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3 Powerful Women In Australian History

April 12, 2023 3 min read

3 Powerful Women In Australian History

Need some motivation to step into today with power? Take a moment to learn about these absolutely badass women in history that will deliver you all the inspiration you need to slay today's goals!

Alice Anderson, Shirley Smith, and Edith Cowan were ultimate "girl bosses" before the term existed (yes, we find the term as cringe as you do!). These women broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations of fierce females in business.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this webpage contains the images and names of a person who has passed away.

Let's learn more about these incredible women.


Alice Anderson was a force to be reckoned with in the male-dominated world of automotive engineering.

In the early 1900s, women were expected to stay in their lane and leave the car stuff to the men. But Alice said "hell no" to that and became the first woman in Australia to graduate with an engineering degree. In 1919, Alice opened a garage that only employed women and invented a device allowing drivers to change gears without a clutch. Talk about innovation and empowering women in business!

Alice bucked many societal trends of the time, never marrying or having children or letting on how she obtained the money to open her garage (as women weren't allowed to borrow from banks at the time). Unfortunately, Alice's life was cut short at 29, leaving many of us to imagine how far she would have pushed the envelope had she had more time on earth.

Alice is beyond worthy of the incredible Alice Anderson Fund that has since been set up in her name to support entrepreneurial women in Victoria, Australia, by LaunchVic.


Shirley Smith, known affectionately as “Mum Shirl”, was a powerful advocate for Aboriginal rights and welfare. Born in 1924 with severe epilepsy and no medications available, Shirley didn't have the opportunity to gain a formal education; with her grandfather instead homeschooling her, she learned up to 16 different aboriginal languages.

Shirley was passionate about helping others, and when her brother was imprisoned, she visited him and his fellow inmates regularly. Shirley continued to make prison visits, earning her the endearing nickname, well after her brother was released.

She helped to establish the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Black Theatre, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children's Service, the Aboriginal Housing Company, and the Detoxification Centre.

A generous and caring soul, by the time Mum Shirl passed in 1998, she had cared for and raised more than 60 children!

You can donate to the Indigenous Barristers’ Trust - the Mum Shirl Fund, which provides financial and other assistance to First Nations barristers and grants law students who aspire to practice as advocates but must overcome the significant economic disadvantages preventing them from completing their law studies.


Last but certainly not least is Edith Cowan. This powerhouse was the first woman elected to the Parliament of Australia, and she used her position to champion women's rights and social justice.

She helped pass legislation protecting women and children from domestic violence and drunkenness and fought for better conditions in prisons and mental health institutions. Edith knew that women were just as capable as men, and she worked tirelessly to ensure they had the same opportunities and rights. She campaigned for women to become justices of the peace and was herself made one in 1919.

“Many people think … that it was not the wisest thing to do to send a woman into Parliament … [yet] the views of both sides [men and women] are more than ever needed in Parliament today,” said Cowan in 1921.

A sentiment, unfortunately, is still relevant more than 100 years later.

These women were not content to sit back and let society dictate their roles and limitations. They pushed boundaries, shattered stereotypes, and made a real difference in their communities. They showed us that we don't have to accept the status quo and have the power to create change if we're willing to fight for it.

So the next time someone tells you that you can't do something because of your gender, race, or any other arbitrary factor, remember Alice Anderson, Shirley Smith, and Edith Cowan.

Remember that their strength and perseverance paved the way for us to be where we are today and that we owe it to them to keep fighting for a better tomorrow.

Be bold, be fierce, and be unapologetically yourself. After all, these women showed us that anything is possible if we're brave enough to try. #actuallyyoucan

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