Woman Kirner, Joan Elizabeth

Community Activist and Politician

Written by Heather O'Connor, Independent Scholar

Joan Kirner was born on the 20th June, 1938, the only child of John Keith Hood, a fitter and turner, whose commitment to social justice Joan credits with shaping her political values. Her mother, Beryl Edith Cole, was a music teacher, whose belief that girls could do anything holds equal importance in explaining her daughter's life-long commitment to improving the status of girls and women (ABC 1 TV, Talking Heads).

Joan graduated from Melbourne University in 1958, after which she taught at the Ballarat Girls' Technical College. Like all women at the time, her marriage to her husband, Ron in 1960 meant that she was precluded from permanency in the service, an injustice which fueled much of her activism as an education lobbyist and later, as Minister for Education. The birth of three children, and the shift to suburban Croydon, marked the beginning of Joan's career as a community activist, strongly supported by Ron and local women who have remained life-long friends.

Joan Kirner's career in politics has two distinctive phases: twelve years in the Victorian Parliament (1982-1994), the remaining decades in community politics. The latter began when she was elected President of the Victorian Federation of State Schools' Parents Clubs, (1971-1977), selected by Gough Whitlam to be the parent representative on the Australian Schools Commission, (1973-1978), and elected President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations (1975-1978).

In the Victorian parliament, Joan held the positions of Minister for Conservation, 1985, Minister for Education, 1988, Deputy Premier, 1989, and Victoria's first woman Premier, 1990 to 1992. She retired from parliament in May, 1994. In the years since her retirement Joan has maintained her community activism as Victorian Communities Ambassador, and her commitment to supporting women into parliament, most notably through Emily's List which she co-founded in 1996.

Joan's feminist values of inclusion, recognizing individual talents, encouraging women's participation in every aspect of public life and decision-making, have informed her leadership. Promoting Landcare when she was Minister for Conservation, Joan worked closely with Heather Mitchell, President of the Victorian Farmer's Federation, and with key women in local land management programs. She believes that change only comes about when politicians take the community with them, and where power is shared between women working towards the same goals (The Women's Power Handbook.) 'If you want to change the world for yourself and your own kids, you've got to change it for and with other people, particularly, women' (The Wisdom Interviews).

Joan relied heavily on friendships with women, most notably fellow Ministers, Caroline Hogg and Kay Setches, long-time friend and ALP Secretary, Jenny Beacham, and her Ministerial staff. 'No woman in politics can survive and be successful without a network of women…I would not have survived two years as Premier of Victoria without the support of women colleagues and women friends' ('To do something good'). The importance of maintaining friendships and networks between women, linking those with access to power with women in the community, informed how Joan operated as Minister, Premier and community politician (The Women's Power Handbook).

Published Resources


Book Sections

  • Kirner, Joan, 'To do something good', in Scutt, Jocelynne A. (ed.), Living Generously: Women Mentoring Women, Artemis, Melbourne, Victoria, 1996. Details
  • Kirner, Joan, 'A Framework of Passion', in Liz Byrski (ed.), Speaking Out: Australian Women Talk about Success, New Holland Publishers, Sydney, New South Wales, 1999. Details

Edited Books

  • Considine, Mark and Costar, Brian (eds), Trials in Power: Cain, Kirner and Victoria, 1982-1992, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1992. Details

Journal Articles

  • Carney, Shaun, 'Profile of Joan Kirner', Australian Left Review, no. 121, September 1990. Details
  • Kirner, Joan, 'Personal comment', Australian Feminist Studies: Women and Citizenship, no. 19, Autumn 1994. Details
  • Rayner, Moira, 'Clare Burton Memorial Lecture: 'A pound of flesh: Women, politics and power in the new millennium'', Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 18, no. 41, July 2003. Details

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Joan Kirner and Elaine Canty on the importance of women to AFL
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive