Theme Philanthropy and Social Reform

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

In 19th-century Australia, philanthropy had provided both middle and upper class women with a very effective means of extending their influence into the public sphere. Although few commanded large resources, their willingness to donate their time and their talents meant that they effectively controlled many of the colonies' major charities, particularly those that provided services for women and children. In the course of the 20th century, the state accepted responsibility for many of these services, which increasingly were professionally staffed. Women's philanthropy, however, has survived this challenge. While traces of the older 'lady bountiful' model were still apparent, by century's end, women who were wealthy in their own right were using both their assets and their professional training to fund, and in many cases manage, innovative philanthropic enterprises, most of which focus on improving the lot of other women both within and beyond Australia.

The older model of women's philanthropy survived into the early years of the 20th century. In every centre of population, the wives and daughters of the professional, pastoral and merchant classes were the fund-raisers and committee members for charities, schools, churches, cultural institutions and other voluntary associations. Positions of leadership were occupied by the wives, or more often the widows and daughters, of substantial settlers, who brought both wealth and influence to the cause. Women like Melbourne's Janet, Lady Clarke (Morrissey, ADB; Carey & Lemon, 'Clarke', AWR) or Sydney's Mary Fairfax (Simpson, ADB; Lemon, 'Fairfax', AWR) used their inherited wealth both to host fund-raising functions in their mansions and to free them to spend substantial amounts of time on committee work for the organisations they chose to support. For such women, philanthropy was both an obligation and a privilege of class for which they had been schooled since childhood.

Janet, Lady Clarke, the wife of Victoria's richest man and only hereditary baronet, enthusiastically embraced the philanthropic responsibilities that came with her position. Carefully schooled in her new role by Lady Bowen, the wife of the Victorian governor, she accepted invitations to join the committees of most Melbourne charities concerned with the welfare of women and children. On her death in November 1909, the Argus declared: 'Any movement that had for its aim the welfare of the community, in the uplifting of humanity, found in her a ready, willing, and able ally' (Argus, 29 April 1909). Many of the recipients of her beneficence lined the streets for her funeral procession, one of the most impressive Melbourne had ever seen (Argus, 30 April 1909). Clarke's most recent biographer has defended her against accusations that her philanthropic activity was 'simply a public demonstration of the noblesse oblige idea', arguing instead that her religious faith inspired 'a genuine commitment to improve living standards for the underprivileged in society', a desire to 'bring permanent changes' in their lives (Lewis, 134). Certainly, she did actively involve herself in management and policy development in relation to some of the organisations with which she was involved. However, her philanthropy remained an activity rather than a profession. In Sydney, tobacco manufacturer's wife, Lady Emma Dixson (Cook, ADB), and heiress, Mary Fairfax, occupied a similar position, filling their days with philanthropic activities and using their resources to attract and reward other contributors to their chosen causes. While they understood their philanthropy as a duty attached to wealth, such a response tended to underplay the power that it brought in its wake. Nor did it recognise that philanthropy was also political, embraced by conservative women who saw amelioration rather than reform as the appropriate response to poverty.

The 19th century had also established a pattern of philanthropy for women not engaged in the social whirl. Anne Bon (Henningham, 'Bon', AWR; Gillison, ADB) did not involve herself in fashionable fund-raising but used her wealth and social position to advance both the conventional and the controversial causes in which she believed. Widowed young, she was clearly aware of the power of money, sometimes scandalising fellow Melburnians with her support for the Aboriginal and Chinese communities. Sydney widow Helen Fell (Godden, ADB) was also well provided for but used her wealth to construct an active life through philanthropy, with a particular focus on Presbyterian causes. Her emphasis was more on the practical than the social and her name rarely appeared in newspaper social pages. Nor did that of Brisbane's Miss Mary Griffith (Gillespie, ADB; Butterworth, AWR), who, supported by inherited wealth, occupied her long life with committee work across a range of charities.

Victorian widow, Elizabeth Austin (Lemon, 'Austin', AWR; De Serville, ADB), modelled an even more secretive form of philanthropy. The widow of a wealthy pastoralist, she had largely withdrawn from the social activities associated with wealth. However, she was a substantial benefactress, making large donations to causes she had chosen and in which she continued to take a personal interest. Although she had initially made such donations anonymously, by the beginning of the 20th century she welcomed publicity, hoping to inspire others to follow her example. Eliza Hall's philanthropy followed a similar pattern (King, ADB; Lemon, 'Hall', AWR). Although she had been a regular donor, particularly to charities working with women and children, throughout her life, it was as a widow that she made her greatest contribution. Childless, and the major beneficiary of her mining magnate husband's estate, she established a trust to make regular distributions to religious, financial and educational causes across the three states in which the fortune had been amassed. Victorian stud breeder, Janet Biddlecombe, was also a childless widow whose philanthropy was largely hidden until after her death (Langmore, 'Biddlecombe', ADB; Lemon, 'Biddlecombe', AWR). However, she differed from Austin and Hall in that the money that she donated was substantially her own, the result of her success in reviving the pastoral holding she took over from her brother after the death of their father. For each of these women, philanthropy brought more recognition after their deaths than during their lives, Austin's name being given to the hospital she founded, Hall's incorporated into the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute funded from the trust, and Biddlecombe's in properties constructed as a result of her donations and bequests. Their claims to leadership lie in the encouragement that the public recognition of their generosity gave to later wealthy women to consider philanthropy in making decisions about the disposal of assets either before or after their deaths.

For all of the women who carried 19th-century notions of philanthropy into the 20th, the motivations remain unclear. Confined within conventional feminine tropes of silence, secrecy and sacrifice, they did not talk publicly about the positions they occupied, leaving it to others to praise them, usually after their deaths, in ways that seek to present them more as exemplars of the feminine than as individuals who were challenging perceptions of women's place. In this sense, Catherine Helen Spence, can be seen as a transitional figure (Eade, ADB; Land, AWR). A single woman with no independent income, she earned a living through writing, building a public profile as a commentator on social issues, initially in South Australia, but later nationally. While her obituary constructed her as an observer of both the transformation of 'the objects and organization of philanthropic and charitable enterprises' and the 'official recognition of the value of women's work upon various Government boards', such accolades disguised the degree to which she was a participant in these interlinked processes (Register, 31 October 1910). Although Spence never took a salary from her work for state children, the prominent role she played laid firm foundations for the women who would make such work a profession in the years following her death. Her interstate contemporaries, Mary MacKillop (St Mary of the Cross) (Thorpe, ADB; Lemon, 'MacKillop', AWR), Gertrude Abbott (Cunneen, ADB; Henningham, 'Abbott', AWR) and Selina Sutherland (Hoban, ADB; Heywood, 'Sutherland', AWR) had no independent financial resources and hence were reliant upon their philanthropic activities for a living. MacKillop was supported through the religious order that she co-founded, Abbott through the proceeds generated by the Sydney hospital that she established, and Sutherland through a salary, often described as an honorarium, donated by the supporters of the four separate child rescue organisations that she founded during her lifetime. All of them displayed considerable business acumen, managing substantial institutions and providing opportunities for other women to follow in their stead.

In the 20th century, the path towards philanthropy as a career pioneered by such women would provide opportunities to large numbers of women, although the older voluntarist model did not entirely disappear. The space that philanthropy had opened during the 19th century expanded as the provision of relief and care was increasingly coded female. The extension of female influence out of the home and into the wider society was a central goal of the maternalism that dominated Australian feminism in the post-suffrage era, and provided career opportunities, particularly for women who remained single and childless.

In Adelaide, Annie Green developed a career through the City Mission, beginning as a volunteer and rising to become it first female superintendent (Ellis, ADB). Her appointment came about when the Mission committee was unable to find a man willing to take on the position, but, in justifying their decision, they reconceptualised the role of the superintendent from one of managing to one of caring and, hence, appropriately undertaken by a woman (Mail, 17 February 1923). Throughout her career, Green contested, and increasingly resented, male authority and the expectation that women should be less well remunerated for the work they did, an attitude she shared with Anglican sister Kate Clutterbuck, who established two of Perth's major children's homes (Stewart, ADB). Taking the title, first of 'Mum' (Sunday Times, 29 September 1935), and later of 'Gran', to the hundreds of children who passed through her care, Clutterbuck was complicit in the removal of Indigenous children but contested expectations that they should be provided for more cheaply than the settler children she had accommodated in her first institution (Jacobs, 291-3). Melbourne's Edith Onians, described as mother to the newsboys (Age, 18 August 1955), was independently wealthy so did not need to seek paid employment, but she built a career nevertheless, using her position as honorary secretary to the City Newsboys Society as a base from which to build a reputation as an expert in the field of boy rescue, travelling, speaking and writing and, eventually, being appointed to positions on government and non-government organisations (Ramsland, ADB; Heywood, 'Onians', AWR). The use of maternal terms to describe such women is also indicative of the pathway that philanthropy offered towards social motherhood, a status that positioned them as superior to the biological mothers of the children they set out to help. Such a positioning had the potential to disempower poor mothers under the guise of assisting their children.

For many women, World War I provided an opportunity to display talents that they developed further in the interwar years. Sydney heiress Eadith Walker (MacCulloch, ADB; Land & Lemon, AWR), for example, had been following the socialite path prior to the war, hosting balls and bazaars in her family mansion. But the shape of her philanthropy was dramatically changed after the outbreak of war, with her considerable assets and abilities being focused on patriotic causes. Adelaide's Ella Cleggett (Marsden, ADB) did not have Walker's resources, but, having been introduced to tubercular soldiers during her patriotic work in World War I, she made their welfare her career in the years that followed, acting as paid secretary and chief organiser for a charity that assisted them and their families and administered a hostel to which they could go for treatment.

The foundation of Australian Red Cross engaged many women, offering them the opportunity to demonstrate abilities not previously apparent to develop services on the home front. Having moved with her family to Melbourne in the early years of the century, Lillias Skene (Smart, ADB; Carey, AWR) used the Charity Organisation Society as a way of gaining an entree into the city's philanthropic world, and, through these connections and her role in the National Council of Women, was one of the first workers recruited for the new Red Cross branch in Victoria. Her talents were quickly recognised and she became honorary manager and storekeeper for the Red Cross Home Hospital based at Melbourne's Government House, organising the collection and despatch of clothing for the troops donated by knitters and sewers from across the state (Leader, 1 May 1915). Hawthorn mayoress Delia Russell (Biddington, ADB; Francis, 'Russell', AWR) also used the Red Cross as a stage onto which she could project her talent for organisation, establishing a kitchen, staffed by volunteers, which prepared culinary treats for distribution to military hospitals throughout Victoria (Leader, 1 July 1916). The kitchen was so successful that it was given official Defence Department recognition and provided with a building in St Kilda Road, from which it continued to operate until 1920 (Argus, 20 September 1916).

Angela Woollacott has identified World War I as the point at which women in Britain moved from exercising power on the basis of moral authority to claiming recognition on the basis of professional competence, a shift she argues is disguised in existing emphases on the role of maternalism as a key driver for women's activism during this period (Woollacott, 85). As the needs previously met by charity became the business of the state, she claims, 'individual philanthropic voluntarism gradually became anachronistic' (Woollacott, 88). Australia provides an interesting arena in which to study this shift. Its early enfranchisement of women provided alternatives to philanthropy as a way of bringing about change, with activists on both the left and the right now able to exercise power through interest, industrial or political organisations. Leaders emerging, particularly in the interwar era, offer some support to Woollacott's thesis. Critical to this shift was the rise of the first generation of women who had had access to tertiary education. While many struggled to find a place in their chosen professions, they were able to use their education to claim positions of leadership in philanthropic organisations.

Dr Mary Booth, organiser of myriad campaigns and founder of several feminist and imperial organisations, had returned to Sydney with a medical degree at the beginning of the century (Roe, ADB; Morgan & Carey, AWR). In the face of opposition from the conservative medical profession, she used her qualifications to construct a life as a public figure speaking in support of a range of causes. A contemporary and, at times, a colleague of Booth, Dr Lucy Gullett also used her medical degree as a basis for a public life (Mitchell, ADB; Alafaci, AWR). Best remembered as co-founder of Sydney's Rachel Forster Hospital, she substantially underwrote many of her philanthropic enterprises from her own assets, largely inherited from her father. Compelled by ill health to withdraw from her academic career, the distinguished Melbourne scientist Dr Georgina Sweet transferred her talents to the community sphere, rising to international leadership in two women's organisations (MacCallum, ADB; Morgan & Lemon, AWR). As a single woman, and the sole survivor of her family, she was also a substantial philanthropist both during her life and after her death, focusing her giving on increasing the educational opportunities for women. Another early science graduate, Ada a'Beckett, was able to draw on the resources of her husband as well as her own talents, to combine paid employment with family life while still pursuing the philanthropic activities expected of a women of her class (Marginson, ADB; Ion, AWR). In many ways, she also serves as a transitional figure, her education evident in her insistence that decisions should be grounded in research rather than the moral judgments that had dominated the field in the past. Withdrawing from her musical studies on her marriage, Ivy Brookes (Patrick, ADB; Wilkinson & Lemon, AWR) joined the committees of many Melbourne philanthropic organisations. 'Many interests', she commented, 'make for a full life' (Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July 1936). For Betty Leworthy it was a commercial rather than a university education that prepared her to take a lead in organising welfare activities in South Australia (Schumann, ADB).

To this first generation of educated women, philanthropic leadership was an obligation vested in their qualifications as well as in their class. Where they claimed rights for women, they tended to constitute them as responsibilities, vested in a discourse of maternalist feminism. Hence they supported women's involvement in politics and criticised Australian women for being slow to take up the opportunities that their early enfranchisement had offered, but saw their potential contribution in gendered terms. Women should not challenge but rather complement men, taking a particular responsibility for the development of policies around family and the home. Georgina Sweet, for example, urged educated women not to compete with men but rather to recognise 'that there are certain limitations which bar a woman's capacity in some directions … The girl who stops to think will realise the value of these natural laws … [and] find that, by observing them, she will be much stronger and freer to develop along her own lines' (Advertiser and Register, 29 April 1931). Such attitudes united many educated women in focusing their philanthropy on providing training for girls in domestic service, arguing that such employment prepared them for marriage and motherhood but rarely acknowledging the degree to which such campaigns were driven by self interest, their need to have such assistance if their philanthropic careers were to flourish.

These conservative views were shared by many of the other élite women who shared their notions of philanthropy in such important umbrella bodies as the National Council of Women (NCW) and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Nomination to the committees of such organisations enabled women who had developed a substantial philanthropic profile at a local level to move to a state and national level. Tasmania's Emily Dobson (1842-1934) was reputed to be involved in every charitable organisation in the state (Reynolds, ADB; Carey & Lemon, 'Dobson', AWR). The wife of the premier, and associated in her own right with a range of conservative political organisations, she argued that her aim was to 'improve all sections of society'. However, like most élite philanthropic women, she saw that change as taking place 'within the context of existing society' (Alexander, 96). Also prominent in Tasmania, Edith Waterworth was a forceful and articulate woman who became the voice for maternalist feminism in that state, working through the Women's Non-party League and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (Waters, ADB; Lemon, 'Waterworth', AWR). Her participation in public life was an assertion not of equality but of difference, arguing that men would 'be glad to have the questions relating to women and children taken off their hands, and in the care of a woman whose work it was to attend to them' (Mercury, 12 May 1925). Zina Cumbrae-Stewart dominated Brisbane's charitable network in a similar way, arguing vigorously for suitably qualified women to be given greater responsibility in public life, while urging other women to resist modernity and to support rather than compete with men (Bonnin, ADB). 'I am exceptionally fortunate', she commented, 'in having time to give to these movements, even if I cannot always give much money' (Brisbane Courier, 25 January 1933). One of her reasons for opposing the extension of industrial rights to domestic servants in 1915 was that 'if servants were given more leisure their mistresses would have less time to devote to charitable works' (Stewart, 616).

The NCW and allied organisations provided a means by which non-élite women could construct a career through philanthropy as well. In Launceston, war widow Nellie Dougharty filled her life after the war with community activities, volunteering across a wide range of community and patriotic organisations (Roelvink, ADB). Lottie Leal ventured into philanthropy after the war ended, using her position as mayoress in suburban Adelaide and, later, as NCW state president to pioneer a range of services in her local community and across the state (Jones, ADB). In Perth, Phoebe Holmes followed the example of her parents, initially taking charge of the Ministering Children's League, which they had founded, and from this moving on to take leadership positions in the NCW and the YWCA (Ogilvie, ADB). For Queensland's Irene Longman (O'Keefe, ADB; Heywood, 'Longman', AWR) the National Council of Women served as a springboard to a much broader philanthropic involvement and a brief period in parliament where, as a conservative member, she brought the NCW's goals on welfare into the legislative sphere. Dissatisfied with the National Council's caution during the 1930s Depression, Sydney's Minnie Gates, branched out on her own to establish the Big Sister Movement, initially focusing on providing accommodation for business girls in the city but later extending its interests into the provision of aged care (Pilger, ADB). Edith Kernot's commitment to a range of charities in her home town of Geelong was recognised by the State Charities Board, which selected her as one of its first female members (Langmore, 'Kernot', ADB). In the establishment of Canberra, women were central to the development of community services, with Mrs Jessie Daley, wife of the civic commissioner and first president of the ACT NCW, taking a leading role (Dermody, ADB; Heywood, 'Daley', AWR).

Most of these women saw philanthropy as a way of using skills that were not fully utilised in the home and positioned themselves as in the vanguard of future change. 'Women are only just coming into their own', Phoebe Holmes observed in 1928. 'The future will show conclusively what we are capable of' (Daily News, 4 June 1928). Yet they were always careful not to present themselves as challenging male privilege. Women, Leal argued, 'should command respect not demand it', earning positions of authority through their intelligence rather than being 'thrust forward … merely to give them equality with men' (Advertiser, 17 September 1930). Melbourne's Jessie Henderson (Trembath, ADB) reassured her followers that 'women did not aim at superseding men, but rather at making their own point of view, and to supplement that of men' (Mercury, 2 December 1926). 'The proper sphere for women', she argued, 'was wherever they could be of use', adding 'once a woman got a grasp of the work of an administrative body, the fact that she was a woman ceased to be of importance to other workers' (West Australian, 22 January 1929). Younger women, Longman believed, needed to be encouraged to 'hurry up and come forward to … [undertake] the services of which they are capable' (Brisbane Courier, 28 January 1933). 'What can be better than for women to look after women', Minnie Gates asked. 'It's not spectacular but … it is the work women should be doing' (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1939).

The rise of the welfare state, however, was rendering many of the activities conducted by such women as marginal. Philanthropy, increasingly, was seen as backward and judgemental compared with the progressive, benevolent, supposedly universalist state, a view that was reinforced by the conservative views that many women philanthropists embraced. The negative perception of philanthropy intensified during the 1930s depression, when the women controlling charitable relief were perceived as lacking sympathy for the unemployed. From her secure position as superintendent of the Adelaide City Mission, Annie Green attempted to minimise the gravity of the situation, arguing that for every '4000 men up against it, there are 1000 who are just making capital out of sympathy' (Advertiser, 3 July 1928). Melbourne's Gertrude Zichy-Woinarski (Bush, ADB), had a similar low opinion of the male unemployed, comparing them unfavourably with 'the single girl … [who] doesn't come crying for help … until she is absolutely up against it' (Mirror, 25 August 1928). Adelaide's Paquita Mawson (McEwin & Whittle, ADB) controversially criticised those who 'took charity for granted', a sign, she interpreted as evidence of a loss of pride (Advertiser, 3 July 1930).

In an attempt to maintain their influence, women fought for acceptance on committees that had previously been restricted to men and, in turn, invited prominent men to join their own organisations, but, in both cases, the result, too often, was a confining of women to the more 'domestic' roles, leaving power increasingly in the hands of men. The result, social work historian R.J. Lawrence concluded, was a 'cleavage' in the administration of welfare. 'On the one hand there was an approach through broad legislative measures, sponsored by political parties and administered by government, largely male, officials; on the other was an approach through numerous small voluntary organizations, catering for individual needs, sponsored by a wide variety of citizen groups or churches, with the day-to-day work largely in the hands of unpaid women in the higher income groups' (Lawrence, 29). Even where social reform created the opportunity for paid employment in what had been the philanthropic sector, 'a woman supported by her husband, or by a private income was, from a financial viewpoint, the ideal worker for agencies short of funds' (Lawrence, 28).

This is not to argue that there was no place for the older model of élite female philanthropy but, increasingly, this involved working in co-operation with the emerging professions that claimed expertise over areas that philanthropists had previously seen as their own. The women who headed the committees controlling women's and children's hospitals found that, in order to retain their positions, they needed to expand their responsibilities beyond fund-raising for they were now called upon to control expanding budgets and oversee major building schemes as such institutions moved from refuges for the sick poor to centres of medical treatment and research.

In Victoria, Dame Mabel Brookes (Poynter, ADB; Francis, 'Brookes', AWR) reigned over the Queen Victoria Hospital from 1923 until five years before her death in 1975. As president, she waged a long battle to get adequate accommodation for the hospital, a struggle she described as 'a fight by women against prejudice, suspicion and intolerance of women'. When the hospital was finally relocated to the refurbished Melbourne Hospital site she declared: 'there's no finer feeling than winning the supposedly hopeless battle' (Argus, 19 January 1956). Hospital administration also provided a power base for Melbourne's Lady Ella Latham (Williams, ADB; Heywood, 'Latham', AWR), who, working with progressive medical men associated with the University of Melbourne, transformed the Children's Hospital during her long presidency. She, in turn groomed, her successor, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch (Heywood & Lemon, AWR), who, understanding philanthropy as a responsibility attached to wealth, had involved herself in a wide range of causes from the early years of her marriage. Widowed in 1952, Murdoch began a pattern of substantial donations and, two years later, assumed the presidency of the Royal Children's Hospital, a position she occupied for eleven years, during which she oversaw both the fundraising and the organisation that saw the hospital rebuilt on a new site. She was anxious to free herself from the social fund-raising that had pre-occupied philanthropic women in the past, instead encouraging 'direct giving', which she argued, 'would ease the burden of committees and leave them freer to do necessary work' (Courier-Mail, 5 August 1939).

Her frustration was shared by Adelaide's Lady Constance (Jean) Bonython (Gibberd, ADB), who, although she lived the life of a society hostess renowned for her charity balls and floral arrangements, suggested that an alternative needed to be found to the 'everlasting bridges, balls and gift teas' through which funds were raised (Advertiser, 28 June 1937). She was also keen to rid charity of its élite associations, remarking to members of the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital ladies committee that she wished they could simply be called 'women' (Gibberd).

Reflecting the Protestant ascendancy of the time, most philanthropic women were allied with the Anglican, Presbyterian or Congregational churches, all of which benefitted from their generosity. In the early years of the 20th century, the Catholic Church had fewer members in a position to make major donations, although Catholic women contributed fully of their time maintaining their churches, schools and charitable institutions. In this context, Mary Fennescey stands as an exception (Howell, ADB). Having built her wealth initially from property, on her marriage she is credited with persuading her husband to also embrace philanthropy. Their marriage was childless, leaving the couple free to donate generously to Catholic causes in South Australia. Kate Egan (Carey, H., ADB), who had gained entry into the philanthropic world through her involvement in Red Cross during World War I, found it easier to cross denominational boundaries, but also brought back into the Catholic Women's Social League many of the structures and practices that Protestant women were using to extend their sphere of influence.

After World War I, the number of Catholic women able to engage in philanthropy increased, although their activity was focused on denominational causes and was far less visible than that of Protestant women. Sydney's Mary Barlow (O'Carrigan, ADB) used her base within the Catholic Women's Association to build alliances across state and denominational boundaries, but remained primarily a fund raiser. In Melbourne, Dame Rita Buxton (Sherlock, ADB; Francis, 'Buxton', AWR) donated her time and her assets to St Vincent's Hospital, rising from her base in the auxiliaries to a position on the hospital's advisory council. Dame Mary Daly (Warne, ADB; Francis, 'Daly', AWR) also developed her fund-raising skills as a supporter of St Vincent's, but went on to play a leading role in Catholic relief services during World War II, expanding her support to a range of Catholic and non-Catholic organisations in the post-war years.

During World War II, the skills that women had developed through their philanthropic work were again harnessed to the war effort. 'We were weary after the last war', Jessie Henderson declared. 'Many of us rested far too much … but that must not be the case this time … we must not cut the cloth to fit the means; we must cut the cloth larger and larger and hope the money will come' (Argus, 16 November 1940). Red Cross expanded its operations and women who had demonstrated their organisational and management skills through philanthropy were crucial to the development of the Women's Australian National Services (WANS) and other organisations designed to engage women in the war effort. With experienced committee women like Irene Read (Weatherburn, ADB; Henningham, 'Read', AWR) at its head, WANS recruited and trained women to release men for military service and fill the gaps they left behind. Experienced NCW member Marie Farquharson (Brignell, ADB) played a similar role in relation to the Women's Voluntary Services, stepping into a key organising position in January 1939 in anticipation of war. In Western Australia, Winifred Kastner (Davidson, ADB) used her positions in the Country Women's Association and the Women's Service Guild to lead a wide range of campaigns during the war. In Adelaide, society hostess Paquita Mawson oversaw Australia's longest-running relief depot for Red Cross, co-ordinating the five teams of women who met weekly to repair and despatch donated goods. When government sought to draft domestics into war industries, the women who headed philanthropic/patriotic enterprises again warned that their voluntary work would be curtailed if they were forced to resume their full domestic responsibilities (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 1942).

Philanthropy during wartime was repackaged as service, a contribution that women could make to support the men at the front. There was no space in which to claim individual merit. 'If I have been any sort of a leader', Paquita Mawson reflected, 'it has been due to … co-operation' (Advertiser, 23 March 1949). The emphasis on patriotic caused forced philanthropic leaders to link their organisations to the war effort, if they were not to suffer a loss of income. Melbourne's Rita Harris (Alley, ADB), for example, opened a centre for the collection and sorting of waste materials, the metal being recycled for the war effort, the proceeds funding local kindergartens. In Western Australia, Frances Craig (Ryan, ADB) threw the resources of the Country Women's Association behind the war effort, experimenting with new ways of using women's abilities and fund-raising for causes that benefited women and children in the war zones. For Miriam Fink (Markus, ADB), it was the plight of her fellow European Jews that drew her into philanthropy during and after the war. The war also brought older philanthropic women into alliance with radical women such as Marjorie Coppel (Cowen, ADB; Heywood, 'Coppel', AWR), who used the national emergency to agitate for social change around child care and women's right to work.

While women in the post-war world continued to play an important role in a voluntary capacity in the devising, funding and delivery of welfare services, they increasingly did this as allies of the emerging profession of social work, sometimes finding a pathway through to paid work for themselves as well. However, it would be incorrect to position this in opposition to established models of philanthropy. The call for the introduction of professional social work had been championed in the interwar years by female philanthropists working through conservative and mainstream women's organisations, and the first women who entered the profession often came from families with long traditions of philanthropic engagement.

Dame Mabel Brookes, initially, had been sceptical of the need for the new profession but, after visiting several hospitals in England, her scepticism changed to enthusiasm. On her return, she convened a meeting to gain support for a local Institute of Almoners (Lawrence, 34). Mrs Kent Hughes, a member of the Melbourne Hospital auxiliary, having seen British almoners at work during a similar trip, persuaded her fellow auxiliary members to raise the money that brought Agnes Macintyre to Melbourne in 1929 to establish the first almoners' training program (Lawrence, 35). Long-term secretary of the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society Gertrude Zichy-Woinarski was a member of the committee of the Institute of Almoners. Ivy Brookes sat on the Board of Social Studies, which was responsible for the transfer of social work training into the University, and her daughter, Jessie, was one of the program's first graduates. Jessie Henderson, one of two women appointed to Victoria's Charities Board at its foundation, also had a daughter amongst the early trainees. In Sydney, the path to professionalisation was forged by an alliance of three women's groups, the National Council of Women, the Young Women's Christian Association and women involved in industrial welfare, who together established a Board of Social Studies and Training in 1928.

With the professionalisation of large areas of the work that women philanthropists had claimed as their own, the meaning of the term philanthropy narrowed to a more exclusive focus on the giving of money. The older pattern of family philanthropy continued but, shorn of its more practical elements, it offered fewer pathways to leadership. Indeed, few of the major female donors in the years immediately following World War II were well known prior to details of their donations being released. A notable exception was Western Australian Mary Raine (McIlwraith, ADB; Lemon, 'Raine', AWR), who accumulated her wealth through property acquisition but, as a prominent hotel keeper, was more likely to feature in local papers for licensing violations than her social activities. Raine was childless, as were most of the other women who were noted for their philanthropy in this period. Devastated by the sudden death of her second husband, she used his estate to establish a medical research foundation to which she bequeathed the bulk of her assets after her death.

Elisabeth Murdoch was one of the few pre-war philanthropists to continue to play a leadership role in the post-war world. Alongside her growing responsibilities in relation to the Children's Hospital, she expanded her philanthropic giving. Although, initially, much of this giving was anonymous, in later life she decided to make her contributions public 'because by example it encourages other people' (Enough Rope). She actively chose the organisations that she would support and insisted on being involved in their ongoing operation, a decision that set her apart from most of the other major donors of her generation. 'If you've got money', she explained, 'it's perfectly easy to give it away and nothing to be particularly proud of but it's being involved and knowing what you are helping' that was important (Enough Rope). While Murdoch once commented that 'it's nice to show that women can be useful' (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 2009), she was not associated with the feminist movement. However, her example did influence a generation of younger women, who were the beneficiaries of 1970s feminism and embraced philanthropy as a way of reconciling the principles they imbibed with the wealth they had earned or inherited. By the end of the 20th century, the archetypal woman philanthropist was a member of this new generation of feminists seeking to use their assets to bring about social change, or, as Carol Schwartz sees it, negotiating 'the complicated relationship between making money and creating social good' (Interview). The focus for this new philanthropy was Melbourne but it also attracted supporters in other states, coming together as the Women Donors Network, which aims to direct its members to use their donations to attend to the 'unique circumstances and specific needs of women and girls' (Women Donors Investing in Women and Girls website).

The transformation of philanthropy has also provided the opportunity for women to rise to positions of leadership as philanthropic administrators. The new philanthropy was influenced by developments at the Myer Foundation, which in 1961 became the first Australian trust to employ an executive secretary with the appointment of Meriel Wilmot. While the Foundation owed its origins to the philanthropic tradition initiated by retailing pioneer Sidney Myer, under Wilmot it became far more professional in its operations. Wilmot is credited with bringing to her new position 'a seemingly unshakeable respect for the primacy of academic and intellectual endeavour, and its application to social issues' (Liffman, 65). In this role, she served as an important mentor to the new generation of young women seeking to become involved in social change philanthropy. In 1982, Wilmot resigned and was replaced by Rhonda Galbally, who shifted the focus of the Foundation into more radical territory by focusing its grants on 'initiatives managed by the people likely to be affected' (Liffman, 84). Her argument that this approach reduced the dependency that often accompanied philanthropic giving was also influential amongst the women managing their own philanthropic foundations. The umbrella body, Philanthropy Australia, was transformed by the appointment in 1996 of Elizabeth Cham as its new national director. Cham's influence extended across the sector, effectively negotiating the removal of tax disincentives but, in so doing, reminding philanthropists of their moral responsibility to work for social change. Philanthropy, she argued, brought about change through the 'soft' power of influence rather than the hard power of coercion, its resources giving it a freedom that governments and corporations lacked (Cham, 28).

Jill Reichstein (Lemon, 'Reichstein', AWR) became well experienced in the exercise of such soft power. Radicalised in the protests of the sixties, she was quickly frustrated with the conservative, ameliorative approach taken by her father's foundation, which she joined at 26. Assuming the chair ten years later she transformed its approach, attracted by the American concept of social change philanthropy. In America, she argues, 'when you have excess wealth it's your responsibility to share it', and social change philanthropy enables her to blend this philosophy with her feminist principles. Her notion of leadership attempts to break down the hierarchy between the 'donor and the donee' through working in partnership with the groups who are funded in order to bring about change (Compass). She has sought to encourage women to take control of their money and understand how to use it to create long-lasting social change. Reichstein believes that women's work experience equips them to provide a very different type of philanthropic leadership. Where the men who run foundations traditionally have come from a banking or finance background, the women who move into the sector often bring experience in community-based organisations, a move she describes as 'from poacher to gamekeeper' (Reichstein, 12).

This new generation of philanthropists are also much more comfortable than their predecessors with the notion of leadership. 'As long as leadership is seen to be acting with passion, or mentoring and helping to affect change through education, then I am comfortable with being called a leader', says Jill Reichstein (Interview). Sarah Stegley described the foundation established by her parents as a 'gift' not only to the people of Victoria but to the children charged with its management. She was only in her early twenties when management of the trust fell to her, a responsibility she shared with two of her siblings for the next 25 years. 'Time and money were secondary to the ideas and the energy', she recalled. 'We never regarded that money as our own. It was something that mum and dad had set aside to be returned to Victorians' (Life Matters). Like Reichstein, Stegley embraced the concept of using philanthropy to bring about social change, 'empowering people to work towards a fairer and just society'. She 'used every opportunity to raise discussion and debate about the need to go beyond handouts to the poor, to supporting those people working to change the social and economic structures which discriminate' ('Goodbye to Stegley'). Although the trust came to the end of its pre-appointed term in 2001, and Stegley moved on to other forms of business endeavour, she continues to advise others who seek to become engaged in philanthropic foundations.

For Eve Mahlab (Francis, 'Mahlab', AWR), co-founder of the Australian Women Donors Network, social change philanthropy represents the third wave of the women's movement. 'The first got us the vote. The second gave us more access to decently paid work rather than the unpaid home duties in which we had previously been trapped. We must now move into policy and decision making roles at all levels' (Mahlab, 3). The challenge for women who have benefitted from the first two waves of the movement is to use their advantage for the benefit of other women and their families, practising a new type of leadership that involves working alongside rather than for the people they identify as being in need. Mahlab's call has found a receptive audience amongst young successful women determined to use at least some of their private wealth and their professional skills for public rather than personal benefit. It would be unrealistic to overestimate the influence of social change philanthropy on the field as a whole, which continues to be dominated by family trusts under male or control. However, women, Reichstein and Stegley believe, are more likely than men to feel uncomfortable with wealth and hence to recognise an obligation to share it (Age, 20 June 1997).

At the end of the 20th century, the bulk of caring work continued to be coded female, but the term philanthropy had narrowed in its meaning, excluding the giving of time in favour of the giving of money. However, advances in education have placed far more women in a position to exercise leadership within this narrowed field. Women earning and controlling assets in their own right have been particularly central to the development of social change philanthropy. Rather than seeing philanthropy as an avenue to leadership and power, educated and affluent women now use their leadership skills and power in the interests of philanthropy.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Carol Schwartz interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 11 May 2011 - 13 September 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/2; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details
  • Jill Reichstein interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 12 May 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/3; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Jacobs, Margaret, White Mother to a Black Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940, University of Nebraska Press, 2009. Details
  • Lawrence, RJ, Professional Social Work in Australia, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1965. Details
  • Liffman, Michael, A Tradition of Giving: seventy-five years of Myer family philanthropy, Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, 2004. Details

Book Sections

  • Taylor, Elizabeth, 'Lady Northcote: Leading Light and Sponsor of the First Australian Exhibition of Women's Work', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 37-49. Details

Journal Articles

  • Alexander, Alison, 'Perceptions of Women's Role in Tasmania, 1803 - 1914', Bulletin of the Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 1991 - 1992, pp. 81 - 98. Details
  • Cham, Elizabeth, 'Who will pay', Social Alternatives, vol. 22, no. 4, 2003, pp. 27-31. Details
  • Mahlab, Eve, 'Does Gender Still Matter?', Australian Philanthropy, vol. 71, no. 3, 2008. Details
  • Reichstein, Jill, 'On Women and Philanthropy', Australian Philanthropy, vol. 71, no. 12, 2008. Details
  • Stewart, Jean, 'Zina Beatrice Selwyn Cumbrae-Stewart: a powerful woman', Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland (1988), vol. 19, no. 1, February 2005, pp. 610-627. Details
  • Swain, Shurlee, 'Women and Philanthropy in Colonial and Post-colonial Australia', Voluntas, vol. 7, no. 4, 1996, pp. 428 - 443. Details
  • Woollacott, Angela, 'From Moral to Professional Authority: Secularism, Social Work and Middle-Class Women's Self-construction in World War I Britain', Journal of Women’s History, vol. 10, no. 2, 1998, pp. 85 - 111. Details

Newspaper Articles


Online Resources

Digital Resources

Carol Schwartz interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project
11 May 2011 - 13 September 2011
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection


Jill Reichstein interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project
12 May 2011
National Library of Australia
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection