'Housewives' Leader Awarded MBE': Women, Leadership and Honours in Australia

Karen Fox


From the Order of the British Empire in the past to the Order of Australia today, official honours have been intended as a mark of appreciation and esteem for service given to the community and the nation, and for high achievement in various fields. They have been a traditional reward for those in leadership roles, in politics, the public service, business or the community. Women became broadly eligible for honours when the Order of the British Empire was created in 1917. Who were the women awarded honours then and in the decades that followed? Were they leaders of community organisations, recognised for their services in areas of activity traditionally viewed as the preserve of women, or path-breaking women entering masculine-dominated fields of activity? What awards did women predominantly receive, and what range of leadership roles was recognised by the award of honours to women? Did the feminist movement from the late 1960s bring with it any changes in these patterns? Using the story of Cecilia Downing, the long-serving president of the Victorian Housewives’ Association, as a way in to these broader questions, this chapter considers women’s leadership and participation in Australian democracy in the twentieth century through women’s experiences of honours since 1917.


honours, leadership, feminism, gender, maternal citizenship

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