23 October 2014

A new online encyclopedia celebrating the inspiring success stories from women in every walk of life is now available to the general public following a research project that brought together academics from a range of universities, museums and libraries.

The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia was launched in May at the National Library of Australia. The project that led to the delivery of this new resource was supported with funding from the ARC Linkage Projects scheme.

The online encyclopedia makes accessible 680 biographies of 20th century women, with a focus on their roles in providing leadership to others.

As well as the hundreds of individual entries on significant women, the encyclopedia includes a suite of essays on 78 different themes as diverse as Mining, the Catholic Church, Suffragists, Education and Peace Movements.

Co-editor of the encyclopedia, Professor Shurlee Swain from the Australian Catholic University, said the project brought together a diverse range of people to craft individual entries.

“It’s a really good example of what a linkage project can do,” Professor Swain said.

“We brought together several major cultural institutions, as well as historians and other academics, and in fact all sorts of people who were interested.

“We also engaged the talents of people from the community who wanted to write entries in the encyclopedia about women who were interesting to them.”

In the early 20th century Australian women gained federal political rights through the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act, which extended federal political rights to vote and stand for parliament to all women (with the specific exception of Indigenous women unless they previously had the right at a colonial/state level). Australian women thus were able to enter public debate in a way that was impossible in Europe or the United States—apart from some states—where the right to vote was still decades away.

“Australian women were renowned by their peers—speaking at international events—and some were quite assertive on the world stage. It was a big task reaching decisions about who should be included, and writing it so as to focus on leadership,” said Professor Swain, whose own research interests include women in philanthropy and social work, social action, as well as religious women.

“I was particularly struck by four women who all died within about 12 months of each other in the early 20th century, four early pioneers of leadership in Australia.”

They are Janet Clarke (1851–1909), a philanthropist who worked to improve living standards for the underprivileged in society, Mary Mackillop (1842–1909), founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph and Australia’s first Saint, Selina Sutherland (1839–1909), an activist for neglected children, and Elizabeth Austin (1821–1910), a substantial philanthropist.

“These women—all coming out of the 19th century—in the way they moulded their personalities, were fashioning a way in which women could bring about social change and setting a model that later women would develop on, obviously with fewer restraints,” said Professor Swain.

As well as the right to vote, access to tertiary education was fundamental in changing the station of women in Australia and around the world. Even though some of the first women who benefitted from this education may have still faced rejection and closed doors, their experience opened different pathways and gave them a language to speak with authority.

Professor Swain said it was one of the most fundamental empowering changes for many of the women presented in the encyclopedia.

“It gave them the power to say ‘we have been given this wonderful gift’ and that shaped their role as leaders.”

Among the women featured are Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Georgina Sweet, after whom two of the ARC’s prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowships are named.

Georgina Sweet, who was Australia’s first Doctor of Science in 1904 believed that university educated women had a particular responsibility to take a leadership role. She was a strong supporter of women in research, in days long before there was support of the kind now available by the laureate award which now bears her name.

The encyclopedia is designed to be an accessible and trustworthy knowledge bank to appeal to a wide readership. 
Professor Swain hopes that it will become a resource as part of the new national curriculum. Linkage Project partners, including the National Library of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive, are also using the information to enrich their own collections.

Anyone interested in the history of women and leadership in modern Australia will enjoy the many stories that have been collected to make this resource.

For more information please visit the The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia online.


Image: (Left to Right) Shurlee Swain (Australian Catholic University), Helen Morgan (The University of Melbourne), Judith Smart (RMIT/The University of Melbourne). Shurlee and Judy are the editors of the Encyclopedia, Helen is the technical editor.
Image credit: Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Australia.