Shortcuts / 08 March 2020

Note-able Australian Women

Dame Mary Gilmore, Mary Reibey, Edith Cowan, and Dame Nellie Melba are four notable Australian women whose significant achievements are honoured through their inclusion on our currency. So let’s get to know them – who they were, what they achieved, and their legacies.

Starting with the $10 note
Hello Dame Mary Gilmore. Born in 1865, she almost made it to 100yo dying in 1962. Gilmore was a noted writer and numerous volumes of her prose and poetry were published. Of particular note was a poem she wrote in World War II – it was a stirring and patriotic poem called ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’. Just as notable was her advocacy for workers rights, and work on behalf of women, children and Indigenous Australians.

She wasn’t straightforward. She was inspired by utopian socialism and lived in a commune of Paraguay for a while. And she once had a thing with balladist Henry Lawson. During her lifetime, she was highly popular and a celebrated public figure.

On to the $20
Mary Reibey’s picture makes her look like an old granny, but she was fierce. Born in 1777, Reibey came to Australia as a convict. Of all things, she was a convicted horsethief after she ran away from her employer dressed as a boy. After being sent to NSW, she served her term and married a junior officer on the East India Company’s store ship Britannia. But she was widowed early, raised seven kids on her own.

But it was her business acumen that she is celebrated for. Reibey took over her husband’s businesses when he died and ran many successful trading businesses – think coal, timber, liquor and skins and fur. That made her very rich, and she put a lot into charity. She died just after her  78th birthday in 1855)

As for the pineapple – $50
Edith Cowan (1861-1932) was the first woman elected to an Australian parliament. And only the second in the British Empire at the time.

Overcoming early setbacks (her mother died when she was 7yo, and at 15yo her father was hanged for murdering her step-mother), she didn’t have the best start. Cowan married at 18yo and her husband was a Perth police magistrate. That gave her an insight into the problems of women and children, and it reinforced her interest in social reform.

She campaigned for the rights of women and children – including unmarried mothers, the establishment of day nurseries for the children of working mothers, and for the protection of kids and women from abuse and neglect. 

She was already a notable figure before winning a seat in the WA Parliament in 1921. She wasn’t able to hold her seat and failed to win it at the following election. She did, however, introduce two bills that were passed in her time in Parliament, and both of those extended the rights of women.

In 1990 she had a university named after her, and in 1995 she was put on the pineapple.

And the big one – $100
It’s the original diva – Dame Nellie Melba. Born Helen Porter Mitchell in Melbourne in 1861, the future prima donna had a privileged start. She was educated at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne and educated by some of the best singing tutors of the day.

Then things took an turn. Her mother and younger sister died when she was 20yo, and so she accompanied her father to Mackay in Queensland, where he purchased a sugar mill. There she met and married Charles Armstrong, but a country Queensland life was not for her so she returned to Melbourne to start her professional singing career. And not long after that she had an opportunity to go to London with her father where her career really took off.

Long story short, her marriage to Armstrong foundered, and she established herself as Covent Garden’s prima donna with a (nearly) three-octave range. She died in 1931 after completing more farewell concerts than John Farnham ever could. 

Her voice was once described as dramatically neutral. Sir Thomas Beecham’s famous line was that she was “uninterestingly perfect, and perfectly uninteresting.” Ouch.

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