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Social Impact of Innovative Women Has Long History in Australia

9 March 2012 at 9:13 am
Staff Reporter
Gina Anderson is the Philanthropy Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact. In this post from the CSI blog, Gina examines Australia's history of women and social enterpris.

Staff Reporter | 9 March 2012 at 9:13 am


Social Impact of Innovative Women Has Long History in Australia
9 March 2012 at 9:13 am

Gina Anderson is the Philanthropy Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact. In this post from the CSI blog, Gina examines Australia's history of women and social enterpris. 

There’s a lot of buzz around ‘social entrepreneurs’ in the not-for-profit sector. The buzz is completely warranted – there’s a hive of activity in this area. Smart people are using their business sense to make the world a better place, and they’re interested in monitoring and communicating about how and why they are making a difference. It’s terrific.

The buzz implies that this is somehow new.

I think their current incarnation is exciting in its potential. That is new. But there have been enterprising thinkers and doers, non-executive leaders and philanthropists committed to a better world for quite a while. And on International Women’s Day it’s worth pointing out that a lot of them were women.

Frances Perry and Elizabeth Austin

Australia’s early history has many examples of what would now be called ‘social enterprises’ and that it was often women who were the driving force behind these organisations.

One of the earliest examples of a business with a social purpose is that of Frances (Fanny) Perry who was, among other wife of the first Anglican Bishop of Melbourne in the mid 1800s. She took leading roles in setting up the Governesses’ Home, the Carlton Refuge, and the Melbourne Orphan Asylum.

Fanny Perry’s chief work, however, was as head of the committee that founded the Melbourne Lying-in (Royal Women’s) Hospital; she was first president from 1856 to 1874. Here she espoused moral and domestic purity, monitoring the marital status of patients and regularly inspecting the wards.

While Mrs Perry’s philanthropy pushed her into the public realm, she always deferred to male authority and confined herself solely to women’s welfare. As one contemporary put it: ‘she did not pose as a theologian or as a logician, nor did she, after the modern fashion, stand up to make a speech’.

In 1880 Elizabeth Austin responded to an appeal to found a hospital for incurables in Melbourne, offering the substantial sum of £6,000 for its launch. Her example prompted others to donate money and on her birthday in 1882 the Austin Hospital for Incurables was opened.

She continued to give money for maintenance, and paid for the establishment of a children’s ward in 1898. Like many an engaged philanthropist today, Mrs Austin visited the hospital monthly, and three of her granddaughters served on its committee until the 1960s.

Another major philanthropic gift went to the Austin Homes for Women at South Geelong, built as part of the Jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria in 1887. Mrs Austin also gave to the Servants’ Training Institute, St Thomas’s Church (Winchelsea), the Ladies’ Benevolent Society and local charities.

Gold Rush of social entrepreneurs

By the 1890s there was an explosion of charitable organisations run by women – albeit with finance usually controlled by men – in Australia.

Women were busy setting up enterprises incorporating employment and training for marginalised groups; service delivery and sustainable business models.

One of the most extraordinary social entrepreneurs, fundraisers and social investment program directors was Lady Mary Windeyer (1837-1912). She helped to establish what later became the Ashfield Infants’ Home in Sydney – a foundling hospital, open to mothers with illegitimate children.

In her endeavours to promote economic independence for women, Lady Windeyer sponsored a silk-growing co-operative, a shorthand writers’ and typists’ society, and hospital training for nurses.

With Lucy Osburn she organised an Exhibition of Women’s Industries, promoting nursing as a profession, and raising enough money to set up a Temporary Aid Society to help women in financial difficulty by providing them with small loans – something today we might call ‘microfinance’.

Lady Windeyer’s philanthropy broadened into a program of moderate feminist reforms, encompassing higher education, expanded employment opportunities especially in the professions, improved hospital facilities and political rights.

Later, with her daughter Margaret and others, Lady Windeyer helped to establish a women’s college at the University of Sydney.

Her proposal in 1893 for a women’s hospital had dual aims: to help poor women and to train nurses. Beginning as a district service, the hospital opened its own premises in 1896 and, at a new location, became the Women’s Hospital, Crown Street, Sydney.

Universal concerns about social justice and the rights and needs of women and children are powerful influences on modern social businesses.

It is worth drawing inspiration from these colonial do gooders. They helped found a better society and fostered a new crop of women philanthropists and social entrepreneurs running organisations such as The Women Donors Network, The Victorian Women’s Trust and the Sydney Women’s Fund.

They may not have had Twitter account, but they knew how to mobilise social change and create a buzz of their own. 

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