Woman Brennan, Patricia Anne

Anglican Missionary, Campaigner, Feminist Theologian, Forensic Physician and Media Presenter

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Patricia Anne Brennan, nee Wilkinson, was born in 1944 into an Irish working class family in Hurstville, Sydney. One of three daughters, her father was a compositor and her mother was a hospital matron. Raised as an Anglican, she had religious faith from an early age (Cotes, 2011). After attending St George Girls' High School, Patricia Wilkinson won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study medicine at Sydney University where she met Robert Brennan. Once qualified, seeking adventure, she worked as a missionary-surgeon in Nigeria and Niger for a year. Returning to Australia, she married Robert Brennan and together they served as missionaries in western and northern Africa for two years. Africa challenged Patricia Brennan in a multitude of ways but particularly: 'I saw the tremendous suffering of women, and I think that was the beginning of me seeing.' Her Christian faith, the belief in the equality of all people and the fight for justice motivated her all her life (Doogue, 2011).

In Sydney the Brennans had three children and the contrast between her status in Africa and as a mother in a local parish radicalised Patricia. She clearly saw the patriarchal, sexist arrangements of the Anglican Church as akin to racism. Of women she said: 'We're disciples. We're Christians, and Australians are probably among the Western Anglican Churches the most oppressed women.' With other like-minded women she founded the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) in 1983. Brennan's public speaking and debating challenged the Anglican Church to change, particularly after MOW nailed its theses to a door of St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney (Doogue, 2011). 'To have gone to the press and onto the streets and declared publicly in front of our cathedrals that a great wrong was being done to women in the Church, put our hearts into our mouths', she declared. 'But, in the prophetic tradition, it isn't a bad place for the heart to be kept.' (Scarfe, 2011). In 1988 MOW members attended the Anglican Church's Lambeth Conference in London where they gained international attention. In 1989 and 1991 Brennan organised the national feminist theology conferences and the establishment of the Australian Feminist Theology Foundation (Lindsay, 2011). Against tremendous resistance the work of MOW resulted in the first woman priest being ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia in Perth in 1992, although, significantly, Brennan's home diocese of Sydney has never followed this lead.

As a leader Brennan's clarity of thought and analysis was charismatic and inspiring; she was at ease with the media as a public figure. She used her anger constructively. 'Justice needs to have outrage,' she believed. Her outrage was also apparent in her practice of medicine 'where I saw the general medical profession was doing nothing rigorous about violence to the bodies of women - and men' (Doogue, 2011). She became assistant medical director with the Sydney Square diagnostic breast clinic; medical director of the Liverpool/Fairfield Sexual Assault Service; senior lecturer at the University of Sydney; and, at The Royal Prince Alfred Hospital emergency department, she was the first forensic medicine specialist dealing with sexual assault in New South Wales (Lindsay, 2011). Brennan also worked with the ABC's Religion Unit in both radio and television in the mid 1980s and early 1990s (Doogue, 2011).

In 2001, she obtained a doctorate of philosophy, followed by her 2003 graduate diploma in forensic medicine and a master's degree in forensic medicine in 2005. Her work with the Police Force in supporting women rape victims was ground-breaking, campaigning for the use of better evidence in trials. She was a Fellow of the Australasian College of Biomedical Scientists and of the Australasian College of Legal Medicine (Lindsay, 2011). In 1988 Brennan received a Bicentennial Women of Achievement award and, in 1993, was appointed a member of the Order of Australia. She has also been recognised on the Australian Council of Churches' Commission on the Status of Women calendar as a 'prophet in our time' (Lindsay, 2011).

Brennan died in 2011. Her husband, Robert remembered her as: 'a person of intense intelligence, of intense energy and an intense desire to see goodness and truth prevail in the world' (Doogue, 2011). The Liverpool Sexual Assault Clinic in Sydney has been named The Brennan Unit in her honour.

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