Betty Churcher standing outside, laughing
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Australian Biography: Women

Australian Biography: Women

Notable Women Talk About Their Lives

This collection profiles some of the most extraordinary Australian women of our time.

It features remarkable individuals who have had a major impact on Australia's cultural, political, artistic, sporting and social life.

Through revealing in-depth interviews conducted for Film Australia's Australian Biography TV series, the subjects share valuable experiences and insights.

Watch more interviews from the series in our Australian Biography: Men curated collection.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons.

Main image: Betty Churcher

Australian Biography: Lily Ah Toy
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Born of Chinese parents, Lily (1917–2001) became a housemaid for a European family after leaving Darwin Public School at 14.

Then she met Jimmy, a hawker with his own market garden and truck. Lily and Jimmy married and moved to Pine Creek to set up a general store.

Apart from supplying the Pine Creek population with provisions, Lily bore five children and raised another five adopted children.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1995.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Faith Bandler
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403180
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Faith Bandler (1920–2015) was a descendant of South Sea Islanders. She was born in Tumbulgum, NSW.

During the 1950s, she became involved in the peace movement, and in 1956 was instrumental in setting up the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship.

In 1974, Faith decided to direct her energies to the 16,000 descendants of South Sea Islanders and, in 1975, made her first emotional journey to her father's birthplace on Ambrym.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1995.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Australian Biography: Nancy Bird-Walton
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A fully qualified pilot by the age of 19, Nancy Bird-Walton (1915–2009) went from being the youngest commercial licensed woman pilot in the British Commonwealth to becoming Australia's 'First lady of aviation' in the 1970s.

She became known as the 'angel of the outback' for her work with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and received an OBE in 1966. In 1977 she became a Dame of St John (Knights of Malta).

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1992.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Flo Bjelke-Peterson
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Flo Bjelke-Peterson (1920–2017) was a National Party Senator for Queensland, and was also well known as the wife of former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

She was Deputy Leader of the National Party in the Senate from 1985 to 1990, before finally retiring from politics in 1993.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1994.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Veronica Brady
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Veronica Brady (1929–2015) became one of the first Australian nuns to teach in a university, broadcast on radio and enter public socio-political debate.

She become an Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia in 1991 and spoke out against the Vatican stance on abortion, homosexuality and contraception.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1993.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Eva Burrows
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On the world stage women have been excluded from leadership roles in the Christian church. Eva Burrows (1929–2015) is an outstanding exception.

From humble beginnings, this unusually capable and wise human being went on to become world leader of the Salvation Army. Her life has made a genuine difference for good in the world.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Betty Churcher
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Art has always been Betty Churcher's (1931–2015) private and public passion. As an educator and a gallery director, her vision was to make people see art as accessible and relevant.

Despite feeling disadvantaged since childhood because she was a girl, Betty was a role model for women: the first female head of a tertiary institution, the first female director of a state art gallery and the first woman to be Director of the National Gallery of Australia.

She was also a talented young artist herself but gave up painting when she had children.

In this interview, Betty talks of art, family and career and the determination that drove her to achieve.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Diane Cilento
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Diane Cilento (1933–2011) was born in Mooloolaba, Queensland and achieved international acclaim as a stage and screen actor in the 1950s and 60s.

She hit the heights of celebrity during her marriage to James Bond star, Sean Connery.

But she decided to turn her back on fame to follow, instead, a spiritual path. She later gained a reputation as a 'new age guru' – and achieved a sense of personal fulfilment that was lacking.

At the time of this interview in 2000, Diane was running a theatre on her far north Queensland property and she reflects on a life lived to the full.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Inga Clendinnen
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Inga Clendinnen (1934–2016) was a writer, academic and historian whose work on Aztec and Mayan cultures and the Holocaust has been praised around the world.

She also studied the historical relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

In this interview, Inga speaks eloquently about the importance of studying history, her desire to understand how people think and the need to embrace difference, both individual and cultural.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Australian Biography: Zelda D'Aprano
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Zelda D'Aprano (1928–2018) spent much of her life as a working-class crusader for women's rights.

A series of factory jobs after leaving school introduced her to the harsh inequities of women's working lives.

Joining the Communist Party, she worked as a dental nurse, devoting 15 years to union activism on behalf of hospital workers.

In 1969 she went to work for the Meatworkers' Union, just as the meat industry was being used as a test case for equal pay for women workers.

When the case failed, D'Aprano took direct action, chaining herself to the doors of the Arbitration Court.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Elizabeth Durack
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In 1997 the art world was shocked by the announcement from Western Australian artist Elizabeth Durack (1915–2000) that she and Aboriginal artist, Eddie Burrup, were one and the same person.

In this interview she addresses her use of what she calls an artistic 'device' or 'nom de plume'. The wider art world – and particularly other Aboriginal artists – saw it differently, especially after work by 'Burrup' had been entered into festivals and competitions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

Members of the Aboriginal art community protested that in assuming her right to make Aboriginal art, Durack was committing more than an artistic hoax: she was appropriating Indigenous culture.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1997.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Australian Biography: Margaret Fulton
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Margaret Fulton (1924–2019, born in Nairn, Scotland) was the first and greatest of the Australian celebrity cookery writers.

Through her magazine columns and later her cookbooks, she showed the nation how to cook in new and exciting ways.

Her inspiration and example showed younger Australians the pleasurable and creative possibilities of fine dining and our national cuisine was transformed.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1997.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Rosalie Gascoigne
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Rosalie Gascoigne's (1917–1999) hauntingly evocative visual depictions of the Australian landscape propelled her into the spotlight of international fame.

Yet until she was well into her fifties she was completely unknown as an artist.

This interview touches on her reaction to the heady acclaim that greeted her work when it finally came to the art world's attention.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Dame Joan Hammond
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One of Australia's great opera stars of the two decades following the Second World War was Joan Hammond (1912–1996).

She established a wide international following as a soprano on stage and as a recording artist.

In her early years, she played violin with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and earned an income as a freelance journalist.

Eventually she became recognised as a great soprano talent after training in Vienna, and by 1946 was singing all the major soprano roles in Europe, the United States and Australia.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Barbara Holborow
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Barbara Holborow (1930–2012) served for 12 years as a magistrate in the Children's Court, where her compassion and outspokenness were legendary – perhaps because of her own beginnings.

Barbara married young. It was only after the death of her first child and subsequent split with her husband that she found a job as a legal secretary and resumed her high school studies.

She went on to study law and started practising as a solicitor, specialising in children's cases.

In this interview, Barbara talks openly about the formative influences on her life, the kids she has fostered and adopted and her ongoing commitment to reforming the judicial system for children.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Australian Biography: Rosalie Kunoth-Monks
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Until the age of 9, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (1937–2022) lived on remote Utopia Station in the Northern Territory where she learnt the Aboriginal laws of her tribe, the Amatjere (Anmatyerre) people.

In 1953 she was discovered by filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel and won the lead role in Jedda (1955), a film that became an Australian classic.

In the interview, she talks about why making the film was such an uncomfortable experience for her and that the filmmakers credited her as 'Ngarla' Kunoth against her wishes.

Later, Rosalie spent 10 fulfilling years as a nun in a Melbourne convent before leaving to set up the first Aboriginal hostel in Victoria.

She continued to be active in social work and politics and as a campaigner for Aboriginal people.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1995.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Australian Biography: Ruby Langford Ginibi
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The life of Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934–2011) is a story of triumph against the odds.

She was born on a mission station in Coraki, NSW, and her mother left the family when Langford was six years old.

At the age of 16 she embarked on the first of 4 tumultuous relationships and went on to raise 9 children, working as a fencer, cleaner and machinist.

Three of her children died, and one son has spent almost half his life in correctional institutions.

In 1984, after overcoming an alcohol addiction, Langford wrote her autobiography Don't Take Your Love to Town, which won the 1988 Human Rights Literary Award.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

You can stream Australian Biography: Ruby Langford Ginibi in full as part of the Buwindja collection on NFSA Player.

STREAM Ruby Langford Ginibi Biography

 

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Australian Biography: Dame Roma Mitchell
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Born in Adelaide, Roma Mitchell (1913–2000) graduated as a lawyer in December 1934, and the following February began as a barrister with an Adelaide law firm.

In 1965 she became a judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia, the first woman in Australia to be appointed to that position.

She also led a deputation of women seeking the right for women to serve as jurors.

In 1991 she was appointed Governor of South Australia, again becoming the first woman in Australia to hold that post.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Lowitja O'Donoghue
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A proud Yankunytjatjara woman,Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue AC CBE DSG (1932–2024) was born in remote north-western South Australia (APY Lands).

She was removed from her mother at age two, and would not see her again for another 33 years.  

After a long struggle to win admission to a training hospital, Lois became the first Aboriginal nurse in South Australia.

In 1976, she was the first Aboriginal woman to be awarded an Order of Australia. In 1983 she was honoured with a CBE and in 1984 she was made Australian of the Year.

In 1990 she became the founding chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Two years later, she was the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York, when she attended the launch of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1994. Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Among her many other achievements and honours, Dr O'Donoghue was named Australian of the Year (1984), Australian National Living Treasure (1998) and received the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award (2009). 

The Lowitja Institute, a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled health research institute, was named in her honour.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Australian Biography: Elizabeth Riddell
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Born in Napier, New Zealand, Elizabeth Riddell (1910–1998) was recruited as a journalist straight from school.

In 1939 she started work on The Sun newspaper, during the Second World War she opened and ran the Daily Mirror's New York bureau, and in the 1960s she became senior interviewer and critic in the arts pages of The Australian.

Several books of her poetry have been published over the years.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1992.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.

Australian Biography: Shirley Strickland de la Hunty
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Resilient, determined and naturally talented, Shirley Strickland (1925–2004) was one of Australia's greatest athletes, winning seven medals in three successive Olympic games.

She continued as an athletics coach for many years. She was also an ardent conservationist, National Trust member and mother of four.

She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1995.

Read a transcript of the complete interview.