Theme United Nations (UN)

Written by Jane McCosker, Australian National University

The United Nations (UN) merits special attention in any consideration of Australian women's leadership beyond the national sphere. It is a stage for communication between governments and, increasingly, non-state actors, as well as providing the means to attend to global problems, including the subjugation of women. Yet women are underrepresented in the UN's workforce (particularly in traditionally male-dominated areas such as peacekeeping). In addition, Australians of either sex are often comparatively disadvantaged in competing for high-level UN positions by Australia's developed country status, its geopolitical position and/or its lack of vigour in campaigning to secure an Australian presence on UN bodies.

Nonetheless, many Australian women have recognised the UN's significance and engaged with the organisation in multiple ways over the course of its existence. This entry examines the leadership Australian women have shown at the UN, and highlights how that leadership has built on, flowed into and complemented leadership at home.

Early Leadership at the UN

Australian women's leadership played an important part in the creation of the UN and in its formal recognition, from the outset, of women's rights. Jessie Street (Radi ADB; Morrell & Henningham, AWR) participated directly in negotiating the UN's founding document, the Charter, as an Australian delegate to the 1945 San Francisco conference. The advocacy of Street and 'the small band of women from other delegations' (Evatt, 'Jessie Street') at that inaugural conference resulted in explicit references to equality between men and women in the Charter's Preamble and various other articles, as well as the inclusion of Article 8 asserting the unrestricted eligibility of both men and women to work for the UN itself. Street was a leader of women in these events in two distinct senses: as well as being a prominent member of the transnational group promoting the global feminist cause, she led Australian women symbolically, as the sole person of their sex on the country's official delegation.

For Street, this twofold leadership status at the UN-as women's rights advocate and government-endorsed presence-continued to the late 1940s, with Street's contribution to establishing the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), appointment as Australia's first representative on that body, and successful lobbying, as that body's vice-chair, for a number of provisions advancing women's rights in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, Street's UN-related leadership activities spanned a much longer period and were more diverse. They included: attending meetings of the General Assembly in the 1950s and 1960s on behalf of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), after she fell out of favour with the Australian government for her suspected communist leanings; and lobbying the International Labour Organization (ILO) well before the UN itself was established, regarding women's employment rights. Street's engagement with the ILO was in common with that of other Australian feminists active in the interwar period such as Mary Bennett (Bolton & Gibbney, ADB; Tallis, AWR), Muriel Heagney (Bremner, ADB; Francis, AWR) and Eleanor Hinder (Foley & Radi, ADB; Carey, AWR).

The Women's Architecture within the UN and Australian Women Leaders

After the CSW's establishment, the UN added more bodies and processes aimed at improving the status of women. This resulted in a complicated, overlapping institutional architecture that was only partly simplified with the creation in 2010 of the UN's present gender equality and women's empowerment entity, UN Women, merging four existing UN entities. Australian women have participated in numerous different capacities in this UN women's architecture throughout its evolution over nearly seven decades-and they have shown considerable leadership in doing so.

Women headed Australia's delegations to three of the four UN World Conferences on Women: the first conference, in Mexico City in 1975 (delegation head Elizabeth Reid (Land & Francis, AWR), the first Australian government adviser on women's affairs); the Nairobi Conference in 1985 (delegation head Patricia Giles (Heywood, 'Giles', AWR), then a senator); and the Beijing Conference in 1995 (delegation head Dr Carmen Lawrence (Heywood, 'Lawrence', AWR), then minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women). At all four UN World Conferences, both the women directly representing Australia as country delegates and the Australian women representing NGOs helped to procure significant, beneficial outcomes for the world's women. These outcomes included the adoption by the 189 governments at the Beijing Conference of the Beijing Platform of Action, a ground-breaking document for its comprehensive coverage of issues related to women's empowerment. Albeit not legally binding, the Platform did specify actions governments and other parties were to take in twelve key areas, ranging from poverty to the environment to the media. Australia had initiated the idea of states making specific commitments at the Beijing Conference-contrary to the approach taken in Nairobi-and the Australian delegation, under Dr Lawrence's leadership, rallied the majority of states attending the conference to do so.

As for the implementation of international law to protect and empower women, the leadership shown by Elizabeth Evatt AC (Lemon, AWR) in UN human rights treaty bodies deserves special mention. One of Australia's most distinguished jurists, Evatt has headed a series of judicial, law reform and human rights institutions in Australia from the 1970s onwards. In the period 1984-2000, she served on both the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which monitors states' compliance with the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the UN Human Rights Committee, which performs the same function in respect of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). CEDAW and the ICCPR constitute the world's primary sources of globally applicable international law concerning, respectively, women's rights and the fundamental civil and political rights of both women and men (such as the rights to life, freedom of thought and participation in public affairs).

Evatt was the first Australian elected to membership of the monitoring body for either treaty, being elected to the CEDAW Committee in 1984 (she remained a member until 1992) and then the Human Rights Committee in 1992, serving on that committee from 1993 to 2000. She was also elected chairperson of the CEDAW Committee in 1989, an office she held until 1991. Through her long-running membership of each UN Committee, Evatt contributed significantly to clarifying and developing international law on women's rights. Amongst several key achievements in this area on the CEDAW Committee, Evatt led that committee to issue General Recommendation 19 (1992), which found that violence against women was a form of discrimination prohibited by CEDAW. This was an important step towards ensuring better international legal protection of women, since CEDAW itself does not specifically mention violence.

When a member of the Human Rights Committee, in addition to helping to interpret international law concerning diverse generally applicable human rights, Evatt played a large part in the committee's findings about violence against women, persecution of women in the context of asylum, and equal rights in marriage in its revised General Comment on ICCPR Article 3 (2000). This Comment and CEDAW General Recommendation 19 are authoritative interpretative aids for states and have directly influenced legal and policy developments worldwide, including the formulation of policy in Australia relating to violence against women and children.

Since Jessie Street's time on the CSW, Australian governments have from time to time backed Australian women's election to UN forums relevant to women's rights. On the whole, however, government support for Australian women experts has been mixed, suggesting further parallels with Street's experiences. Instead, a lot of important engagement by Australian women with the UN has occurred through non-governmental channels, for example the 'shadow' human rights reporting processes in which the YWCA's Dr Caroline Lambert, amongst others, has played a leading role. While some of this engagement has been government assisted (as when the Australian government has financially supported Australian women representing NGOs to attend UN World Conferences on Women), much of it has not-and some of it has been at odds with the government's preferred position. For instance, over the decade of meetings to negotiate the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, representatives of Women with Disabilities Australia helped to ensure the inclusion in that Convention of articles specific to the experiences of women with disabilities, an outcome that the Australian government had opposed.

What certainly mirrors Street's pioneering interactions with the UN is the way that subsequent Australian women leaders have used their own and their colleagues' achievements at the UN to effect improvements in the situation for women in Australia. A recurring example is Australian women government officials and heads of civil society organisations successfully influencing the government to ratify relevant treaties and implement domestic mechanisms to comply with them. This has been the case with respect to CEDAW (influential women have included government minister Susan Ryan (Morrell, AWR), who oversaw the treaty's ratification and the introduction of implementing legislation in the early 1980s, and Caroline Lambert, who oversaw YWCA Australia's 2012 launch of a CEDAW Action Plan for Women in Australia). It was also the case with Australia's 1973 ratification of the 1958 ILO Convention on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation), a particular influence being Elizabeth Reid.

Leading at the UN in Other Fields

Australian women's leadership at the UN has long extended beyond their effect on international law and policy concerning women, and their involvement with the parts of the organisation specifically dedicated to gender issues and human rights. In the following section, this entry highlights the UN engagement in a series of additional fields of three eminent Australian women who are contemporaries in age: Elizabeth Reid AO, Penelope Wensley AC and Erika Feller.
The focus on these three, though well deserved, is not to suggest that no other Australian women have made their mark at the UN to date in relation to the same issues or different ones. Rather, there are many additional notable contributions, including in spheres of activity not mentioned below. Two such spheres are international dispute resolution and disarmament. In 2013, Hilary Charlesworth AM was appointed as judge in the Australia/New Zealand-Japan whaling case at the International Court of Justice, and in the period 1998-2006, Elizabeth Evatt was a member of the Administrative Tribunal of the World Bank, a UN specialised agency. And diplomat Caroline Millar worked in Geneva as Australian ambassador for disarmament 2006-2010, amongst her other UN positions.

Elizabeth Reid AO

Elizabeth Reid's feminism and her role from 1973 to 1975 as the world's first official women's adviser to a head of government have been widely publicised. It is less well known that Reid has had a UN career beyond her work in the women's affairs field. As mentioned above, Reid headed the Australian delegation to the historic 1975 International Women's Year Conference and she was subsequently principal officer (1979-1980) in the UN Secretariat for the 1980 Second World Conference on Women. At the same time, Reid was bringing her commitment to improving the status of women to international development work, including as founding director of the UN Asian and Pacific Centre for Women and Development based in Tehran (1977-1979).

In 1989, Reid was again working for the UN, having accepted a senior post at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in New York: program director of the Division for Women in Development. In the intervening ten years, she had been based periodically in developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, working for aid organisations and consulting for many other parties, amongst them the UN's World Health Organization. By the time Reid reached New York in 1989, she possessed exceptional expertise concerning not just gender, international development and humanitarian assistance generally but also the true nature and scale of the HIV epidemic. Reid's great insight and passion concerning the plight of people living with HIV proved crucial in mobilising the UN to respond appropriately to the epidemic at a time when knowledge of it at UN headquarters was comparatively lacking. She was soon appointed a special adviser to UNDP's administrator on HIV and AIDS, then became the founding director of UNDP's HIV and Development Programme in 1992. In these posts, she promoted understanding of the relationship between HIV and development, considering this a potential pathway to dealing effectively with the 'socio-economic, economic and political consequences' of the epidemic (ABC Stateline, 2005).

Reid went on to hold further senior UN posts in UNDP headquarters and in Papua New Guinea (UN resident coordinator and UNDP resident representative) until 2000, then worked from Australia in a variety of capacities including as consultant to UN bodies, in particular on establishing UN system responses to the HIV epidemic at the country level. Replicating her early role as a leader in making government responsive to women's needs, since the 1980s she has contributed in a number of ways to Australia's national HIV response. Her 2001 Officer of the Order of Australia award was in recognition of both her international and her Australian work relating to women, development and HIV/AIDS policy.

Penelope Wensley AC

So far as Queensland is concerned, technically Governor Penelope Wensley AC is the 'leader at home', in that she is the representative in Australia of the ultimate head of that state, Queen Elizabeth II. Along with Governor-General Quentin Bryce AC CVO (Wensley's predecessor) and New South Wales Governor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Wensley was in 2013 a visible reminder of Australian women's success in attaining the highest unelected public offices under the country's present constitutional system. Wensley was chosen for this domestic leadership role after-and because of-a forty-year career in the Australian diplomatic service, much of it in similarly top-level representational roles and specifically concentrating on the UN.

While Wensley has considerable expertise in several fields of UN activity, it is in the field of official representation itself that she stands out most, in terms of both UN engagement and women's leadership generally. Wensley remains the only Australian, female or male, to have been Australia's ambassador and permanent representative to both the UN's headquarters in New York and the organisation's second major office site, Geneva. Serving as such for seven years in total (Geneva 1993-1995, then New York 1997-2001), in both cases Wensley was the first woman appointed to the position. She was also Australia's first woman ambassador for the environment (1992-1995) and in that position represented Australia at landmark UN environment conferences such as the First UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in 1994, which she also chaired and which produced the Barbados Programme of Action for SIDS. These experiences built on Wensley's early exposure to multilateral diplomacy at the UN, including temporary postings to Australia's UN mission in New York to attend the General Assembly in 1974 and again in 1975.

Between overseas postings, amongst other senior roles, Wensley headed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's International Organisations and Legal Division, which worked on Australia's relations with the UN. Meanwhile, Wensley's diplomatic career outside the UN context was dotted with other 'firsts' for women government representatives-amongst them, first Australian policy officer to have a baby while serving in an overseas diplomatic post (as deputy head of mission at Australia's embassy in Mexico, in 1977) and first Australian woman head of mission in each of Hong Kong, Geneva, New York, India and France.

By its nature, a large amount of the work Wensley has done to advance Australia's interests in both permanent and temporary UN assemblies has taken place out of the spotlight and off the (publicly available) record. However, it is noteworthy that, in the course of her service for Australia at the UN, Wensley also repeatedly took the opportunity to serve the interests of the entire international community by providing various kinds of leadership to collective initiatives relating to environmental protection and a range of other issues of global concern, including the negotiation of major international treaties such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Cotton & Lee).

Erika Feller

In 2013, expert on international refugee law and former diplomat Erika Feller retired from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) after twenty-seven years' work for that agency. At her retirement, Feller was UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection, a very high-level management post in the UN system (equivalent to an assistant secretary-general) that she had held for over seven years. Her assistant high commissioner appointment was the culmination of a series of progressively more senior appointments focused on the protection of refugees under international law, mostly based in Geneva but also involving extensive travel and including three years in Malaysia as UNHCR's representative to three Southeast Asian countries. Feller's many publications concerning international refugee law and related subjects have made her name familiar to international law and humanitarian protection scholars and practitioners worldwide.

Trained as a lawyer in Australia, Feller had a substantial career in the Australian diplomatic service before moving-on secondment and then permanently-to UNHCR. Over the fourteen years of that initial diplomatic career, Feller developed professional expertise in, and a self-described 'passion' for, the international humanitarian and human rights fields (Strong). Her work as an Australian diplomat included positions in three overseas missions, one of which was first secretary at the Australian Mission to the UN in Geneva, and legal- and human rights-focused positions at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade headquarters in Canberra (the last as head of the Human Rights Section).

Once at UNHCR, Feller worked in many different ways to enhance refugee protection worldwide. These included negotiating agreements with governments regarding the treatment of refugees within their territory, running refugee camps, educating various parties including representatives of states, humanitarian workers and the public about states' obligations towards refugees under international law, and initiating and managing UNHCR's Global Consultations on International Protection (2001-2002), which established a global agenda for refugee protection for the start of the 21st century. Frequently making statements to the media and addressing UN and other international meetings, as well as communicating through her journal articles and books, throughout her decades at UNHCR Feller was a strong spokesperson for millions of very vulnerable people throughout the world, nearly half (48 per cent in 2012) of whom are women (UNHCR, Displacement, 3). Besides acting for women by acting for all refugees, she contributed to initiatives to combat certain problems that principally affect women, such as sexual and gender-based violence in the refugee context.

After retirement, Feller continued to display leadership, particularly by providing expert insight into the legal aspects of, and international context to, politically controversial developments in domestic refugee policy, commenting in the Australian media upon the government's plans to handle asylum seekers (ABC Radio News, 26 July 2013). Thus at home Feller remains, as she was for decades at the UN, an authoritative public voice about an issue that directly affects millions of women and presents an enormous ongoing challenge for the whole world.

Conclusion: The Need for Greater Visibility

Ever since the UN came into being, Australian women have been there displaying leadership. This has been done in an official capacity and otherwise, and has often been combined with leading at home, whether simultaneously or consecutively. Their actions have enhanced Australia's international reputation, benefited humanity globally in relation to critically important matters including women's rights, health, the environment and refugees, and also helped other Australian women.

In many cases, the women mentioned above, if they are known in Australia at all, are known for something other than their achievements at the UN (such as Reid's 1970s domestic advisory work and Wensley's appointment as Queensland's governor). Furthermore, despite this entry's effort to bring some unsung accomplishments and leaders to light, there may well be Australian women displaying notable leadership at the UN it has missed-especially ones younger and less advanced in their careers than most discussed here-because those women's contributions are as yet unpublicised.

There are a number of possible reasons for the lack of widespread awareness and recognition of Australian women's leadership at the UN. Amongst those reasons are the inherent difficulty of monitoring all governmental, non-governmental and UN employee connections to such a large organisation, and the absence of an official record in Australia, such as some other countries' governments keep, of our nationals' appointments to the UN. In any event, the lack is to be lamented. Increasing the visibility of Australian women's contributions at the UN will likely broaden the positive impact of those contributions and inspire a new generation of women to further engage with the UN and its agencies.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • O'Sullivan, Kay, Australian Legends - Trailblazers: The Road to Equality, Australian Postal Corporation, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details

Edited Books

  • Cotton, James and Lee, David (eds), Australia and the United Nations, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Barton, Australian Capital Territory, 2012. Details
  • Dee, Moreen and Volk, Felicity (eds), Women with a mission : personal perspectives, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Barton, Australian Capital Territory, 2007. Details
  • Sullivan, Leanne and Somers, Miranda (eds), Who's Who of Australian Women: Reflections on Happiness, Crown Content, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details




  • International Labour Organization, C111 - Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) 1958, International Labour Organization (ILO), Convention C111 was adopted by the International Labour Organization on 25 June 1958 and became an enforceable convention on 15 June 1960., Geneva, Switzerland, 15 June 1960. Details
  • United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland, 10 December 1948. Details
  • United Nations, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was adopted by the United Nations and opened for signature on 16 December 1966, it became an enforceable international Convenant on 23 March 1976, 23 March 1976. Details
  • United Nations, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations on 18 December 1979, was opened for signature on 1 March 1980, and became an enforceable international treaty on 3 September 1981., Copenhagen, Denmark, 3 September 1981. Details
  • United Nations, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened for signature on 4 June 1992 and became an enforceable interantional framework convention on 21 March 1994, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 21 March 1994. Details
  • United Nations, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the United Nations on 13 December 2006, opened for signature on 30 March 2007 and became an enforceable international Convention on 3 May 2008., New York, United States of America, 3 May 2008. Details
  • United Nations: General Assembly, Charter of the United Nations, Decleration: The Charter was first signed on 26 June 1945, multiple ammendments have been made since the original signing., United Nations, San Francisco, United States of America, 1945. Details

Resource Sections

Online Resources

Digital Resources

People smuggler focus short-sighted says ex-UNHCR official
26 July 2013
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)