By J. Howard Miller (1918–2004), artist employed by Westinghouse, poster used by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee - From scan of copy belonging to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, retrieved from the website of the Virginia Historical Society., Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5249733
A World War II spy, the first female plainclothes detective, and an aviation pioneer are just a few Australian women who overcame adversity to achieve greatness.
March is International Women's History Month and to celebrate, we're sharing the stories of five inspirational Australian women who fought injustice or worked to make our country a better place.
The Female Vagabond
Catherine Hay Thomson, investigative journalist
By Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) - The Melbourne Hospital, in the collection of the State Library of Victoria, Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22459813
Catherine Thomson's early life is shrouded in just as much secrecy as her life undercover. While no one ever knew her date of birth, we do know that she was born in Glasgow and moved to Melbourne at a young age.
Smart and educated, Thomson was one of the first female graduates from the University of Melbourne. She went on to become a principal at Queens College, Ballarat and started a girl's boarding school in Melbourne.
Thomson turned her focus to journalism in 1886 and quickly drew attention. One of her first pieces, an expose on the conditions at Melbourne Hospital, led to the introduction of formal nursing training three years later.
Over the next 20 years, Thomson continued to expose cruelty and corruption. Disguised as a man, she explored the laneway taverns and brothels of Melbourne, writing about 'all the things happened that you wanted out of sight', in the pages of the Bulletin. Her work gave a voice to disadvantaged, powerless and often female citizens. She was so successful that she was given the nickname the Female Vagabond, a homage to famed investigative reporter Julian Thomas, known as the Vagabond.
Thomson continued to empower women even after she stopped writing. With other noted writers of the time, she helped found The Austral Salon, an organisation for female creatives.
Find out more
You can read Thomsons most notable articles online through Trove:
By State Library of New South Wales - Flickr: Nancy Bird in Gipsy Moth at Kingsford Smith Flying School, 1933 / by unknown photographer, Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17217551
From the moment she was born, Nancy Bird lived up to her name. Born in Kew, New South Wales in 1915, Bird's desire to fly developed before she could walk. Unfortunately, as a Depression-era child, she was forced to leave school at the age of 13 to help her family.
But her dream was only temporarily postponed. When she was 18, she became one of the first students at Charles Kingsford-Smith's flying school. At the age of 19, she realised her lifelong ambition by earning her pilots license and purchasing a de Havilland Gipsy Moth.
Alongside fellow female aviation pioneer Peggy MacKillop, Warton earned money by 'barnstorming', a common activity at the time. Warton and MacKillop would fly into fairs and perform aerial tricks to draw a crowd, before charging fair-goers for a short plane ride. The novelty of taking a ride with a female pilot proved lucrative.
During one of these barnstorming tours, she met Reverend Stanley Drummond. The Reverend had a plan to start a flying doctors service but needed a pilot. Nancy agreed and together they launched Royal Far West Children's Health Scheme in 1935, using her Gipsy Moth as an air ambulance. The Far West Children's Health Scheme covered territory that wasn't covered by the Royal Flying Doctors at the time such as Queensland. Bird came to be known as the Angel of the Outback for her work in saving lives and giving peace of mind to families in rural areas.
Nancy remained with the Far West Children's Health Scheme until WWII broke, when she left to train female pilots. During the war, she met and married Englishman Charles Walton, who gave her the nickname Nancy-Bird. Even after marriage, she remained a Bird.
In 1950, Nancy Bird Walton founded the Royal Women Pilots Association, continuing to help female pilots for decades to come.
By Australian War Memorial on line catalogue ID Number: P00885.001, Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2254193
Although Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand, in true Aussie style, we're claiming her as one of our own.
Wake was born in Wellington on 30 August 1912, the youngest of six children. The family moved to Sydney when she was two and she attended the North Sydney Household Arts School in North Sydney. Dissatisfied with household arts, Wake ran away from home at the age of 16. Using an inheritance from an aunt, she travelled from Sydney to New York City and London, training as a journalist along the way.
After marrying wealthy industrialist Henri Fiocca in 1939, she settled in Marseille. There, she saw the rise of Nazism through her work as a European correspondent for Hearst publications. 10 years later, when France was captured by the Nazis, she joined the fledgeling Pat O'Leary Line, an escape network for Allied personnel caught behind enemy lines.
The Gestapo called Nancy Wake 'White Mouse', due to her inability to escape capture. Wake herself attributed this to her calm and confident approach.
"A little powder and a little drink on the way," she once told an Australian journalist, "and I'd pass [German] posts and wink and say, do you want to search me? What a flirtatious little bastard I was."
Wake fled France in 1942 but her husband remained. He was eventually captured, tortured and executed. Wake would spend the rest of her life living in Australia, where she attempted a political career, and England, where she worked as an intelligence officer.
Find out more
Nancy Wake's autobiography White Mouse can be purchased through most online bookstores.
For a more local experience, relive Brisbane during World War II with a trip to the MacArthur Museum.
A Very Suitable Candidate
Lillian May Armfield, first female detective
By Photographic Collection from Australia - The Razor Gang areas of SydneyUploaded by Oxyman, CC BY 2.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22350416
When Lillian Armfield applied to become the first female officer to join the New South Wales police force, her interviewing officer described her as 'very intelligent, tactful, shrewd, capable... Character undoubtedly good and a very suitable candidate'. Despite this, Armfield spent her entire career fighting gender discrimination.
Born in Mittagong NSW on 3 December 1884, Armfield's first job was as a nurse at the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane. Here, she was given a favourable recommendation by the head doctor for her role with the NSW police force.
After a years probation, she became the first female plainclothes detective, with the same weapons and rights of arrest as her male counterparts. But despite signing a code of conduct binding her to the same behaviour as her male colleagues, she was ineligible for compensation for any injuries she got on the job and had to renounce all superannuation rights.
Armfield worked in Surry Hills and Darlinghurst during the era of Prohibition and razor gangs. She quickly made an enemy of female crime lords like Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh, and Botany Mary, a female cocaine runner who once chased her with a hot poker. She was also concerned with the social welfare of young runaways and prostitutes, warning them of the dangers of bullet wounds and razor slashes.
Despite her hard work and favourable recommendations, she was promoted slowly, becoming a Special Sergeant (Third Class) in 1923 and Special Sergeant (First Class) in 1943. In 1946 she won the King's Police and Fire Service Medal and was awarded the Imperial Service Medal in 1949, but wasn't given a pension by NSW Police until 1965.
If you can't get your hands on a copy, Underbelly:Razor provides an entertaining, albeit less accurate, depiction of the era that Armfield served. She appears briefly as a character played by Lucy Wigmore.
The Reason for the Referendum
Ida Lessing Faith Mussing, indigenous and South Sea Islander activist
By Snapandrattle33 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79515829
Faith Bandler's experiences with racial discrimination began long before she was born. Her father, Wacvie Mussingkon, was blackbirded from his Vanuatu island home at the age of 13, an act that involved kidnapping South Sea Islanders for cheap labour on Australian farms.
Mussingkon worked on a sugar cane farm in Mackay for 20 years before escaping and heading south. He met and married Ida Venno, a Scottish-Indian woman, and settled in Murwillumbah, where they had four children.
Life became hard for the family following Wacvie's death when Bandler was five. She passed the entrance exam for Murwillumbah High in 1932, despite the Tweed Head Chamber of Commerce's recommendations for a separate school for 'coloured children', but her schooling was cut short due to the Depression. She moved to Sydney at the age of 17 to become a dressmaker.
Following the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour in 1942, Bandler and her sister Kath joined the Women's Land Army as fruit pickers. Here she experienced racial discrimination again, receiving less pay than her white counterparts. After her discharge, she became a full-time activist for the rights of indigenous and South Sea Islander Australians.
Bandler was elected to the Australian Peace Council in 1950, where she met and joined forces with other like-minded activists. Alongside these new friends, Bandler formed the Australian Indigenous Fellowship, and later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. As their secretary, she led the constitutional referendum campaign.
Bandler's tireless work handing out petitions and sitting in town hall meetings paid off when the 1967 referendum was called. 91% of Australians voted to recognise indigenous Australians as human beings in the census.
Following her victory, Faith Bandler spent the rest of her life promoting the women's electoral lobby and writing books about her experiences and her family. She refused an MBE from the "empire that had kidnapped and enslaved [her] father", but was made a Member in the Order of Australia in 1984, elevated to Companion in 2009.
Find out more
Faith Bandler's books include:
Wacvie published 1977
Marani in Australia published 1980
The Time was Ripe: A History of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship published 1983
Welou, My Brother published 194
Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders published 1989
Want to learn more?
There are so many more stories about amazing women in history waiting to be discovered. In Brisbane, you can start with a visit to Miegunyah House and Museum, which celebrates Victorian-era women in Queensland.
The Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital has an onsite museum dedicated to nursing during wartime. And if you've ever wanted to fly like Nancy Bird, you don't have to wait until Women's Aviation Worldwide Week, but it might help.