Woman Bielski, Joan (1923 - 2012)


Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia
August 2012
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Community activist, Feminist, Political activist and Teacher
Alternative Names
  • Ward (Maiden)

Written by Deborah Towns, Swinburne University

Joan Margaret Ward was born in 1923 in Narrabri, NSW, to Francis and Doris (nee Bull) Ward. Her schooling was at St Patrick's Convent, Armidale, and St Mary's Convent, Gunnedah. Leaving school she worked in a newsprint factory and in clerical jobs. During World War Two, she joined the RAAF and served as a telegraphist (1942-1945). After the war, supported by the ex-servicemen's rehabilitation scheme, she gained a degree in history and economics from New England University College together with a Diploma of Education from the University of Sydney. She then taught for twenty-three years. In the 1950s and 1960s she was an activist in the NSW Teachers Federation and advocated for equal pay. In the same era she joined the Immigration Reform Group and was a founding member of the Council of Civil Liberties. She married Jerzy (George) Stefan Bielski (1921-2009) in 1953. He was from Poland and a survivor of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. They supported each other in political and social activism until he died in 2009.

In 1972 Bielski was a founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby and with others she made submissions to the 1973 federal commission of inquiry into poverty which resulted in legislative change that recognized the special needs of single parents. She was also a founding member of the NSW Women in Education group (1973-1994), a feminist organisation, whose slogan was Educate to Liberate. From 1974 to 1977 she was principal research officer to the influential Royal Commission on Human Relationships. In 1977, Bielski was appointed the foundation head of the Ministry of Education's Social Development Unit, established to implement the findings of the NSW government's Committee of Inquiry into Sexism in Education. She used the NSW government's report, the 1975 Commonwealth's Schools Commission's Girls, School and Society report and the 1977 Anti-Discrimination Act to develop projects and programs that addressed issues identified by the reports and the legislation. Working creatively and indefatigably she wrote numerous, papers, gave hundreds of speeches and was sought by state and national government departments to provide her expertise in the area of women and girls in education. 'She became the pre-eminent femocrat in education in NSW' (Sobski, b:2012), according to her work colleague from the Social Development Unit and her close friend, Jozefa Sobski.

Although Bielski retired in 1984 her relentless feminist and community activism continued. Among her many causes was the Myer Foundation funded project on women engineers the results of which she published in 1988 as Women Engineers. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1988, for services to women and girls, especially in education. From 1992 she worked tirelessly on the WEL initiative, Women into Politics Coalition and in 2004 she was awarded the Order of Australia for her services to women in political life. Throughout her life she was a prolific letter writer to influential people, organisations and newspapers. Her first letter, published in 1953, supported women's equality while her last supported the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and appeared in August 2012, the month in which she died. As an active member of the Older Women's Network (OWN) NSW, she attended its forum, Rights Roadblocks and Resilience, on 16 August 2012. The next day, whilst writing her next missive, she collapsed with a massive stroke and died shortly afterwards. A Memorial Celebration was held for Joan Bielski in Parliament House, Sydney, on 28 November, 2012. It was attended by hundreds, including the Governor General, Quentin Bryce, and Barry O'Farrell, the Premier of New South Wales.

Archival Resources

Private Collection

  • 'Memorial-Joan Bielski, Women and Girls Education' Speech by Jozefa Sobski at Joan Bielski's Memorial, 28 November 2012; Private Collection. Details

Published Resources

Newsletter Articles

Online Resources