Over its history as the national capital Canberra has witnessed a distinctive phenomenon: the capacity of activist women – many of them also public servants – to work within governmental structures to achieve broad-ranging improvements to the lives of women and families in Canberra and across Australia.

Marie Coleman’s life has been one of activism in feminism, social welfare, education, sexual and reproductive health and child accident prevention. She has been a journalist, a social worker and an eminent public servant, and maintains an active involvement in public life. Marie was the first woman to head a Commonwealth government statutory agency – the Whitlam government’s Social Welfare Commission in 1973. She had a long and distinguished career in public service, and was the first woman to hold the powers of Permanent Head under the Public Service Act. Marie has also been a long-term activist in women’s organisations, and was founding secretary in 1989 of the National Foundation for Australian Women. She chairs its Social Policy Committee, and was instrumental in establishing the Australian Women’s Archives Project.

WEL banner made by WEL-ACT member Julie McCarron-Benson

WEL banner made by WEL-ACT member Julie McCarron-Benson. Courtesy Gail Radford.

Two generations of women of the Ryan family have been staunch activists as feminists, trade unionists and educators. Edna Ryan, feminist and labour activist, worked to achieve equal pay for women, maternity leave and work-based childcare, and was a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in 1972. Her two daughters, Julia and Lyndall, have also forged reputations as feminist activists and educators in women’s studies. Julia Ryan was a member of the first Canberra Women’s Liberation Group in the 1970s, and was involved as Public Officer in the Canberra Women’s Refuge from 1975 to 1977. She worked in Women’s Studies at ANU from 1981 to 1982, and from 1991 to 1996 was the Honorary Secretary of the National Foundation for Australian Women. Lyndall Ryan joined the first Sydney Women’s Liberation Group in 1970, and joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a policy analyst on women’s health and childcare in 1974, and was later Professor of Women’s Studies at Flinders University.

Elizabeth Bilney, a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) ACT, led the campaign for access to childcare for working mothers and, with other WEL activists, approached Marie Coleman of the Social Welfare Commission in 1973 to pursue ideas about expanding childcare. The Commission produced the Project Care, Parents Children Community report in 1974. Susan Ryan, a senior Hawke government minister, told Elizabeth that ‘You were a heroine of childcare ... The near universal acceptance of the right of children to good care and the responsibility of government to support this, constitutes a real revolution’.

The newly formed WEL-ACT and the Women’s Liberation Movement supported Indigenous candidate Pat Eatock when she became the first Aboriginal person to stand (unsuccessfully) for election to federal parliament in the ACT in 1972 as an independent, on a platform of Indigenous and women’s and children’s issues. In 2011 Pat Eatock sued journalist Andrew Bolt in the Federal Court of Australia, on the grounds that he had breached the Racial Discrimination Act in two newspaper columns in 2009 in which he ‘had suggested a number of fair-skinned Aborigines had chosen to identify themselves as Aboriginal so they could obtain benefits’. The court ruled that Bolt had breached the Act, a judgement that Pat described as ‘a highlight of my career and my life’.

Sara Dowse was called ‘Supergirl’ by the press when she was appointed inaugural head of the Women’s Affairs Section of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (now Office of the Status of Women) in the Whitlam government in the early 1970s. After experiencing sexism as a pregnant student, she became a feminist activist, and a member of the Women’s Liberation Movement and WEL-ACT. After resigning from the public service Sara became a university teacher and writer, and published West Block, a novel based on her Prime Minister’s Department experience, in 1983. Since that time she has published a number of other fictional and non-fictional works, including several books on women’s issues.

Isabel Coe was a stalwart of the struggle for Aboriginal rights and a key figure in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in January 1972 and maintaining it thereafter. As the lead litigant in Isabel Coe v the Commonwealth she initiated an unsuccessful but important legal challenge in 1993 which sought to assert the sovereignty of the Wiradjuri nation.

A leading member of WEL and its National Coordinator from 1982 to 1984, Pamela Denoon was an active lobbyist for women’s rights in the ACT, and was involved in campaigns for the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act and the Affirmative Action Act, and in major conferences around women’s issues. After her early death in 1988 at the age of 46, bequests from Pamela established two feminist organisations, the National Foundation for Australian Women and the Pamela Denoon Trust.

Olive Brown came to Canberra in 1987 and took action to improve Aboriginal health services in the ACT. She was one of the founders of the Winnunga Nimmityah Aboriginal Health Service, established in 1988. Olive also helped to establish the Aboriginal Children’s Service and the Murralingabung Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Drug and Alcohol Organisation.

Clare Burton was a WEL activist, and an academic, researcher and public servant who worked in the area of equal pay for women in both the NSW and Queensland governments. Clare’s major publications on equal pay provided a solid intellectual framework for policy development, and her monograph, Redefining Merit, became an essential text for employment equity practitioners. She was a founding member of the National Pay Equity Coalition. After her death in 1998, the Clare Burton Memorial Fund was established to commemorate her life and continue her work.

Pamela Denoon, Clare Burton and another Canberra activist in the area of abortion law reform, Beryl Henderson, have been commemorated in foundations and trusts that keep the memories of their activism alive. Search the stories of many other activist women and organisations in Canberra whose stories can be found on the Australian Women’s Register.

Ros Russell

Women's Stories

Read more about activist women and organisations from Canberra in the Australian Women's Register.


‘Pat Eatock vs Andrew Bolt’, The Age, 29 September 2011.