Business and Professional Women

One of the defining images of Canberra’s early federal capital history is of a little girl in a white frock and bonnet presenting a bouquet to the Duchess of York at the opening of the provisional Parliament House on 9 May 1927. Four-year-old Gwen Pinner had been selected from a ballot of 500 children for this honour. Gwen later excelled academically, studied Medicine at the University of Melbourne and graduated in 1945. After suffering from tuberculosis herself, she participated in surveys of tubercular infection, and then moved into radiology, where she developed a very successful career, culminating in her election as the first female President of the Royal Australasian College of Radiologists in 1984. Gwen Pinner was also one of the founders of John James Memorial Hospital.

Duchess of York receiving flowers at Parliament House opening

Duchess of York receiving flowers at Parliament House opening, 1927. National Library of Australia.

Gwen Pinner was one of a number of Canberra women to excel in professional and business careers. Even before the capital city was named, women such as pastoralist and poet Elizabeth McKeahnie, who operated ‘Blythburn’, a dairy and cattle property near Tharwa between 1882 and 1911 as well as writing poems that were published in the Queanbeyan Age, prefigured the business achievements of Canberra women from 1913 onwards.

From the late 1940s to the 1990s, the name of Sylvia Parsons meant fashion in Canberra. Born Sylvia Johnson in nearby Gunning in 1911, Sylvia married a RAAF officer, John Parsons, in 1941 and moved to Canberra. She taught dressmaking and design at Kingston Technical College and in 1948 opened Sylvia Parsons of Canberra Fashions in Kennedy Street, Kingston, offering both off the rack fashion and dressmaking. For several decades she dressed Canberra’s best known women, maintaining her clients’ loyalty for nearly fifty years, and expanding her business to include three more shops in Manuka, Civic and Woden. Sylvia conducted 99 fashion shows to raise money for charity and inaugurated the Gown of the Year parade.

Sylvia Parsons' sewing machine

Sylvia Parsons' sewing machine, by Rob Little. ACT Museums and Galleries.

Joy Warren ‘has been the undisputed doyenne of art dealers in the nation’s capital’, where her Solander Gallery, established in 1974, was the first commercial gallery to begin its operations in Canberra. She has also been an actor, run a public relations business and acted as a publicist and fundraiser. But it is as a gallerist that Joy is best known, and she is celebrated for introducing Canberrans to new contemporary artists and representing established artists. In addition, her Solander Gallery was the first commercial gallery in Canberra to mount important exhibitions of Indigenous art from Arnhem Land and the Central Desert. Joy Warren received an OAM in 2001 for her services to the arts in the ACT.

Pamela Burton, also known as Pamela Coward, studied law and became a solicitor. She was engaged for significant legal cases such as the class-action challenge in 1973-74 to the federal government’s right to build the telecommunications tower on Black Mountain, the first environmental law case of its kind. Pamela also championed the initiative for quality affordable community housing in Canberra from which the Urambi development in Kambah was born. Finding that women who wished to become partners in legal firms faced obstacles, in 1976 Pamela founded her own firm, Pamela Coward & Associates, which developed a large practice in family law and workers’ compensation cases. To offer affordable services to her clients, Pamela turned to computerisation to achieve efficiencies and cut costs. She sold her business in 1990 to practise as a barrister in the Supreme Court of the ACT. Pamela has recently become an author, with a biography of Mary Gaudron in 2010 and a book on the Waterlow murders in 2012.

Another noted Canberra lawyer, Maria Doogan, the ACT Coroner who oversaw the coronial inquiry into the 2003 bushfires, was the first person from a non-English-speaking background to be appointed a magistrate in the ACT. Born to Polish parents in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany in 1947, Maria came to Australia in late 1950 and went first to Bonegilla Migrant Hostel near Albury. Educated in Sydney, Maria joined the Australian Public Service in Canberra in 1970. In 1985 she began external study for a law degree, graduating in 1988, and joined the Commonwealth Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1989, transferring to the ACT Office after self-government. She was appointed Magistrate and Coroner to the ACT Magistrates Court in 1998. As Coroner presiding over the 2003 bushfire inquest she was challenged by the ACT Government on the grounds of apprehended bias, but was backed by the public and the Supreme Court. She retired from the magistracy in 2012.

In 1984 Paulie Higgisson broke new ground in Canberra’s café scene when she opened the café now known as Tilley’s Devine Café at Lyneham shops. Named after the notorious Sydney madam of the 1920s, Tilley’s imposed a different entry requirement to other cafés and live music venues – men were not allowed in unless they were accompanied by at least one woman. For two years Paulie weathered the uproar this rule created, meanwhile cementing a solid and appreciative customer base for Tilley’s and achieving a reputation for the café as a superior live music venue in Canberra, where artists such as Mia Dyson, Lucie Thorne, Clare Bowditch, Renee Geyer, Slava Grigoryan, José Feliciano, Canned Heat and the Animals have performed. Smoking was banned indoors at Tilley’s, eight years before it was banned by law in the ACT, and the café’s policy of not serving drinks or food during performances has reinforced its reputation as a venue for music connoisseurs.

These Canberra women from varied professional and business backgrounds are only a few of the many who have achieved success in these areas and whose stories are included on the Australian Women’s Register.

Ros Russell

Women's Stories

Read more about business and professional women from Canberra in the Australian Women's Register.


Deborah Clark, ‘Solander Gallery: Capital Ideas’, Australian Art Collector, Issue 16 April-June 2001.