The missing women in Australian public relations history

January 19, 2017

Dr Kate FitchBy Claire Holley, final year Murdoch University Public Relations student

The contribution of women to the development of public relations in Australia has been largely ignored, despite the dominance of women in the PR industry today, Murdoch University’s Dr Kate Fitch claims.

In her book Professionalizing Public Relations: History, Gender and Education, Dr Fitch highlights the common misconceptions around the origins of public relations in Australia.

“Telling the stories of these women allows new understandings of the historical development of public relations in Australia that go beyond an emphasis on male founders and heroes,” said Dr Fitch.

“There is evidence of female employment in public relations and related promotional work in Australia prior to World War II. Textbook and other histories also fail to acknowledge that women were active in the first professional public relations institutes in the early 1950s.

“Women promoted air travel, fashion and Australian wine, ran consultancies, and managed public relations at the ABC and in the not-for-profit sector. It’s important we recognise their significant contribution.”

In her book, Dr Fitch profiles the careers of pioneering women in Australian PR, including:

  • Jessie Fawsitt, a qualified pilot, worked for British Overseas Airways Corporation. She commissioned a 66lb wardrobe of all-climate clothes (this was the international luggage limit) and toured the world in 1954 and again in 1959 promoting air travel and Australian fashion.
  • Esta Handfield was the first female president of the Public Relations Institute of Australia in Victoria. She ran a consultancy with her husband.
  • Bonnie McCallum was publicity officer at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now known as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) from 1936 until her marriage in 1964.
  • Phyllis Parkinson, of Parkinson Publicity, managed public relations for Australian National Wine Week, the national Annual Conference for the Australian Wine Board, and the Wine Information Centre for the Commonwealth.
  • Emerald Goetze worked at the Victorian School for the Deaf and St John’s Homes for Boys.

Dr Fitch said Fawsitt’s PR career illustrated career opportunities for women in the post-war era and the growing interest in marketing specifically to women. She compered fashion parades, ran workshops and wrote articles on art of packing.

Global mobility and class were significant factors in the entry of these women into public relations work, as well as across advertising, marketing and media work, said Dr Fitch.

“Many of the women who worked in Australian public relations had lived and worked abroad, often in England, as this was the typical pattern for middle class Australians,” she said.

“And although in the minority in the fledgling professional institutes, women participated in the early mechanisms of professionalisation in the 1950s – they contributed to journals and participated on state councils and editorial committees.”

But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, women appeared to be increasingly marginalised from institutional structures, despite the ratio of women to men among institute members not changing significantly.

Dr Fitch said PR was a highly gendered industry in Australia in the 1980s, partly due to large numbers of male ex-journalists working in PR roles. But the introduction of public relations courses to higher education contributed to the increasing feminisation of the industry.

Dr Fitch’s book is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is available to buy from the publisher’s website. There is also a copy in the Murdoch University library.

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Media contact: Jo Manning
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