5 Incredible Australian Women Who Led the Way
International Women’s Day (8 March) is a day for us to join voices with people around the world and shout our message for equal rights loud and clear: “Women’s rights are human rights!”
International Women’s Day is a chance to celebrate those who came before us, those who stand beside us now, and those who will come after. It’s a day to celebrate women in all their diversities and embrace their facets and intersections of faith, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, or disability.
Australia has a rich history of courageous women, breaking down barriers and forging their own career paths to achieve incredible feats. In doing so, they led the way for other women to follow in their footsteps and keep reaching for greater heights.
Here are five worth knowing about:
1. Professor Elizabeth Blackburn: Australia’s 1st Female Nobel Prize Winner
Originally from Snug, Tasmania, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn is the only Australian woman to have won a Nobel Prize for her physiology and medicine work. Professor Blackburn is a leader in the area of telomere and telomerase research. She discovered the molecular nature of telomeres – the ends of chromosomes that serve as protective caps essential for preserving the genetic information and what makes us, us!
Professor Blackburn and her research team at the University of California, San Francisco, are working with various cells, including human cells, to understand more about this key part of our biology.
Watch her fascinating TED Talk to learn more
2. Diane Lemaire: The first women to graduate with an Engineering Degree
Diane Lemaire was an Australian aeronautical engineer. She was the first woman to graduate from the University of Melbourne with a degree in engineering, and she is still inspiring students today. When Lemaire applied to live at the University of Melbourne residence Janet Clarke Hall in the early 1940s, she was obliged to complete a ‘housewifery’ test for entry!
She later attended Cornell University and graduated with a Master of Science and worked as a prominent aeronautical engineer in Australia, right up until her retirement.
3. Millicent Maude Bryant: The first woman to gain a pilot’s licence in Australia.
Millicent Maude Bryant became the first woman to gain a pilot’s licence in Australia. She was also first in the Commonwealth outside Britain.
In 1926, at the age of 49, Bryant decided to begin flying lessons. In the 1920s, this caused a little bit of furore – women were not typically involved in such pursuits owing to their dangerous nature! But Bryant persisted and quickly progressed to make her first solo flight in February 1927. Newspapers all around Australia were following her story, and in late March, she took the test for the “A” licence, enabling her to fly De Havilland Moth biplanes independently. With her approval by the Ministry of Defence, Bryant was acclaimed as the first woman to gain a pilot’s licence in Australia.
Sadly, in the same year, Bryant tragically died when she boarded the Sydney ferry Greycliffe. The ferry was cut in half and sunk when it was hit by the mail steamer, Tahiti.
4. Isabel Letham: Australian Surfing and Swimming Pioneer
In 1915, Isabel Letham was inducted into the art of surfing and never looked back. After the first taste of surfing, Letham pursued a career in the states and was alarmed at the high rates of drowning on California’s shores. She campaigned to introduce Australian-style beach safety patrols. In 1925, she had reached out to the Sydney lifesaving community to get them on board but was unfortunately denied.
Letham spent the rest of her career as a celebrated swimming instructor and coach, both in the states and Sydney. In 1978, she became a life member and patron of the Australian Women Board Riders Association, and in 1993 was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. She was an inspiration to a later generation of female surfers.
Learn more about Letham in this ABC episode of ‘Shooting the Past’
5. Ruby Lindsay: First Australian female Graphic Designer
Ruby Lindsay was among the first women in Australian graphic design. In the early-20th century, she pursued a full-time career in magazine and book illustration at a time when women weren’t readily accepted into the field.
Lindsay created a beautiful array of work during the arts and crafts movement in the early 1900s. Even though she made a significant contribution, many people have never heard of Lindsay because women working at this time were marginalised by their gender and society. Restrictive ideas about identity, roles and expectations were something Lindsay quietly challenged through her graphic design work.
How many of these incredible Australian women had you heard of before?
We’ve barely scratched the surface with this list, but we hope it’s given you a great insight into how women have been forging the way across historically male-dominated careers for decades – in Australia and all over the world.