Reshaping the Australian Dictionary of Biography: Feminist interventions

On International Women’s Day, Melanie Nolan explores the Australian Dictionary of Biography and its ongoing efforts to include the lives of more women as part of VIDA blog’s Inspirational Women series.

Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905), Indigenous leader. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Indigenous leader Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

My job is an irksome one for a feminist scholar. Few people understand its frustrations: I know that Susan Ware, current editor of the American National Biography Online, does. Claudia Orange, general editor of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography from 1990 to 2003, and Di Langmore, general editor of the Australian Dictionary Biography (ADB) from 2002 to 2008, certainly did too.

The frustration is how to change a well-oiled machine? In 2008, I took over as general editor of the ADB. It had been in existence for almost half a century, working very smoothly and effectively to commission, research, edit and publish volumes of the ADB. While the salaried team of research editors, based at the Australian National University, manages the work process, volunteer members of the state and thematic working parties (like the armed forces working party) choose the subjects for inclusion.

When I arrived, seventeen volumes of entries, plus a Supplement volume of ‘missing persons’ entries, existed. So did a two-volume biographical register of subjects who had just missed out on ADB articles, as well as a number of ‘spin-off’ books which had already been published to great fanfare. In 2006, all the ADB entries were published online. These entries now attract 60 million hits a year.

The autonomy of the working parties means that there can be quite a degree of variance in the sex balance in the lists formulated for ADB entries. Some working parties nominate nearly a third of women for entries, others only a fifth. The theory is that it will all ‘work out in the wash’.

Edith Cowan (1861–1932), social worker and politician. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Social worker and politician Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861–1932). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course it hasn’t really worked out that way. Women – like Indigenous Australians, Irish Australians, and working-class Australians – are underrepresented in the ADB. Overall, women account for only 11.64% of ADB entries. That’s about ‘average’ in national dictionary terms.

For example, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, which started at the same time as the ADB, has about half the proportion of women we do – only 6%. Women account for 10% of the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The American National Biography Online, which has about 14% women, is more balanced; the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography is even better, with 26% women.

All general editors are aware that their dictionaries are not telephone books and need not reflect exact, albeit changing, demographic proportions in populations. But what is the right proportion? And what does it mean to be a national biographical dictionary? Right from the start, the ADB has prided itself on its broad range of subjects. As well as prime ministers, governors, bishops, captains of industry, artists, sportspeople and army generals, the ADB has included actors, artists, pastoralists, prostitutes, bushrangers, murderers, architects, dress designers. It is also representative of people such as rabbiters, football barrackers and landladies.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879–1954), novelist and feminist. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Novelist and feminist Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin (1879–1954). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet we do not have an entry based on even one woman who died from a botched backyard abortion, or an entry about a low-paid rural/city mother left to bring up her family on her own. Should we have entries for these and other representative women? That question is slightly more problematic now that our focus is online and we can tell which entries people are consulting most often. Not surprisingly, it is the prominent people ‒ prime ministers, sportspeople, artists – who are consulted most regularly.

In 2005, when Chris Cunneen, Jill Roe, Beverley Kingston and Stephen Garton published the Supplementary (missing persons) volume of the ADB, they made a concerted effort to include a high proportion of entries on women and Indigenous subjects. But women still make up only 4% of the entries based upon those who flourished during the colonial period. That is a woeful figure.

The ADB joins other projects with such concerns. Between 2010 and 2013, Pat Grimshaw, Shurlee Swain and Judith Smart developed online The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia. While this is a wonderful resource, there are few nineteenth-century women included in that project who not already in the ADB.

Stage and screen actor Coral Edith Browne (1913–1991). Photograph by Bassano Ltd, 1935. NPG x26620. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Stage and screen actor Coral Edith Browne (1913–1991). Photograph by Bassano Ltd, 1935. NPG x26620. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Further afield, Wikipedia has held an ‘edit-a- thon‘ themed around art and feminism to combat its ‘well-documented gender gap by improving, however incrementally, its coverage of women in the arts’. Various efforts to continue this initiative are taking place on International Women’s Day, 2017. The ADB, in contrast, is interested in all representative and significant women from nineteenth century Australia.

To improve the gender gap of the ABD, we have decided to add 1500 new entries for women active during the colonial period. A group of Editorial Board members – including Carolyn Rasmussen, Joy Damousi and myself, together with Pat Grimshaw – have formed a group which will soon develop into a Working Party. In true working party style, we are drawing up a list of possible inclusions. We currently have 650 names. We will shortly be making the list available on a Facebook page dedicated to the project.

Some of the women so far suggested include: Mary McLaughlan (c.1804-1830), a Scottish convict who was the first woman to be hanged in Tasmania after she was convicted of killing her newborn infant; Mary Allport (1806-1895), an artist who exhibited a chess table with wildflowers painted in the squares at the Exposition Universelle in 1855; Barangaroo, an Eora Aboriginal woman who was a powerful figure in Sydney’s early history; and naturalists and artists Helena Scott (1832-1910) and Harriet Scott (1830-1907), who are minor entries in their father Alexander Walker Scott’s (1800-1883) ADB entry but deserve their own entries.

If you would like to nominate women who flourished in the colonial period for possible entries in the ADB, please email for a copy of the template. Together we can make a significant difference to the ADB’s representation of women.


Note: The Australian Dictionary of Biography has been recently successful in attracting ARC funding for an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography, which will add 200 indigenous subjects.

melanie-nolanMelanie Nolan
is a Professor of History at the Australian National University. Her research interests focus on labour, class, and gender, as well as biography. Her books include
 Suffrage and Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives (1994), edited with Caroline Daley, Breadwinning: New Zealand Women and the State (2000), and Kin: A Collective Biography of a New Zealand Working-Class Family (2005). Since 2008, she has been the Director of the National Centre of Biography and the General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

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