Woman Mackinnon, Gracemary (1911 - )

Corowa, New South Wales, Australia
Executive and Public servant

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Gracemary MacKinnon was born in Corowa, New South Wales in 1911, grew up on a sheep station in the Riverina and was educated at Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne. She became a licensed shorthand writer and, after working with the Graziers Association, was appointed Secretary to the Australian Wool Board in 1940. She remained with the Board (also known between 1953 and 1963 as the Australian Wool Bureau) throughout her career until her retirement in 1971. She served as Secretary to the International Wool Secretariat (from 1961) and the Wool Marketing Committee (1963-67). She was awarded an MBE in 1961 for services to the Australian Wool Industry.

Although Mackinnon had been working in the wool industry for over twenty years in 1961, it was then that she received significant public attention when, as secretary to the International Wool Secretariat, she became one of only three women senior executives in the wool promotion industry worldwide. That a woman should have a senior position in an industry of such importance was of interest to the Australian press, and her appointment as secretary to the international board in 1961 received significant coverage. Of particular interest to journalists were Mackinnon's views on how women bosses are perceived by those they lead. 'A friendly woman with a sense of humour,' wrote one scribe, 'Miss Mackinnon has a quiet dig at those who think women in executive positions can't keep staff as long as men. "I have had the same secretary for twelve years. She is superlative," she replied' (Age, 1961).

After four years in the job on the International Secretariat, she became somewhat of a public authority on women in high places in the public service. Commenting upon the important role of mentoring for women who want to succeed in business she applied a twist to the adage, that behind every successful man there is a woman. She agreed that 'behind every able male executive there is a very active female secretary,' but noted as well that 'behind every successful woman executive there is an encouraging man' (Berkeley). The encouraging man who she credited most was Sir Dalziel Kelly, the first Chairman of the Wool Board. 'He liked woman executives,' said Mackinnon, and recommended her appointment as Secretary. 'To my protestations that I simply couldn't do it, he simply answered, "yes you can". His confidence gave me confidence' (Berkeley). And although she thought men and women collaborating at the executive level 'make an almost unbeatable combination', she was under no illusion as to who bore the bulk of the pressure in the partnership. 'You have to be twice as good as a man,' she said, 'Otherwise they'd say, 'What can you expect - she's only a woman' (Berkeley). Nevertheless her observations on women as leaders indicate that she thought women brought some important qualities to top posts. When she remarked in a 1965 article that 'basically, a woman likes to serve as well as to direct,' she pre-dated Robert Greenleaf's theories expressed in his 1970 essay on servant leadership by 5 years (Berkeley).

After her retirement in 1971, Mackinnon was still in demand as a speaker who could engagingly address an audience on principles of management and leadership. At a seminar for the Institute of Private Secretaries in October 1972, Gracemary Mackinnon decried the lack of women at an executive level in Australia. 'It almost appears as if the lucky country can waste its own woman power,' she said. 'The situation is quite otherwise in the Soviet Union and China' (Mackinnon , p. 6). Her hackles were raised by the very title given to the event. 'The theme of this seminar is "Keeping Pace With Your Executive". Why?' she asked the audience. 'Why should it not be "Become an Executive"?' (Mackinnon, p. 7). She placed the onus on women to move themselves forward for equal participation in the business world. They had to imagine and believe that they were capable of taking on leadership roles but 'unless women help themselves,' she said, 'no one, least of all their male contemporaries, will help them' (Mackinnon, p. 8). Importantly, she had great faith in the ability of women, working collectively, to create change. Noting the movements that have progressively advanced women's social position over the twentieth century, she believed that:

"it is within the power of women themselves to accelerate this process of evolution. The Women's Liberation Movement is the sharp revolutionary activity designed to show up the apartheid which has existed between the sexes when top jobs are at stake. Every individual has the capacity, the courage and the steadfastness of purpose can play her own part in furthering the evolution."(Mackinnon, p. 6)

To that end, Mackinnon found solidarity with women through her membership of the Melbourne Soroptomist Club, serving a term as president in the late 1950s. It was an important place for her to revive and rejuvenate, to meet professional women who knew nothing about wool. 'I like to belong to a woman's club because I work with men all the time,' she said. 'You sit in a board meeting, shut in one room for about 16 hours a day. At the end of the week it's refreshing to hear women's voices' (Berkeley).

Archival Resources

National Archives of Australia

  • The Australian Wool Board 1936 - 1972, a history (unpublished) by Gracemary Mackinnon, 1936 - 1972, 523924; National Archives of Australia. Details
  • Royalty - Vice regal - Investiture at Government House, Canberra, 26 October 1961 - Mrs Gracemary Mackinnon and the Governor General Visconut De L'Isle, 26 October 1961, 11920078; National Archives of Australia. Details

Published Resources

Conference Papers

  • Mackinnon, Gracemary, 'Sex is no excuse', in Keeping Pace With Your Executive; Seminar of the Institute of Private Secretaries, Institute of Private Secretaries, Victoria, 14 October 1972, pp. 1 - 9. Details

Magazine Articles

Newspaper Articles

  • 'Woman Given International Wool Post', The Age, 17 May 1961. Details

Online Resources

See also