Woman Brennan, Molly (1914 - 2012)

Sedgwick, Victoria, Australia
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia
Community activist and School principal
Alternative Names
  • Brennan, Mary (birth name)

Written by Deborah Towns, Swinburne University

Mary Brennan, known as Molly, was born in 1914 at Sedgwick, Victoria. Her parents were Richard and Mary Anne (née Conway) Brennan. Her aunt, Anna Brennan (1879-1962), was a community activist in social justice and a pioneering woman lawyer. Brennan would follow her into community activism. Initially she studied law at the University of Melbourne. However because of the Depression it was difficult to gain employment as an articled clerk so she decided to be a government school teacher. Brennan was ambitious and spent almost thirty years travelling throughout the state of Victoria taking up promotion positions and also completing a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Education. She was the founding president of the Business and Professional Women's Clubs in Colac (1955) and Seymour(1958) and the convenor of the Soroptimists Federation's Status of Women Committee from 1958 to 1960.

In 1961 Brennan was promoted to headmistress of Preston Girls High School, which had an enrolment of 800 students. She immediately qualified for membership of the Victorian Head Mistresses Association(VHMA) which brought together the heads of Victorian girls' government secondary schools. As women were not allowed to be heads of co-educational high schools or technical schools there were few leadership opportunities for women. The VHMA liaised with the Victorian High Schools Head Masters Association. They were gendered organisations which reflected the separate teaching promotion rolls for men and women of the Education Department of Victoria. Brennan quickly politicised the VHMA. After it joined the Women's Division of the Victorian Teachers Union (VTU) Brennan was its representative on the VTU's Equal Pay Committee, chaired by the tenacious Hilma Cranley, the VTUs's president from 1965 to 1967. Brennan informed the Department and the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association that there were less promotion positions available in girls' secondary schools than in the co-educational secondary schools which were headed and staffed by men, but the information was not acted upon by either party. By 1965 she was the VHMA's president. She was a forceful and articulate speaker and took up the role with alacrity. As a member of the executive of the Victorian High School Headmasters and Head Mistresses Association she stressed girls' needs at their joint meetings. During the late 1960s most of the girls' secondary schools were changed to girl's high schools which the VHMA had advocated since 1957. However by 1968 the headmistresses were fighting to keep their girl's schools as the Department advocated co-education as a way of meeting the increasing demand for secondary education. It made financial changes that forced most of the girls high schools to become co-educational, despite the VHMA demonstrating through its research and deputations that girls benefited from single sex schooling.

By 1969, all promotion positions were open to male and female teachers. In the first year, men became principals of some of the remaining girls' high schools while no women gained principal positions of boys' or co-educational schools. In 1970, Brennan eventually won Brighton High School's principal position by disputing the Teacher Tribunal's original decision to award the job to a man with less experience and a lower place on the common roll. This made her the first woman principal of a large Victorian co-educational high school which had over 1,000 students. The school's library is named after her. Next, Brennan took a political decision when she applied to be principal of Melbourne High School, a government single sex boys' high school in 1974. Despite her appealing to the Tribunal and the Ombudsman, a younger man, with a lower number on the common roll gained the position. In 1975, her educational and community leadership was rewarded when she was invited by premier, Rupert Hamer, to be a member of his influential Status of Women Committee. She was made a Fellow of the Australian College of Education and she was a long standing member of the Australian Federation of University Women and the Lyceum Club.

Brennan retired in 1977, after being principal of Castlemaine High School for two years. Unsurprisingly, she continued to be a community activist in Bendigo, where she lived in her retirement. In 2006, Brennan reflected upon what she recognised as 'gendered' educational leadership. Her attitude remained truculent: 'I am still angry about how I was treated by the Department. I wanted Melbourne High because I was a woman, and they prevented it, because I was a woman' (Towns, 2011: 166). Molly Brennan died in 2012, after a short illness.

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • Towns, Deborah, '"It's a Woman": Molly Brennan and Gender, Social Justice and Leadership in the Victorian Education Department, 1960s and 1970s', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 149-171. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/fff/pdfs/brennan.pdf. Details

See also