Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Intern
So described the obituary for Mrs Minnie Lee née Dodds (1860-1938) in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1938. A tireless worker for the women’s movement in Sydney for forty years, Minnie was involved in a number of societies and organisations during her lifetime. These included the Australian Red Cross, the Society of Women Writers of NSW, the National Council of Women in Sydney, and the Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship.
A charming and gracious personality, a shrewd and clever brain, a genius for friendship, hers were no mean gifts …
She was also the first female member of the Australian Historical Society, later the RAHS.
15 March is the 120th anniversary of the RAHS. On this day in 1901, ten curious, like-minded people attended the inaugural meeting of the Australian Historical Society. It would become the first of many, laying the foundation for the Royal Australian Historical Society as it stands today.
Over the 120 years of our society’s history, we have been joined by a series of remarkable historians with the same passion, drive, and ingenuity as those very first ten members.
Many of these remarkable people were women.
As an anniversary celebration, in conjunction with Women’s History Month, the RAHS wishes to highlight a selection of our earliest women members who broke ground in a society and a discipline traditionally dominated by men.
For a profile on our first woman councillor, Josephine Ethel Foster (1870-1955), visit her dedicated Women’s History Month page.
Miss Elizabeth Betts (1849-1937) joined the AHS in 1903. The granddaughter of Reverend Samuel Marsden, one-time principal chaplain in the colony of NSW, Elizabeth was a passionate local and family historian, and a member of the Genealogical Society in Sydney.
She grows lovely roses, is associated with the Royal Australian Historical Society, and is a frequent visitor to the city. – ‘Reminiscences of Miss Elizabeth Betts’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1933
During her career, Elizabeth assisted in the publication of several books on Rev. Marsden and represented her family at the Marsden centenary celebrations at the Bay of Islands in 1914. She donated The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden to the RAHS in 1932. Also a keen city of Sydney historian, she supported such cultural events as the ‘Back to Parramatta’ carnival week of 1933.
Elizabeth was an RAHS councillor from 1917 to 1937, when she died at age 88. She was incredibly active in the society she saw flourish until the end. Her obituary noted: ‘At the Royal Australian Historical Society’s Christmas party two years ago she danced first a waltz and then a polka.’
Even at 86, Elizabeth was leading the way.
Like Elizabeth, Margaret Windeyer (1866-1939) joined the AHS in its early years. A member from 1905, Margaret quickly established herself within the society and became councillor in 1913 until 1916. She was only the second woman after Ethel Foster to hold the office.
She was an ardent feminist in the days when feminism denoted daring, and was among the organisers of many of the women’s movements which sprang to life in the last decade of the nineteenth century. – Obituary for Margaret Windeyer, Sydney Morning Herald, 1939
The fifth daughter of suffragette Lady Mary Elizabeth Windeyer, it is no wonder that Margaret—or Margy, as she was known—was such a passionate voice in the Australian women’s movement. She belonged to Louisa Lawson’s famous Dawn Club and helped form the Women’s Literary Society, later the Womanhood Suffrage League. She was a member of the committee formed to establish the Women’s College at the University of Sydney and convened the meeting to create the National Council of Women of NSW, later serving as secretary. In 1893 she attended the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago alongside such notable American feminists as Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Margy’s greatest passion was library science. After completing a two-year course at New York State Library, she briefly worked for the library of Wells College in Aurora, NY, before returning home. Margy joined the Public Library of NSW as a cataloguer in July 1901. She later became assistant to the Mitchell Library collection in January 1910 but was passed over several times for the position of senior cataloguer. She retired in 1926 and donated to the RAHS The New South Wales handbook for returned soldiers and sailors in 1931.
‘An ardent feminist’ indeed.
Amongst those who have devoted themselves to the investigation of Early Australian History … I know of no one who has a larger fund of collected information or a greater facility in effectively utilising it. – Frank Bladen on Grace Hendy-Pooley, SLNSW MLMSS 1261/4
Another early woman member was Miss Grace Hendy-Pooley (1864-1947), who joined the AHS in 1902 until 1914. She wrote the first papers read before the society by a woman, including ‘Defenders and defences of Australia, with military reminiscences’ (1903), ‘Early history of Bathurst and surroundings’ (1905), ‘The history of Maitland’ (1908), and many more.Throughout her career, Grace was a senior civil servant, journalist, and an early 20th century Sydney painter. She assisted Frank Bladen, editor, for nine years on the Historical Records of Australia (1892-1901), then found work in Canberra for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library from 1913 to her retirement in 1929. Her published works included the Index to the Sydney gazettes 1803 to 1842 (1916) and the Key to Old site and New : Devonshire Street resumptions, and site of the Sydney railway station (1900).
The editor of the Illustrated Sydney News testified to Grace’s artistic skill as showing ‘care and descriptive power above the average’. Frank Bladen felt much the same about her historical prowess. A talented, passionate, and accomplished woman, Grace’s contributions to the RAHS and the history of Sydney in general remain unparalleled.
… her epitaph is, one feels, best expressed in the simple words which have already been quoted, ‘She was so kind’. – Obituary for Minnie Lee, Sydney Morning Herald, 1938
Passionate, intelligent, and independent, history best remembers Minnie Lee for her kindness. Yet she was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights—‘the heart and front’ of many a movement. A member of the RAHS since 1901, it is likely she witnessed the meteoric rise of women’s involvement—from 29 women members in 1915 to 90 only two years later—and smiled.
The Australian Historical Society allowed women to be admitted to Council in 1911, ten years after its founding. In 1927, Ethel Foster established the Women’s Auxiliary, for the purpose of furthering the quest for a permanent home for the society (later found in History House). She invited every woman member of the society to join.
What began as a rainy day gathering of men on 15 March 1901 is now 120 years of NSW history. The charming, daring, gracious, hard-working, pioneering women of the RAHS are half of that history.
Our society would not be the same without them.
Grace Hendy-Pooley papers, ca. 1902-ca. 1940. State Library of New South Wales, MLMSS 1261/4, http://archival.sl.nsw.gov.au/Details/archive/110319819.
‘DEATH OF MISS MARGARET WINDEYER’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), 15 Aug 1939, p. 7, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17599506.
‘FORTY YEARS’ WORK’, The Sun (Sydney, NSW: 1910-1954), 4 Mar 1928, p. 51, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/222012111.
‘HISTORIAN AND PHILANTHROPIST’, Western Age (Dubbo, NSW: 1914-1932), 2 May 1929, p. 1, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/137078608.
‘MISS ELIZABETH BETTS’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Jul 1937, p. 10, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17383588.
‘Retirement of Miss Pooley’, Canberra Times (ACT: 1926-1995), 5 February 1929, p. 2, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/996605.
‘SOCIAL LIFE IN OLD PARRAMATTA’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Oct 1933, p. 7, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17018486.
Beulah A. Bolton, ‘Obituary’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sep 1938, p. 16, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17523654.
Eileen Chanin, ‘Cultural Philanthropy: David Scott Mitchell and the Mitchell Library’, PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 2012.
Heather Radi, ‘Windeyer, Margaret (Margy) (1866-1939)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/windeyer-margaret-margy-1058, accessed 4 Mar 2021.
K.A. Johnson, ‘Dodds, Minnie (1860-1938)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dodds-minnie-7751, accessed 4 Mar 2021.