Serving the Public

Mugga-Mugga Cottage is one of Canberra’s historic places, and the former home of Sylvia Curley, who trained as a nurse and from 1938 to 1966 served the people of Canberra as deputy matron of the Canberra Community Hospital (later Royal Canberra Hospital). She introduced reforms to the way the hospital was run, and her enthusiasm for improved nursing training led to the establishment of the Nursing School in Canberra in 1957, the second in Australia. Sylvia’s interests in local history and environmental studies prompted her bequest of Mugga-Mugga to the people of Canberra as a house museum and environmental studies centre.

Sylvia Curley

Sylvia Curley. ACT Historic Places.

Ann Dalgarno was also a nurse, and was prominent in nursing and political circles in Canberra, becoming the only female member of the ACT Advisory Council from 1959 to 1967 while also running the Nursing Service Agency.

The honour of being the first woman to lead an Australian state or territory rests with the Labor Party’s Rosemary Follett, who in 1989 became the ACT’s first Chief Minister, and served again in that position from 1991 to 1995. Rosemary then served as ACT Discrimination Commissioner from 1996 to 2004. Kate Carnell began serving the public as a pharmacist at Red Hill, and became first president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s ACT branch. Elected leader of the ACT Liberal Party in 1993, Kate was ACT Chief Minister between 1995 and 2000. She championed drug law reform and sought to bring business and tourism to Canberra.

Portrait of Rosemary Follett, 1994, by Andrew Stawowczyk Long

Portrait of Rosemary Follett, 1994, by Andrew Stawowczyk Long. National Library of Australia.

Other women who have served the Canberra public as political representatives have also scored some notable ‘firsts’. Susan Ryan, a teacher and a founding member of the Belconnen Australian Labor Party branch, was elected as the first Labor senator for the ACT in 1975, becoming Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women in the Hawke Labor government from 1983 to 1988, and Minister for Education from 1984 to 1987.

Elected by a large majority as the first woman member of the ACT House of Assembly in 1974, Ros Kelly was elected to federal parliament to represent the seat of Canberra in 1980, and in 1983 became the first federal parliamentarian in Australia to give birth while in office. Ros became the first Labor woman federal minister in the House of Representatives in 1987.

Margaret Reid was the first woman to be elected President of the Senate for a six-year term in 1996. That same year, Kate Lundy, at the age of 28, became the youngest Labor representative in the Senate and the youngest woman ever elected to represent the Australian Labor Party in federal parliament. She is currently Minister for Sport, Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation in the Gillard Labor government.

The current ACT Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher, has held this position since 16 May 2011. After working as a social worker and advocate for the intellectually disabled, then in the trade union sector, Katy was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the electorate of Molonglo in October 2001, and re-elected in 2004, 2008 and 2012. She has also been Deputy Chief Minister and Treasurer, and has held the Health, Community Services and Women ministerial portfolios.

The name ‘Canberra’, however, is most often associated with the Commonwealth Public Service. The Australian Women’s Register contains a number of entries relating to Canberra women who have worked as Commonwealth public servants, including another ‘first’ when Elizabeth Reid was appointed to the new position of adviser on women’s affairs to Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1973. She gained a high media profile for helping to resource women’s services, and bringing in new policies for equal opportunity, training, housing and employment.

Beulah McAppion, 20 February 2011

Beulah McAppion, 20 February 2011, by Ann-Mari Jordens. ACT Heritage Library.

Descended from several Canberra region pioneer families – Southwell, Gribbin and Curren – Beulah McAppion joined the Commonwealth Department of Price Control in 1942, and served in the Commonwealth Superannuation Retirement Benefits Office until 1968.

Economist and academic Meredith Edwards was seconded to the Office of the Status of Women in 1983, then for ten years from 1987 worked in a number of Commonwealth Public Service departments, developing policies around AUSTUDY, Child Support, HECS and long-term initiatives to address unemployment.

Portrait of Meredith Edwards at the National Library of Australia, 5 August 2005

Portrait of Meredith Edwards at the National Library of Australia, 5 August 2005, by Greg Power.National Library of Australia.

Two indigenous women have played significant roles in Indigenous affairs. Veronica Tippett began her career in Canberra in 1968, first as a laboratory assistant at ANU, then with the Australian Electoral Commission. She became a trainee with the newly-formed Aboriginal Development Commission in 1980, later heading its secretariat. After transferring to the Public Service Board in 1985, Veronica helped to develop the Commonwealth Public Service equal opportunity policy relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She became a Cultural Relations Officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1987, promoting Indigenous Australian cultures in overseas forums.

Pat Turner, an Arrernte and Gurdanji woman from Alice Springs, came to Canberra in 1979 to work in the Social Policy Branch of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA). She was promoted to the Senior Executive Service in 1985 when she became Director of the DAA in Alice Springs. Pat became First Assistant Secretary, Economic Development Division, then Deputy Secretary of the Department in 1989, and from 1991 to 1992 was Deputy Secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, overseeing the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. From 1994 to 1998 Pat was CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, and the most senior Indigenous government official in the country.

Australian researchers owe a great debt to Pauline Fanning, who joined the Commonwealth National Library as a cadet in 1936 and, said current National Librarian, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, ‘played an integral role in the development of the library’s Australian collections’ as ‘an eminent bibliographer, reference librarian and an authority on Australian history, literature, art and politics’. The Public Service marriage bar for women cost Pauline a promising appointment in London in 1959. Once the bar was lifted in 1966 her promotion was rapid. In 1972 she became principal librarian, and in 1975 was made Director of the Australian National Humanities Library.

Ros Russell

Women's Stories

Read more about women serving the public in Canberra in the Australian Women's Register.


Sally Hopman, ‘Librarian’s lasting legacy’, Canberra Times, 8 June 2012.