Woman of the Year?

It is somewhat surprising that there has been relatively little public debate about the gender balance of past Australians of the Year. In 1961 several news outlets incorrectly referred to Sir Macfarlane Burnet as the ‘Man of the Year.’ The mistake was not allowed to continue, as Joan Sutherland took out the second award, but it is certainly true that women are under-represented in the list of winners. In 2005 Dr Fiona Wood became only the eleventh female winner of the award. Interestingly, a relatively high six female winners were chosen by the reputedly conservative Victorian selection committee in the 1960s and 1970s. By contrast, the NADC has chosen only five women in thirty years, while the rival Canberra Australia Day Council chose no women during the four years the award was duplicated. The NADC’s companion awards have taken more notice of women, including forty per cent of the Young Australians and around thirty per cent for the Senior Australian and Local Hero awards.

Professor Fiona Stanley does not recall considering the fact that she was only the tenth woman to be named Australian of the Year in 2003, nor did the media particularly notice it. Certainly, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions as to how the lack of female winners might be significant. The first five female Australians of the Year were honoured for outstanding international achievements in music and sport. Joan Sutherland and Judith Durham were outstanding musicians first and foremost. Similarly, Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould and Evonne Goolagong were champions in swimming and tennis – it is an indication of the gender politics of the period that all three had also been named ‘ABC Sportsman of the Year.’ By contrast, the 1977 Australian of the Year, Dame Raigh Roe, was recognised specifically as a leader of the community based women’s advocacy organisation the Country Women’s Association (CWA). Roe had held various leadership positions in the CWA, including National President, and had recently been elected President of the Associated Country Women of the World. Significantly, much of her volunteer work had been aimed at improving conditions for Aboriginal women living in her home state of Western Australia. Roe’s award appears to be the first instance in which the selection committee aimed to promote the status of women in Australia.

Since then, gender politics has played only a marginal role in debates about the Australian of the Year. In 1988 an uncharitable reader of the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that Kay Cottee had been honoured only because she was a woman:

Sir: Jonathon Sanders circumnavigates the world three times non-stop, the first time this has been done. After it has been achieved by many people (men), Kay Cottee does it once and is named “Australian of the Year”. Is this a case for the Sexual Discrimination Board?

The reader was apparently unaware that Cottee had raised $400,000 for the Life Education program to counter drug abuse among Australia’s youth. Furthermore, the rapturous reception she received when she entered Sydney Harbour the previous year clearly illustrated that she had inspired a nation.

Since 1988 only three more women have won the award. Champion athlete Cathy Freeman was named primarily for her sporting achievements, but in looking for a wider story the media focussed on her Aboriginality more than her gender.85 Professor Fiona Stanley’s work in child and maternal health links her 2003 award more directly to issues affecting women. Similarly, when burns specialist Dr Fiona Wood was honoured in 2005 the media focussed quite strongly on her status as a mother of six.86 Perhaps it is significant that both these winners were chosen during the tenure of the NADC’s only female chairperson, Lisa Curry-Kenny. Since Fiona Wood, however, four more men have taken out the award. The trends suggest that, if anything, it is becoming harder for women to win the award; and perhaps this is a more important issue to consider than the relative balance between sport, science and the arts.

Subscribe to our Newsletter