Quit).

Her effectiveness as a femocrat saw her promoted quickly. She was a very good public speaker and used her communication skills frequently and to good effect. Her office's ability to create policies for women that had flow on benefits for the rest of the public service (for example, modifications to the Superannuation Act) helped raise her profile and popularity amongst a service that had initially been hostile and suspicious of a feminist who had not worked her way up through the ranks. After the change of government, she was mortified by press descriptions of her as 'Fraser's Supergirl' because, as she puts it 'this was not how I saw my job'. The office was a tight knit unit with pronounced 'esprit de corps'. The focus on her as an individual, because she was the positional leader, made her uncomfortable. She 'wore it', because there 'was too much at stake'. All the programs they had introduced; the childcare program, the refuges, health centres, had to be fought for. 'I stayed as long as I felt that I could be useful in that way' (Interview).

As well as formulating policies and programs, the Office of Women's Affairs was responsible for establishing the working group that would eventually lead to the National Women's Advisory Council, a body that was independent of government, comprised of women from a range of community sectors, free of party political bias and designed to 'encourage rather than silence debate'. The Working Party tabled its report in 1977 and there was much excitement about the prospects for the council in the coming years. However, this momentum was lost when the Office for Women's Affairs was moved from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to that of Home Affairs, a newly created portfolio headed by a junior minister whose concerns included 'museums, archives, shipwrecks and the ACT'. 'Women had been demoted', Dowse declared (Why I Quit). Feeling that she had done all she could do, she resigned in late 1977 and went on to work as a teacher at The Australian National University, an oral historian for the National Library of Australia, a reviewer for newspapers and journals, and became a writer of novels and short stories. Her first novel, West Block, based on her experiences in the Prime Minister's department, was published in 1983.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Sara Dowse interviewed by Ann Turner, 1997 - 1998, ORAL TRC 3663; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Magazine Articles

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Australian delegation at the 1975 World Conference of the International Women's Year
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive