Woman Cumbrae-Stewart, Zina

Community Worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Zina Cumbrae-Stewart was born in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton in 1868, the daughter of stock and station agent, Robert Hammond, and his wife Jessie. Educated at a private ladies college in St Kilda, she returned there as a teacher until her marriage to Francis Cumbrae-Stewart in 1906. The couple lived in Brisbane where her husband became registrar of the University of Queensland. Their only child was born in 1908.

Cumbrae-Stewart entered quickly into Brisbane's charitable networks. She was a foundation member and president of the Mothers' Union, long-term president of the National Council of Women in Queensland, and, in 1931, co-founder of the Queensland Social Services League, as well as holding executive positions in Red Cross and more than 20 other community organisations. By 1936, she claimed, she was attending 360 committee meetings per year (West Australian, 30 June 1936). 'I am exceptionally fortunate', she commented, 'in having time to give to these movements, even if I cannot always give much money' (Brisbane Courier, 25 January 1933). One of her reasons for opposing the extension of industrial rights to domestic servants in 1915 was that 'if servants were given more leisure their mistresses would have less time to devote to charitable works' (Stewart, p.616).

According to her biographer Cumbrae-Stewart 'regarded her abilities as giving her a right to leadership ... but believed nonetheless that her first responsibility was to be a good wife and mother' (Bonnin). She was a fierce defender of the right of women of her class to participate in public life, describing the 'mentality' of 'public men' as being 'warped on the question of women on committees (Courier-Mail, 10 February 1936), suggesting, at one stage, 'a week's strike to gain women the right to a place on the nation's financial committees and municipalities' (West Australian, 30 June 1936). A regular radio broadcaster, she believed that 'women should be permitted to speak on matters of topical interest, and not only on subjects dealing with women's activities' (West Australian, 30 June 1936). She argued that they should be offered 'training which will fit them to occupy posts indifferently well filled hitherto by men', drawing on their household management skills to contribute to national life (Brisbane Courier, 24 August 1932). 'Men have failed', she declared. 'Women could not do worse, and it is time that we are given the opportunity to bring the nations out of the morass into which they have fallen' (Courier-Mail, 3 October 1935).

Described as 'a moral force' (Courier-Mail, 28 May 1936), Cumbrae-Stewart spoke from a conservative position, condemning many of the changes modernity had brought to women's lives. Women's 'power in the world', she believed, would be lost if they continued to depart from existing 'customs and traditions' (Courier-Mail, 26 March 1935). During the Depression she argued that men and boys should be given privileged access to work, adding that 'for girls, there were always the occupations of housecraft, dressmaking and teaching in all its branches' (Central Queensland Herald, 4 April 1935). 'A woman's life is service', she argued, 'in giving service ... you will find your greatest happiness in life' (Courier-Mail, 4 June 1936). 'All things being equal', she stated, 'women should have the same opportunities as men ... but for the sake of the nation women should recognise that preferences of employment should be given to men ... Women will never rise to be bank managers ... [and] in businesses where the heads necessarily must be men, no women should be employed' (Courier-Mail, 30 August 1933).

Cumbrae-Stewart's forthrightness often brought her into controversy. Leadership of the opposition, she commented, was often her 'lot ... [but] in spite of disagreements, we always parted amicably' (Courier-Mail, 9 June 1936). Attempts to secure her an imperial honour failed but she was appointed a justice of the peace in 1932 (Stewart, p.625). She retired to Melbourne in 1936, and after her husband's death in 1938, lived with her bachelor son moving with him to Hobart where she died in 1956.

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Stewart, Jean, 'Zina Beatrice Selwyn Cumbrae-Stewart: a powerful woman', Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland (1988), vol. 19, no. 1, February 2005, pp. 610-627. Details

Newspaper Articles

See also