Woman O'Brien, Anne Philomena

Glenelg, South Australia, Australia

Written by Sharon M. Harrison, The University of Melbourne

Anne O'Brien is a leader in the history profession who has contributed to Australian history, in particular women's and gender history, religious history and welfare history, in significant ways.

Anne Philomena O'Brien was born in Glenelg, South Australia, the youngest of five daughters born to Paul Dominic O'Brien and Mary Winifred Dundon (Mollie). She completed her secondary education at Dominican Convent Cabra. She was introduced to feminism by her teachers, elder sisters and the example of her mother who, though taking no paid work after her marriage, strongly supported her daughters' ambitions for tertiary education and the choices it brought.

O'Brien completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Adelaide, graduating with a BA (Hons) degree with Honours in History in 1975. During her honours year she was strongly influenced by Hugh Stretton's teaching and commitment to equality. In 1976 O'Brien worked as a part-time tutor, Flinders University, South Australia. She then moved to Sydney to write a PhD on The Poor in NSW, 1880-1918, which was awarded by the University of Sydney in 1982. O'Brien benefitted from the loose network of scholars and PhD students interested in 'the new social history' who, in the late 1970s, worked in Mitchell Library and attended Dr Heather Radi's Australian history seminars at the University of Sydney. On the completion of her PhD she worked as a teacher of History, English and Music at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield, from 1982 to 1985.

In 1985 O'Brien was awarded the Col George Johnson Scholarship at the University of Sydney,which gave her the time to prepare her PhD thesis for publication. It was published by Melbourne University Press under the title Poverty's Prison. The Poor in New South Wales 1880-1918 (1988). She was appointed Project Officer, Bicentennial Local History Co-ordination Project, School of History, University of New South Wales (UNSW), in 1986. In 1987 O'Brien was appointed Lecturer, School of History, UNSW.

Following her appointment at the UNSW, O'Brien began research in a new field, religious history. Influenced by the rise of cultural history, she sought to move religious history away from its institutional orientation and examine its deep cultural significance, particularly its complex relationship with gender ideology. She published a number of articles in this area culminating in God's Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia (2005). She was awarded an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant (2007-2009) for a project entitled Religion, welfare and 'problem populations'. It has resulted in a number of articles and book chapters, and will soon appear as a monograph.

O'Brien was promoted to Associate Professor in 2007. She was Australian Studies Convenor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW, (2007-2009) and History Convenor, School of History and Philosophy, UNSW (2010-2011).

O'Brien is married to historian of Indonesia, John Ingleson; they have two daughters, Elizabeth (b. 1989) and Katherine (b. 1993).

Additional sources: Personal correspondence with Anne O'Brien, October 2013.

Published Resources


  • O'Brien, Anne, God's Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2005. Details

Book Sections

  • O'Brien, Anne, 'The "Fully-ordained-meat-pie" Problem: Women Church Workers and Leadership under Australian Democracy', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 293-300. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/sti/pdfs/20_OBrien.pdf. Details

Online Resources

See also