Theme Government Schools


Written by Deborah Towns, Swinburne University

Women government school teachers at the beginning of the 20th century had few systemic leadership opportunities. State education departments reserved almost all leadership positions in their bureaucracies and schools for men (Hunt & Trotman, 269-70; Whitehead, 2007, 3; Theobald, 172; Kyle, 1986, 215). Women were half of the government teaching service and most schools were co-educational, where men were headmasters of all but the smallest schools. Women were heads of girls' and infants' departments in larger schools and headmistresses of girls' secondary schools. However, a few women teachers were able to take advantage of other leadership opportunities. As the 20th century advanced, policies and attitudes were reluctantly changed so that eventually all promotion positions were opened to women but it was 1985 before there was a woman head of an education department. This was Helen Williams, who was appointed secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Education by former teacher Susan Ryan, the first woman minister of education. Today, women continue to be underrepresented in educational leadership.

Early opportunities for women's leadership were mainly a consequence of gender divisions within education departments. Blanche McNamara was the pioneering first woman school inspector in South Australia (1897-1900), and also the first in Australia (Whitehead, 1998, 73-6). She was appointed specifically to pay attention to the girls' departments. In NSW, Annie Dadley was appointed directress of needlework (1890-1905). Annie Fawcett Story began as NSW's instructress of cookery (1890-1897), and was later appointed directress of cookery (1898-1904) in Victoria (Tilse, ADB). The first woman inspector in Queensland was Marianne Brydon, who was appointed in 1919 to supervise domestic science teaching (Marendy, ADB). In Victoria, the first woman inspector, mathematician and teacher Julia Flynn, was appointed in 1914 (Palmer, ADB; Lemon, 'Flynn', AWR). In 1936 (after her controversial 'non-appointment' in 1928), she was promoted chief inspector of secondary division and, for fifty years, this remained the highest position a woman had gained in the department. Australia-wide, few women were inspectors. Of the 440 inspectors employed by Victoria's Board of Education and the Education Department over a hundred years, only 21 were women (Towns, 2010, 131).

Women attained unique positions in state colleges. Mabel Sandes was foundation principal of the College of Domestic Economy in Melbourne (1906-1916) (Biddington, 'Sandes', ADB). Teacher and journalist, Henrietta Young, was supervisor of women's work from 1919 at the Brisbane Central Technical College. She claimed feistily that 'tradition, not greater intelligence and expertise, placed men in charge of large schools composed of boys, girls and infants' (Clarke, 32). In NSW, Hurlstone Training College for Women (1883-1906) was administered by women, its foundation principal being Caroline Mallet (later Caroline (Cara) David) (Cantrell, ADB).

The first opportunity for a woman to head up a girls' government high school in Australia occurred in 1879, when South Australia's first secondary school, the Advanced School for Girls, opened, and the 'highly certificated' Jane Stanes was appointed foundation headmistress. As Jane Doudy, she was an award-winning novelist ('Jane Sarah Doudy', AustLit.) Sydney Girls High School opened in 1883, with enterprising headmistress Lucy Wheatley-Walker (later Garvin) in charge (Rowse, ADB; Meyering, AWR). Maitland Girls High School's principal, Jeanette Grossmann (1890-1913), also stood out. The school continues as the co-educational Maitland Grossman High School (Cramp, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October 1933, 10). Another 'notable headmistress' was Ada Partridge, Fort Street Girls High School's foundation principal (1912-1920). She was considered a 'genius for organisation', a 'tower of strength' to her staff' and always 'identified herself with the progressive movements in the educational world' ('Elema', Sydney Morning Herald, 14 April 1920, 9).

Victoria's first government secondary school, the Melbourne Continuation School (High School from 1910), opened in 1905. It was 'co-educational' until 1928, led by a headmaster with a headmistress for the girls' department only. The first headmistress was Marjorie Robertson (1905-1921) who, according to historian Pauline Parker, 'carved out a niche within a school hierarchy that neither sought nor desired her participation' (Parker, 66). In 1928, Christina Montgomery became the first principal of Melbourne Girls High School (renamed Mac.Robertson Girls High School (MGHS) in 1934), when the school separated into boys' and girls' schools (Dow, ADB). Highly qualified women led domestic arts girls' schools, such as Mary Hutton, MA. Dip. Ed., headmistress of the Collingwood School of Domestic Arts from 1926 to 1934 (later headmistress/principal of MGHS from 1934-1948) (Biddington, 'Hutton', ADB). In 1916, Betsy Blackmore, a needlework inspector at the University of London and author of bestselling needlework books, was employed as the foundation principal of Swinburne Girls' Junior Technical College, Victoria, a girls' vocational college and Australia's first girls' junior technical school ('Clio', Mercury, 26 February, 1916, 10). Infant mistresses of large elementary schools, such as Clara Weekes, were also recognised as educational leaders.

Clara Weekes was a prominent suffragist, feminist, equal pay activist and unionist (Henningham, AWR). Weekes and her sisters were leaders of the Victorian Lady Teachers' Association, established in 1885, which was 'Australia's first permanent teachers' union' (Spaull, 1984, 166). In NSW, headmistress Annie Golding worked with her sisters through the union movement and the Australian Labor Party to improve working women's lives (Kingston, ADB; Lemon, 'Golding', AWR). Florence Johnston, a president of the Victorian Women Teachers' Association, was the first woman secretary of the Women's Divisions in the Victorian State Services Federation (VSSF) in 1919 (ADB; Francis, AWR). She was one of the first women in Australia to hold a paid union officer position. Leading teachers Mary Deacon and Blanche Ludgate were Queensland Teachers Union members and equal pay activists (Clarke, 13-25). Feminist, Lucy Woodcock (Mitchell, ADB; Lemon, 'Woodcock', ADB), a vice-president of the NSW Teachers Federation, worked with Muriel Heagney on the Council of Action for Equal Pay from 1937. Women government school teachers consistently demanded promotion positions and equal pay. However, state governments relied upon women's cheap labour to expand the compulsory education system, and women were thus forced to continue their equity claims throughout the 20th century.

From 1911, the military supervised boys' compulsory drill with the assistance of male and female teachers, while senior roles were created for women to train women teachers and girls in physical education and swimming. In NSW, Ella Gormley became 'director' of physical education in 1916. She gained an MA in Physical Education at Columbia University in 1921, after which she conducted a national training program for women teachers. Participants included May Cleggett from South Australia (Whitehead & Thorpe, 164) and Rosalie Virtue from Victoria (Towns, 2010, 65), who had long careers heading up physical education in their states. May Cox, was organiser of swimming (1910-1938) and also executive secretary to the Victorian State Schools' Patriotic League during World War I, when government schools throughout Australia were directed to work for the 'war effort' (Towns, 2012, 201-04). Frank Tate, Victoria's director of education, received the Legion d'Honneur for his patriotic war work but he considered 'there were many workers in the cause but his pick for high commendation was the splendid service given by Miss May Cox' (Argus, 15 October 1921, 3).

Education departments invested significantly in domestic science training for girls for most of the 20th century. The domestic arts curriculum was seen as limiting by parents and problematic for some feminists but it created leadership opportunities for women. In 1949, Jean Pollock, foundation principal of the Home Economics Teachers' College, Victoria, which made her one of first woman principals of a teachers' college in Australia. In 1958, Pollock and others began the Home Economics Teachers' Group, which continues as Home Economics Victoria (HEV), a public company (Towns, 2010, 126-34). Isabel Horne, who followed Pollock as the college principal, was Australia's first president of the International Federation of Home Economics (IFHE) in 1973 (Towns, 2010, 149). The IFHE has consultative status with the United Nations, and HEV recently hosted the IFHE's 2012 conference. HEV CEO, Carol Warren, is currently IFHE president. Victorian home economics teacher, headmistress and inspector, Fay Moore, was director of manpower planning in the Ministry of Education in 1985, a role that, ironically, included responsibility for implementation of the government's equal employment opportunity programs in the department (Towns, 2010, 242).

During and immediately after World War II, governments and the community took a greater interest in education and training in the context of an expanding economy and an 'education explosion'. Teachers' unions and educational organisations began to demand greater access to government decisions. Teachers' numbers increased and, by 1963, they had reached 67,000 in Australian government schools. Women still comprised approximately 50 per cent of the total and still had limited promotion roles but they continued to take advantage of unique leadership opportunities (McKenzie et al., 37). Hettie Gilbert was the first woman president of an Australian teachers' union combining men and women when she served as the Victorian Teachers' Union's president from 1941 to 1942 (Blake, 1240). In 1943, Dorothy Tangney, a Western Australian government teacher, was elected Australia's first woman senator (1943-1968) (Lawrence, ADB; Heywood, 'Tangney', AWR). South Australia's Adelaide Miethke served as president of National Council of Women of Australia 1936-1941 while still in fulltime work as an inspector of schools and, in 1950, after her retirement from the Education Department, she founded the School of the Air in Alice Springs (Edgar & Jones, ADB; Land, 'Miethke', AWR). Teacher Nancy Stewart was South Australia's first full-time psychologist when she was appointed to the government's Welfare Department in 1947 (Hunt & Trotman, 106). When the number of teachers' colleges increased with a rise in student numbers that included 'older' students, such as returned soldiers, new promotion positions were created for women, such as woman warden at the Claremont Teachers College, Western Australia. This job, created in 1952, was likened by some women teachers to the traditional 'God's police' role. The first woman warden was May Marshall (Hunt & Trotman, 278).

The Australian College of Education, known today as the Australian College of Educators (ACE), was founded in 1959 as a professional organisation and independent voice. One of its first councillors was outstanding scholar Bessie Mitchell, foundation head of NSW's Cheltenham Girls High School (1958-1972), and the first woman president of the Secondary Teachers Association, NSW (Beecroft Cheltenham History Group). Another early councillor and esteemed scholar was Alice Hoy, the first principal of the Secondary Teachers' College, University of Melbourne, in 1950 (Meabank, ADB). Women members have won fewer ACE awards then men. Of the thirty-two College Medallists, only eight were women. One of the few women national presidents (2008-2009) and College Medallists (2011) was Denise Bradley, a women's advisor to the education department, South Australia, in 1977. She later became vice-chancellor and president of the University of South Australia (1997-2007) and chair of the Australian government's Higher Education Review (2008) (Bradley Interview). Leading Victorian government school principal Elida Brereton, a national president (2002-2004), recently received the ACE College Medal (2013). Amongst her work today, she mentors aspiring leaders at the Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership (Brereton Interview).

A radical change to the systemic educational milieu was the development of an increasingly influential national education system, beginning in the 1960s, through the controversial re-funding of non-government schools and an expanding federal education department. The first Commonwealth minister of education was appointed in 1966. The Commonwealth Schools Commission in the 1970s drew attention to the educational needs of a wide range of Australian groups, including Indigenous Australian. The need for formally trained Aboriginal teachers gained momentum from that time. However, in earlier decades, there were pioneering Aboriginal teachers-and they were women. Pearl Duncan taught in primary schools in the 1950s in NSW, Queensland and New Zealand, and she was head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Unit at the University of Technology Queensland (1992-1995) (Horten, 308). The first Aboriginal teacher in Western Australia was May O'Brien in 1953 (Land, 'O'Brien', AWR). She was a foundation member of the National Aboriginal Education Committee, the government's principal advisory committee on Aboriginal education (1977-1989), and the superintendent of Aboriginal Education. O'Brien was recently appointed a patron of the Dare to Lead initiative founded by the National Aboriginal Principals Association. Isabelle Adams taught in the 1960s and, in 1996, she was appointed a district superintendent of schools, the most senior Aboriginal person in the Ministry of Education in Western Australia (Bin-Sallik, 47).

The Schools Commission's landmark report, Girls, School and Society (1975), and the United Nation's International Women's Year (1975) drew attention to girls' and women's inequitable educational experiences and outcomes as students and teachers and in employment generally. Despite equal pay since the 1960s and all positions opened to women since the early 1970s, women occupied only 20 per cent of principal positions. Feminists, through organisations such as the Women's Electoral Lobby, the Australian Women's Education Coalition, the Australian Union of Students and teachers' unions argued that it was important for girls and boys to experience women role models as principals of schools and in other leadership positions. In 1976, national funding to teachers' unions and state education departments created 'elimination of sexism' officers. State women's advisors in education met annually under the auspices of the Conference of Directors General (now the Australian Education Systems Officials Committee). Departments created unique leadership positions for women teachers. Jozefa Sobski (Sobski Interview) worked with the indefatigable feminist, Joan Bielski, head of the social development unit, NSW Ministry of Education (1977-1984) (Land, 'Bielski', AWR). Later, Sobski was a leading principal of TAFE colleges and a deputy director general in the NSW Education Department. Teacher and academic Shirley Sampson chaired the Victorian government's Equal Opportunity in Schools Committee (1977) (Victorian Honour Roll of Women, 2009, 22). Jan Dillow, a president of the Technical Teachers' Union of Victoria, was director of EEO in 1985 (Towns, 2010, 242).


This entry on women teachers in government schooling has shown that women had a limited number of unique leadership opportunities. However, the low numbers of women teachers in leadership in mainstream government schooling continues as a social justice issue in the 21st century. In Victoria, women hold 39 per cent of executive positions in the education department (Annual Report, 2011-2012, 33). There have been only two women heads of the education department since 1988, when Ann Morrow (Towns, 2010, 275) was appointed by then minister for education and later Victoria's first woman premier, the former teacher, Joan Kirner (Heywood, 'Kirner', AWR). The board of directors of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership consists of two women and six men. Nationally, in government schooling, women comprise 80 per cent of primary teachers and hold 60 per cent of primary principal positions, while in secondary schools they comprise 58 per cent of teachers but only 44 per cent of principals. The Victorian Association of Secondary School Principals, a 65-year-old organisation, has never had a woman president. Government departments, teachers' unions and women's organisations sponsor programs designed to increase the numbers of women in leadership, such as the Australian Women Educators' recent conference, 'Reclaim the Agenda for Women and Girls in Education, Progressive Partnerships for C21'. Principals, as 'distributive leaders', are expected to play a key role in sustaining government schools' improvement, so it is important that they are selected from the best candidates. But women are not applying or not being appointed (Watterson, Redman & Watterson). Educationist Jill Blackmore has suggested that in choosing school leaders, systems, among other strategies, 'need to facilitate multiple representations of leadership and diversifying approaches to leadership'. And, she continues: 'It also means not only employing more women as leaders, but also promoting wider cultural and ethnic diversity in school leadership, to challenge the dominance of "whiteness" as well as "masculinity" in representations of leadership' (Blackmore, 2006, 8).

Additional sources: Brereton, Elida, 15 October 2010, Melbourne (interviewed by Deborah Towns) NOTE: Brereton also starred in the television program, Summer Heights High, as the principal of the co-educational government school; Bradley, Denise, Chair, Australian Higher Education Review, telephone, September 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Sobski, Jozefa, Chair, Jessie Street National Women's Library, telephone, September 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Leigh, Gabrielle, President, Australian Primary Principals Association and President, Victorian Principals Association, September 2012, North Melbourne (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Dodds, Raylene and Bossio, Teresa, General Manager and Manager, School Education, DEECD, East Melbourne, September 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); Crow, Judith, Principal, Melbourne Girls' College, Vice-president, Victorian High School Principals Association, Richmond, September 2012 (interviewed by Deborah Towns); 'Jane Sarah Doudy', AustLit, at

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Blake, L.J., Vision and Realisation: A Centenary History of State Education in Victoria, vol. 1, Victorian Education Department, Melbourne, Victoria, 1973. Details
  • Connell, William F., Reshaping Australian Education 1960 - 1985, Australian Council for Educational Research, Shannon Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1993. Details
  • Hunt, Lynne and Trotman, Janina, Claremont Cameos, Women Teachers and the Building of Social Capital in Australia, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia, 2002. Details
  • Kyle, Noeline, Her Natural Destiny: The Education of Women in New South Wales, 1880 - 1920, The University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Details
  • Parker, Pauline F., The Making of Women: A History of MacRobertson Girls' High School, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, Victoria, 2006. Details
  • Theobald, Marjorie R, Knowing women: origins of women's education in nineteenth-century Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1996. Details
  • Trotman, Janina, Girls Becoming Teachers: An Historical Analysis of Western Australian Women Teachers 1911-1940, Cambria Press, Amherst, New York, 2007. Details

Book Sections

  • Towns, Deborah, 'Equality of Opportunity for Women Teachers', in Bevege, Margaret; James, Margaret; and Shute, Carmel (eds), Worth Her Salt: Women at Work In Australia, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, New South Wales, 1982. Details
  • Towns, Deborah, 'May Cox: Leading Swimming and Lifesaving Advocate and Patriotic Fundraiser, 1910¬1938', 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. 198-210. Details

Edited Books

  • Bin-Sallik, Mary Ann (ed.), Aboriginal Women by Degrees: Their stories of the Journey towards Academic Achievement, University of Queensland Press (UQP), Brisbane, Queensland, 2000. Details
  • Horton, David (ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society and Culture, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, vol. 1 & 2, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1994. Details
  • Watterson, Jim; Redman, Keith; and Watterson Barbara (eds), Women in School Leadership: Pathways to Success, Centre for Strategic Education, Melbourne, Victoria, 2010. Details

Journal Articles

  • Blackmore, Jill, 'Redesigning Schools and Leadership: Exciting Opportunities and Entrenched Barriers for Women', Redress, vol. 15, no. 1, April 2006, pp. 1 - 25. Details
  • Spaull, Andrew, 'The Origins and Formation of Teachers Unions in Nineteenth Century Australia', Melbourne Studies in Education, vol. 26, no. 1, 1984, pp. 134 - 168. Details
  • Spaull, Andrew, 'Invoking Ghosts from the Past: The Formation of the Victorian Teachers' Union, Victoria, Australia, 1916 - 1926', Historical Studies in Education, vol. 5, no. 1, 1993, pp. 87 - 116. Details
  • Whitehead, Kay, 'Great Australian Educators: Blanche McNamara', Unicorn, vol. 24, no. 1, April 1998, pp. 73 - 76. Details
  • Whitehead, Kay, 'The Spinster Teacher in Australia from the 1870s to the 1960s', History of Education Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1 - 17. Details
  • Whitehead, Kay and Thorpe, Stephen, 'The Problematic Place of a Woman Physical Education Instructor: An Historical Case Study', Gender and Education, vol. 16, no. 1, March 2004, pp. 77 - 96. Details

Newspaper Articles


  • Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), Annual Report 2011 - 2012, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), Victorian Government: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development: Communication Division, Melbourne, Victoria, October 2012. Details
  • McKinnon, K. R. (Kenneth Richard), Girls, school and society : report by a study group to the Schools Commission, Committee on Social Change and the Education of Women. Study Group., Schools Commission, Wooden, Australian Capital Territory, 1975. Details


  • Towns, Deborah, '"our own sphere…" Women Teachers and the Victorian Education Department 1880s-1980s', PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 2010. Details

Online Resources