Woman Harper, Janice Mary (Jan)


Equal Opportunity Practitioner, Feminist and Sociologist

Written by Robin Harper, The University of Melbourne

Throughout her career Jan Harper has focussed on bringing about social and cultural change for women.

Janice Mary McPhee was born on 14 November 1934 in Sydney to parents Hope and Stuart McPhee. The eldest of four girls, she attended PLC Pymble (now Pymble Ladies College), and then the University of Sydney, graduating with a BA in 1955. In 1963 she married Brian Harper, a Civil Engineer and Town Planner, and they moved to Melbourne. They have three daughters.

Harper returned to study in 1968, completing an MA in Sociology by coursework at La Trobe University, with a minor thesis on the outcomes for educated women in Papua New Guinea. Following her graduation she took up an appointment as a Senior Tutor in Sociology at La Trobe University, where she continued to worked for three years. During this period, Harper undertook research for Professor Jean Martin, completing the first research in Victoria on the education of girls. Harper and Diana Heath published a jointly authored article on the education of boys and girls at school (Harper and Heath, 1972). Working with Di Worrell, Harper completed research for the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, the choices of young mothers to work or not to work. This research culminated in the publication of Mothers and Working Mothers with Lyn Richards. She followed this up with research on families where the roles of parents were non-traditional, published as Fathers at Home.

Parallel with professional activities in the 1970s Harper played an active role in the early Women's Movement. She participated in Women's Liberation and the Women's Action Group, and was a founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby. In these organisations, she focused on girl's education. However, her most important contribution was in children's literature. She jointly founded the Women's Movement Children's Literature Cooperative, which for over a decade from 1972, wrote and published a total of 60 non-sexist children's books under the imprint of Sugar and Snails Books. Harper's children's books include: What parents do (1975); A family of potters (1975); Girls can do anything (1975); Marina (1977); Workers in the community health centre (1978); The interpreter (1980); The farmer (1981); and The Chemical Engineer. In addition to writing several of these books, her contribution was in the business and educational side-arranging publication and sales, giving talks, building networks and promoting the Cooperative's work in schools, with children's librarians, publishers and parents and in the press, in an effort to overcome sexism in books for children. Later, Harper initiated and continued to serve on the Committee of the Mary Owen Dinner, an annual event for up to 800 Melbourne feminists that continued for 20 years. She is a Member of the Lyceum Club and the Catalyst Club.

Following freelance research, Harper held several positions in the Victorian Public Service, including in the Office of Women's Affairs and the Mental Retardation Division. In the latter role, she was responsible for the de-institutionalisation of St Nicholas Hospital in Carlton, in which the 100 intellectually disabled, multiply-handicapped young residents were placed in 23 group homes in the community. She was also Executive Officer of the Premier's Committee on the Status of Women. Finally, in 1985, Harper was able to combine her skills in research and policy with her administrative skills in the position of the first Equal Opportunity Officer at the University of Melbourne, where she remained until retirement ten years later. This provided an opportunity to focus on social and cultural change in a university setting. She developed and implemented the University's Affirmative Action Program, which included not only helping decision-makers to observe non-discriminatory procedures, but positively fostering women's advancement through programs assisting them to clear the academic hurdles, through training and mentoring. This led to a significant increase in the selection of women to academic positions and their promotion up the academic ladder.

Another attempt at culture change at the University was the support of a Committee on Gender Studies. This included women from a number of faculties and departments in the University who were teaching or doing research in the areas of women's or gender studies, from disciplines as diverse as History, Geography, Medicine, Economics, Management, Politics, Social Work, Town Planning and Law. The encouragement these women gave each other led to a blossoming of research in women's studies and rapid promotion for many of them. She also tackled the content of the curriculum, which could have an effect on the next generation of students, persuading the University to include in their criteria for promotion of academic staff engagement in a gender-inclusive curriculum in their teaching. Harper also encouraged women in several fields to write short pieces on gender in the curriculum of their disciplines, which she published for all staff in the respective disciplines, both at Melbourne and at other Australian universities.

Following retirement, Harper developed a number of mentor schemes for women at Monash University and has undertaken research and publication of a biography and two local histories in South Gippsland: Three stops on the line: a history of Kernot, Almurta and Woodleigh (2003); Plaster and Paint: John Colquhoun, Orthopaedic Surgeon and his Patient, Joyce McGrath, Portrait Painter (2007) and Sledge to Studebaker: the story of the Gorge Road, Glen Forbes (2010).

Harper was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australian in 2013 for service to the community through the promotion of equal opportunities for women.

Additional sources: Harper, Jan, The St Nicholas Project: Service Dream and Administrative Nightmare (unpublished report), Office of Intellectual Disability Services, Victoria (1985).

Archival Resources

The University of Melbourne Archives

  • Harper, Jan, 1967 - 1974, 1978.0120; The University of Melbourne Archives. Details

Published Resources


  • Harper, Jan, Fathers At Home, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria, 1980. Details
  • Harper, Jan, Crisis in the Family Court, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, New South Wales, 1984. Details
  • Harper, Jan and Lee, Jenny, Women we know, Mary Owner Dinner Committee, Melbourne, Victoria, 1988. Details
  • Harper, Jan andRichards, Lyn, Mothers and working mothers, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Victoria, 1979. Details
  • Healy, Bev and Harper, Jan, Continuing to Educate Rita: women and postgraduate study, The University of Melbourne: School of Graduate Studies, Parkville, Victoria, 1994. Details

Book Sections

  • Harper, Jan, 'Three Tongues, One Voice: Towards Equal Opportunity for Women at the University of Melbourne', in Grimshaw, Patricia; Fincher, Ruth; and Campbell, Ruth (eds), Studies in Gender; Essays in Honour of Norma Grieve, The University of Melbourne: Committee for Gender Studies, Melbourne, Victoria, 1992, pp. 78 - 95. Details
  • Harper, Jan and Pausacker, Jenny, 'Liberating children's literature from sexism', in Robinson, M. (ed.), Readings in Children's Literature, Frankston State College, Frankston, Victoria, 1977. Details

Journal Articles

  • Harper, Jan, 'The St. Nicholas Project. The Transfer of an Individual Population to the Community', M.R.D. Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, c.1983. Details

Online Resources

See also