Woman Knight, Beverly (1946 - )

Moonee Ponds, Victoria, Australia
Art dealer, Board member, Businesswoman and Sports administrator
Alternative Names
  • Stephens, Beverly (Maiden)

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in Moonee Ponds in 1946, Beverly Knight has been driven by two powerful forces; a strong desire for independence and an enduring connection to the Essendon Football Club. She started her own business at the age of eight, making aprons for the Raleigh travelling salesman to sell on his rounds, and can't remember a time when she didn't attend Essendon football games. Her commitment to both forces eventually saw her elected to the board of the Essendon Football Club in 1993, the first woman to hold that position at an Australian Football League (AFL) club. Knight is also well know for the leading role she has taken in bringing the work of Aboriginal artists to public notice. She is a former president of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association and helped develop a code of conduct to protect Aboriginal artists from exploitative dealers.

Beverly Stephens was born into a family with a long history of entrepreneurship and connection with the Essendon Football Club. 'They worked and breathed [Essendon's home ground at] Napier Street', and loved the 'marvelous culture of women at the football', despite the gender segregation it implied (Interview). Outside this culture, however, she remembers there were some real concerns in the 1950s and 60s about inappropriate masculine behaviour in crowded places like football grounds, and the damage that was done by uncontrolled alcohol consumption. She also remembers the lack of women's toilets at the Napier Street ground, which led to her later obsession with the lack of provision of female toilets in public stadia' (Interview). Early experiences of the lack of respect accorded to the women who supported football were not forgotten when she joined the board in later years.

She attended St Columba's school in Essendon and left at the age of sixteen because she 'wanted to make her own money' (Interview). She completed a hairdressing apprenticeship at Georges department store where she learned a key lesson in the development of business leadership; the importance of meeting the right people and networking. She served a well-connected client base and met some very interesting people there who 'taught her about the beauty of fabrics and clothes and gave her an appreciation of the finer things in life' (Interview).

She left George's to work in a suburban salon and eventually took a job with the man who would be her husband. Anthony Knight was a pioneer of discotheques in Australia and Beverly moved into the hospitality industry to support him, developing her own skills by studying cooking at the William Angliss College. The couple mixed with the celebrity set, entertaining international artists like the Rolling Stones and The Who. They eventually moved into restaurant and reception centre ownership and management. After several years of working very long hours, seven days a week, they decided the time was right to move into the city and operate restaurants that only opened Monday to Friday.

In 1982, they bought an apartment in Alcaston House, at the top end of Collins Street at a time when no-one was living in the Melbourne CBD. 'Educated risks are worth taking,' she says, and this move proved her point. As the city became more popular as a place to live their restaurants in the city prospered. City dwelling also gave her the opportunity to network with new people in different ways. Moving to 99 Spring Street, she found herself regularly bumping into two of the most important Aboriginal Art Collectors in Australia in the foyer. She quickly became the third. Margaret Carnegie, Janet Holmes a Court and Beverly Knight would encounter the sharp edge of racism from their own body corporate as other tenants complained about the regular presence of Aboriginal people in the foyer. After years of using her own restaurants to display the art she opened her own gallery. She is now Executive Director of Alcaston Gallery in Fitzroy and continues to deal in Aboriginal art in a respectful and ethical fashion. She travels extensively to meet artists across Australia and is a patron of Bindi Inc., a cross-cultural collective based in Alice Springs, established more than 20 years ago to provide a wide range of options and services to people with a disability.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Knight with the Essendon Football Club other than membership. Her decision to run for election to the board came at a time when she thought she could make a difference. The AFL was undergoing rapid change as the competition expanded into new markets. Given the nature of her business interests, she believed that she could help the club take advantage of this expansion. She also believed she had important knowledge to share about the welfare of the increasing number of Indigenous players who were joining the competition. The achievement she is most proud of, after her seventeen year involvement at board level is the manner with which Indigenous people are now accepted at the Club.

Knight offers no pretense as to the challenges she confronted when she first joined the board in 1993. Some men would quite literally turn their backs on her when she spoke. Given that she had always worked for herself, the experience of such overt sexism was not something she was used to, as perhaps she might have been if she'd worked in the corporate world. She dealt with the personal attacks as best she could, by always being better prepared than any of the other men, gauging who she might get support from, and offering unqualified support to the president. There were some strong male leaders during her tenure who she enjoyed working with, such as Graham McMahon, who she admired for his integrity and good decision making. And there is no doubt in her mind that generational change has created an environment for change - younger men have been more accepting of her right to be there. But there were times when she felt that having another woman with her would have made an enormous difference. 'Just hearing the different sound of a female voice, listening to the different priorities', would have made the job much easier. . . There's a need for more than one woman on a board so that they can feel effective in a normal environment'(Interview). And the rate of change is glacial, she complains. At a board meeting close to the end of her tenure in 2010, a committee paper which recommended a scheme by which a certain percentage of the board would be women by 2014 was universally defeated. 'Don't you know that football is about men?' one director shouted (Interview).

Since she blazed the trail for other women to join AFL boards, Knight has been pleased to see how they have networked themselves. She thinks they have made a big difference to the way the AFL administration relates and communicates with women in the football community, but argues that the under-representation of women at a board level still needs to be addressed for the good of the game. 'Getting the right women with the right skills is difficult, but it has to be done,' she says. 'You have to hear 100% of the story' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Beverly Knight interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 20 July 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/13; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Beverly Knight talks about being the first woman on the board of an AFL team
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive