Woman Gates, Minnie May

Community Worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Minnie Gates was born in the Sydney suburb of Willoughby, in 1878, the fourth of nine children of currier, Robert Forsyth and his wife Stephana. Educated privately she did not need to seek paid employment prior to her marriage to dentist, Edmund Gates, in 1901. The couple was to have six children.

Gates' first venture into philanthropy came in 1928 when as honorary secretary of the Women's League of New South Wales she formed a sub-committee to welcome and assist young women coming to the city to work. In 1931 she stood unsuccessfully for Lane Cove Council in 1931 as a representative of the Women's League (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October 1931). Two years earlier she had become secretary of the Council for Social and Moral Reform, of which later she would become president, and an associate of the National Council of Women which also provided her with rich opportunities to display her leadership abilities.

Working through the NCW Gates helped develop a hostel for homeless women during the Depression, taking full responsibility for its management when the Council withdrew its support in 1934. 'What can be better than for women to look after women', she asked. 'It's not spectacular but ... it is the work women should be doing' (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1939). To oversee this work she founded the Big Sister Movement which she served as president for the rest of her life, extending the work to focus on aged care. In its early years the organisation also functioned as a club and employment agency for female clerical workers (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 December 1938). During World War II she offered the hostel as accommodation for munitions workers. She also became involved with Red Cross, and was a member of the committee of Royal North Shore Hospital from 1940 to 1960.

Awarded the MBE in 1941, Gates died in 1966. A playground at Royal North Shore is named in her honour.

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