Woman Crane, Robyn

Chief executive officer, Community activist and Politician

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

When Robyn Crane arrived in the Pilbara, Western Australia, in December 1971, she clearly had no idea just what kind of hot, remote and dusty world she was coming to, if the travel clothes she chose for her family were anything to go by. Her daughter was dressed in a pretty pink dress, her husband and son in ties and long sleeved shirts and she was, 'adorned in a watermelon coloured linen suit complete with white gloves and white high heels' (Red dust in her veins). Thirty-five years later, she stepped out of the region as one of the people most qualified to represent its interests, having taken this role on local council, national consultative bodies and as Chief Executive Officer of the Pilbara Development Commission.

After an inauspicious start to life in the Pilbara (the Crane family were greeted at the airport by an embarrassed company official with the news that the house and job they thought they were coming to wasn't eady quite yet, and a subsequent Christmas Day spent sick and in tears), Robyn decided to make the most of her new life and became heavily involved in community development schemes. Living in both pre-established and company 'closed' towns in the northwest, Crane came to the conclusion that even though the quality of housing was reasonable, the towns themselves had been built by men with little thought for the needs of families. She was determined to campaign on behalf of families in the remote northwest, for their right to live in a sustainable community, fit for what she termed, 'the sometimes forgotten human resource' - women (The Sometimes Forgotten Human Resource).

Her campaigns focused on practical, tangible outcomes. Childcare facilities, for example, were non-existent. As one of its first community building acts, she worked with a group of women that successfully lobbied the Hamersley mining company to allocate a house to be used as a child care centre in the company town of Dampier. Within five years, this community collective of women had established two more centres in Karratha. In an early example of public/private partnership, they had successfully applied for funding from Hamersley Iron, Woodside , the Shire of Roebourne and both the Commonwealth and State Governments to establish the largest not for profit child care group in Western Australia, the importance of which cannot be overstated in a region where extended family support was virtually non-existent. Crane was Centre Administrator from 1976 to 1985.

Determined to formally advocate for women's needs in remote communities, Crane began her involvement in local government matters in 1974 when she was appointed a member of the advisory council established to determine how the new Shire of Roebourne council should operate, (the previous council was disbanded in the late 1960s), given the new pressures and challenges placed on the region by the mining industry. Based on the reputation she developed as part of the advisory council, she was asked to run for election on the newly reconstituted council in the 1976 elections. She was unimpressed by the advice she received from the shire clerk, after accepting the invitation, that she was ineligible to stand for election because the Local Government Act stipulated that only people with their name on a lease could stand for local government. Other women of the Shire of Roebourne were equally dismayed. They picketed for the right to vote and protested that a way had to be found to give Crane the right to stand. Hamersley Iron agreed to allow her to hold the lease for the Child Care Centre, which opened the way for her to nominate for one of the two Dampier Ward positions. Most women were unable to vote for the same reason that she was not initially allowed to stand, so Crane was elected to local government on what would have been close to a 100% male vote. This restriction was not lifted until 1982. As Crane observed, 'when one considers [this], you can easily understand how little impact women have had in their destiny. What elected member takes notice of people with no right to vote?' (The Sometimes Forgotten Human Resource).

Robyn Crane became the first female Shire President of the Shire of Roebourne in 1979, three years before women were allowed to cast their vote in local elections in Western Australia. She held the position for five years and went on to become the first woman member of the W.A. Country Shire Council. Her work in local government gave her opportunities and a profile that eventually led to her being asked to join the Commonwealth Government National Women's Advisory Council in the early 1980s and being offered the position of Chief Executive Officer of the Pilbara Development Commission.

Crane doubts that she would have been a woman of so many firsts had she stayed in one of the metropolitan centers. She was told several times that she wouldn't be able to do something, which just made her more determined to try. 'If you want to make a difference', she argues, 'you need to get in there and try' (Breaking Through, p. 13). Communities that are in the process of being built are often not bound by the same conventions as those that are established, and Crane took full advantage of this. She represented what she called 'the human face to resource development' and through her community activism, made sure that 'one side of that face', the women of the Pilbara region 'came out of the shadow' for the betterment of the region. As she put it, 'The emergence of this side of the face,' that is, the involvement of women in the political process, 'will demand, and cause, change' (The Sometimes Forgotten Human Resource).

Archival Resources

National Archives of Australia

  • NWAC [National Women's Advisory Council] - Speeches, 24 February 1983, 7902678; National Archives of Australia. Details

National Library of Australia

  • Biographical cuttings on Robyn Crane, former member of the National Women's Advisory Council, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals, c. 1900 - c. 2000, 1833982; National Library of Australia. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

NWAC [National Women's Advisory Council] - Speeches
Digitised Paper Resource
24 February 1983
National Archives of Australia
National Archives of Australia