7 remarkable Australian women who changed the world.

When we think of incredible women who’ve changed the world, too-often we look to celebrities. Headline grabbers from overseas. We forget to look in our own backyard. We forget the Australian women who’ve made a difference, sometimes on a world stage, sometimes across our nation.

We forget because we have lost them in history, or they’re not on our television screens, or they don’t perform on the Superbowl and there is no dedicated YouTube channel.

So, for all these women, the Australian women who’ve, each in their own way, made the world a better place, we remember you.

Miles Franklin (1879 – 1954)

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin. Image via Creative Commons.

She was a feminist of the first wave. Born in 1879, to a family on Brindabella Station in rural New South Wales, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin wrote My Brilliant Career when she was a teenager. It told the story of a young, headstrong, passionate girl, Sybylla, growing up in the country. Sybylla wanted a career as a writer. The farm she lived on was failing. Drought and bad business decisions had ruined it. Her father became an alcoholic and she went to live with her grandmother. As she grew into a woman she was proposed to time and time again, by the same man. Sybylla was not convinced, understanding that marriage wouldn't please either of them. She vowed never to marry, she dreamed instead of becoming a writer.

Franklin wrote more books, under several pseudonyms, she had columns in The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald under the names 'An Old Bachelor' and 'Vernacular'. She travelled the world. She worked for the National Women's Trade Union League in the US and co-edited the leagues magazine.


In 1937, Franklin was offered the position Officer of the Order of the British Empire. She declined.

Franklin died in September of 1954, leaving behind the annual Miles Franklin literary award as her legacy.

Jane Foss Barff (1863 - 1937)

Jane Foss Barff. Image via Creative Commons.

Barff championed education for women. She was part of the second group of women to attend university in Australia, and she graduated with first-class honours in classics and second-class in mathematics. This was in the late 1800s, a time women were not ordinarily permitted to take science classes in high school. She travelled to Cambridge in England, and returned to Australia to undertake her masters. She was the second woman to graduate with a Master of Arts from the University of Sydney

She made the pathway easier for the women of the future to pursue tertiary education. She pushed for greater numbers of female graduates and undergraduates. She helped create the Sydney University Women's Association and was a founding member of the same university's Women's Society, where the members would work at the Newington asylum for aged women; the Woolloomooloo girl's club; and at Harrington street night school for girls. Barff supervised all classes at this night school between 1891 and 1896.

It's thanks to her, that a new generation of women thinkers and scholars was born.

Edith Cowan (1861 – 1932)

Edith Cowan. Image via Creative Commons.

She was a fierce advocate for women's rights,  made huge leaps in child protection and she was the first woman ever elected to Australian Parliament after the Government of Western Australia made it legal for women to run in 1921.

Long before she entered politics, Edith Cowan was making a difference. In 1894, she helped form the Karrakatta Club in Perth for women to "educate themselves for the kind of life they believed they ought to be able to take"... (Think about that phrase in the context of the 19th Century. It is powerful enough still now.)

In the early 1900s she fought for the rights of prostitutes and disadvantaged children. During World War I, she collected food and clothing for soldiers at the front line and set up systems to help care for soldiers returning home.

She became one of the first female Justices of the Peace. And she founded the Children's Protection Society, based on the idea children should not be tried as adults and campaigned for the introduction of children's courts.

Her work wasn't yet done.

Once she was in parliament, she kept moving forward. She put forward legislation that allowed women to be involved in the legal profession. She succeeded delivering mothers equal rights as fathers after their adult children died without a will. And she was one of the first to promote sex education in schools.

Catherine Helen Spence (1825 – 1910)

Catherine Helen Spence. Image via Creative Commons.

She was a journalist, novelist, a politician and a leading suffragette. Catherine Helen Spence, a Scottish-born Australian, rejected the marriage proposals she had throughout her life and dedicated her time to making the world a better place for women and girls. She raised three families of orphaned children. She fought to normalise foster care, and remove all children from institutions. She campaigned for women's right to vote and lectured on what she called "effective voting" both around Australia and across the globe.

Spence was Australia's first female political candidate, after she ran (unsuccessfully) for the Federal Convention held in Adelaide in 1897. Miles Franklin named her the "Greatest Australian Woman" and Spence was remembered on the five-dollar note issued for the Centenary of Federation of Australia.

Roma Mitchell (1913 – 2000)

Dame Roma Flinders Mitchell. Image via Creative Commons.

She was the first Australian woman to do a lot of things. To be a judge; a Queen's Counsel; a chancellor of an Australian university; and the Government of a State.


Dame Roma Flinders Mitchell was born in Adelaide, she was the youngest child of two and attended St Aloysius Convent College. In 1965, she was the first woman to be made a Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia. She was still the only female judge in the state when she retired 18 years later. She fought for the rights of women to be jurors to better represent the population. She also served as Governor of South Australia from 1991 until 1996 and as Chancellor of the University of Adelaide from 1983 to 1990.

As if this isn't enough, she also served as Chairman of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission from 1981 until 1986 and was made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by the Queen.

Germaine Greer, 78.

Germaine Greer at the University of Melbourne. Image via Creative Commons.

Born in Melbourne, feminist author Germaine Greer does not strive for women's equality. She wants women's "liberation", as she does "not see the female's potential in terms of the male's actual".

With her first book, The Female Eunuch (1970), she became one of the driving forces in the second-wave feminist movement. The book tore down traditional ideas of womanhood and femininity, showing how women too-often live to fulfill the male fantasy of what being a woman 'should' entail.

Since then, she has gone onto write six additional books that examine sex, fertility, ageing, menopause and 'the whole woman'. She also owns Stump Cross Books, which publishes the works of women poets from the 17th and 18th century.


Cathy Freeman, 44.

Cathy Freeman. Image via Creative Commons.

It was the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and it was the 'race that stopped the nation'. Cathy Freeman became the second Australian Aboriginal Olympic champion; the first on the athletics tracks. 10 years earlier she had been the first Australian Indigenous person to win gold at the 1990 Commonwealth Games.

With the weight of the whole of Australia on her shoulders, Freeman won the Olympic title in a time of 49.11 seconds. She took a victory lap carrying both the aboriginal and the Australian flags. This was groundbreaking symbolism: It was eight years before Kevin Rudd apologised to Australia's Indigenous peoples on behalf of the European settlers for the stolen generation and seeing the flags unified was a rarity. It was also controversial: Freeman carried the Aboriginal flag, which was banned at the Olympic Games because it's not a national flag nor is it recognised by the International Olympic Committee.

Freeman retired from professional athletics in 2003. In 2007, she founded the Cathy Freeman Foundation to help young Indigenous children access education in remote communities and reach their full potential in school.

This is only a handful...

There are many, many more women who could have made this list. Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister; Ita Buttrose, the first ever editor of Cleo; Dr Fiona Wood, a scientist who created an entirely new way to treat burn victims; Catherine McGregor, a cricketer and one of Australia's most prominent transgender women.

One thing is clear: Australia loves a kick-ass women. We owe it to them - and the changes they fought so hard to create - to never give up.