'The stories of these women reveal common threads of fierce determination'
3 March 2017

...we need to include Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in our communities so that we can all learn from one another and develop a real awareness, understanding, appreciation and respect for the culture and history of Indigenous Australia...

- Flora MacDonald, ACT Branch of Australians for Reconciliation

Pat O’Shane, Leah Purcell, Lowitja O’Donoghue, Sally Morgan, Nova Peris, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley and Faith Bandler are trailblazers. As activists and policy makers, writers and artists, performers, politicians and sports women, they have excelled in their fields, inspired their communities and pushed for change. 

The stories of these seven women reveal common threads of fierce determination, inner confidence (hard-won as that confidence may have been), and a capacity and willingness for immense and continuing hard work, not just in their own stellar careers, but in the campaign for Indigenous recognition and reconciliation. 

Pat O’Shane

Photograph of Pat O'Shane

 Loui Seselja, Pat O'Shane, 1998,

Pat O'Shane has been a trailblazer for Australian Indigenous peoples since becoming the only Indigenous person in her age group to graduate from her far north Queensland high school in Cairns in the late 1950s. She went on to become many 'firsts': the first Aboriginal teacher in Queensland, the first to earn a law degree, the first woman and Indigenous person to be the head of a government department in Australia, the first Aboriginal barrister and the first Aboriginal magistrate in the NSW local court. From 1995 to 2003, O'Shane was the Chancellor of the University of New England - another first for an Aboriginal person.

In summing up her life and contribution, Pat O’Shane said: "What is important is that I have been able to demonstrate to other women and also to Aboriginal people generally that Aboriginal people are capable of doing these things and women are capable of doing these things and Aboriginal women are capable of doing these things."

Read more about Pat O’Shane on Trove.

Leah Purcell

Photograph of Leah Purcell

Robert McFarlane, Aboriginal Australian actress, director and writer Leah Purcell, 2002,

Twenty years ago, award-winning actor, writer and director Leah Purcell co-created the award-winning play Box the Pony. It was seen across Australia before touring to great acclaim at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival and a season at The Barbican in London in 2000.

Since then Leah, an ambassador for Reconciliation, has been an advocate for Indigenous affairs through productions such as Black Chicks Talking, (written and directed by Leah, it won the 2002 Inside Film award), Redfern Now, and the documentary Who We Are: Brave New Clan, to name just a few. She has appeared in the acclaimed film Lantana, as well as in Somersault, The Proposition, and Jindabyne, and in TV series Police Rescue and, more recently, Janet King. She has a long association with the Belvoir St Theatre, as an actor and more recently as writer and director. Her recent playThe Drover’s Wife was awarded the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright's Award and the Victorian Prize for Literature.

Lowitja O’Donoghue

Portrait of Lois (Lowitja) O'Donoghue addressing the National Press Club, Canberra, 1992

Loui Seselja, Portrait of Lois (Lowitja) O'Donoghue addressing the National Press Club, Canberra, 1992, 1992,

“….my attitudes, which are not ones of protest or anger, though there is cause for both, but ones of trying not to let them divert me from a sense of purpose in life, not limited or defined by others…”

Lowitja O’Donoghue’s sense of purpose has never been diverted.  As a young nurse, she was barred from ongoing study at the Adelaide Hospital because she was Aboriginal. She succeeded in having the bar overturned, and she has continued - from early activist days though to senior govenment and policy roles - to campaign tirelessly for Aboriginal rights. Her life, too, encompasses many firsts – first Aboriginal trainee nurse at Royal Adelaide Hospital, founding Chair of the National Aboriginal Conference, inaugural Chair of the Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Commission, first (and only) Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly, inaugural chair of the Co-operative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health. Amongst her awards and recognitions Lowitja was the first Aboriginal person to receive an AO (and, later, an AC). She received a CBE in 1983, was made Australian of the Year in 1984, and declared a National Living Treasure in 1998.

Her contribution is lasting in many, many spheres, but one of great significance was her key role in the drafting of the Native Title legislation that arose from the High Court’s historic Mabo Decision. See the Mabo papers on display in the Treasures Gallery at the National Library.

Listen to the speech Lowitja O’Donohue gave at the National Press Club in May 1992 when the photograph projected on the NLA building was taken. 

Sally Morgan

Photograph of Sally Morgan

Bruce Postle, Sally Morgan at the Adelaide Festival, South Australia, 5 March 1990, 1990,

As a child, Sally Morgan found school difficult. Questions were asked about her appearance and family background. She understood from her mother that her family were from India. When Sally was fifteen she learnt that she was in fact of Aboriginal descent, from the Palku people of the Pilbara.

The discovery of these hidden origins, and Sally's subsequent quest for identity, was the stimulus for her first book My Place. It tells the story of Sally's self discovery through reconnection with her Aboriginal culture and community. My Place was an immediate success and has since sold over half a million copies in Australia.

Sally is also an internationally-renowned artist. Her works are held in numerous private and public collections in Australia and the United States.

She is currently Director of the Centre for Indigenous History and Arts at The University of Western Australia.

My Place, and many of Sally's wonderful, richly-illustrated children’s books, can be found in the Library's collection and at the National Library's Bookshop.

Nova Peris

Photograph of Nova Peris

Dean McNicoll, Olympic gold medallist hockey player Nova Peris, the 1997 Young Australian of the Year, 1997,

Nova Peris was the first Aboriginal Australian to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games. She is also one of a very few athletes to have represented their country in two different sports at separate Olympic Games. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Nova was a member of the gold-medal-winning Hockeyroos team. In 2000, at the Sydney Olympic Games, she succeeded in reaching the semi-finals of the 400 meters track and field event. She also won two gold medals in athletics at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

She is a staunch campaigner for Indigenous rights and reconciliation in Australia. In recent years she has been a Treaty Ambassador for the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission ( ATSIC), using her profile to inspire Aboriginal people to take pride in who they are, and working with the wider Australian community to create lasting change.

Subscribe to our 'Society and Culture' podcast to listen to Nova Peris discuss the achievements and mentoring of her great-uncle, Big Bill Neidjie, a Gagudju elder.

Evonne Goolagong-Cawley

 Evonne Goolagong playing in the Australian Open Tennis Championships, Melbourne, 1 January 1967

Don Edwards & Australian Information Service, Evonne Goolagong playing in the Australian Open Tennis Championships, Melbourne, 1 January 1967, 1967,

“Dream – Believe – Learn – Achieve!”

Evonne Goolagong-Cawley's motto has been adopted by her foundation, Evonne Goolagong Foundation, which gives many Indigenous children the opportunity to 'be the best they can be'. 

Evonne Goolagong-Cawley is one of the great tennis players. A former world number one, she was a finalist in 18 Grand Slam events. She won Wimbledon twice, the Australian Open four times, the French Open once, and she was runner up four years in succession at the US Open.

Since retiring from tennis she has, in addition to chairing her Foundation and running development tennis camps for Indigenous children throughout Australia, been co-patron of Reconciliation Australia, and served on the boards of the Australian Sports Commission, the Indigenous Land Council and the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence.

View the photograph projected on the NLA building  - and the cheering crowd behind Goolagong.

Faith Bandler

Portrait of Faith Bandler 

Alexandra Asovtseff, Portrait of Faith Bandler, 1962,

“It was a magnificent change in Australian history.”

So said Faith Bandler of the 1967 referendum, which altered the Australian Constitution and provided symbolic recognition to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Faith Bandler was at the centre of a grassroots Aboriginal rights movement throughout the 1940s, '50s and '60s which campaigned for a 'Yes' vote in the 1967 referendum. Over 90 per cent of Australians voted 'Yes' in the 1967 referendum - the highest 'Yes' vote for an Australian referendum.

The 1967 referendum did not, however, secure recognition or rights for descendants of South Sea Islanders who were brought to Queensland as indentured labourers between 1863 and 1904. Faith Bandler's father was one of these labourers, kidnapped at the age of 13 to work in Queensland's cane fields. So Faith once again turned her formidable talents to campaigning. In 1994 the Australian Government announced a package of grants to assist the South Sea Islander community.

Visit The Sell exhibition at the National Library to see the original advertising poster endorsed by Faith Bandler for the “Yes” vote in the 1967 referendum. 

Feature image: Digital artwork created by Electric Canvas, developed for Enlighten 2017. Original pictures by Loui Seselja, Robert McFarlane, Bruce Postle, Dean McNicoll, Don Edwards & Australian Information Service, and Alexandra Asovtseff.