Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives

Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister.

Photographer: Sophie Deane

Image courtesy of Julia Gillard

For women in general, obtaining an education was the first hurdle to equality and Australia’s first-wave feminists of the last quarter of the 19th century succeeded in reforming this area while their most important achievement was gaining women’s right to vote and to stand for parliament (South Australia: 1895 and the Commonwealth: 1902).

Both World Wars provided many women of differing backgrounds with the opportunity for the first time to carry out a variety of “men’s jobs”. However Australia’s post 1945 “Populate or Perish” campaign encouraged women to devote themselves to marriage and family life as before. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s the Women’s Liberation Movement and resulting second-wave of feminism brought about a number of powerful women’s lobby groups, the establishment of the Office of the Status of Women in Canberra, and equal opportunity legislation which has significantly changed women’s lives.

This exhibition focuses on over a century of Australian women breaking new ground in the professional arena, from those first permitted a tertiary education in the 1870’s to the first female ordained priests of the 1990’s who perhaps entered one of society’s last male-dominated strongholds.

These are some of the ordinary women of Australia who chose to be extraordinary, for despite all odds, they were first in their field.


The Women’s Museum of Australia has worked with local community radio station 102.1 8CCC FM to create a radio series which celebrates Australian pioneer women, those women who were first in their field. The series links with the exhibition Ordinary Women Extraordinary Lives which is housed at the museum in Alice Springs.  The Ordinary Women Extraordinary Lives radio project is supported by a content development grant from the Community Broadcasting Foundation. 

Click here to learn more and listen to the stories we’ve created so far.  A big thanks to Joy Taylor from 102.1 8CCC FM for all her hard work and support in developing this great series.

Two of our categories, “Women in Uniform: Australia’s women pioneers in the defence forces” and “Creators of Knowledge: Australia’s women pioneers in science”.