Getting on with it

IT IS 1953. In Paris, Simone de Beauvoir launches the term 'women's liberation' in her groundbreaking The Second Sex, the UN adopts the Convention on the Political Rights of Women in New York, and Margaret Mittelheuser quietly refuses to make tea for the men in her Brisbane office.

For the young graduate who'd grown up in the lush canefields around Bundaberg, this refusal has nothing to do with the early stirrings of a new women's movement around the globe. Years later, when her own list of firsts and achievements has been noted and acclaimed, she will be asked if she'd seen herself as a feminist, back then. 'Oh no,' she'll say, in a tone that leaves no doubt, 'nothing like that. Never.'

But the tenets of feminism are clearly reflected in the life and career of the woman who would go on to become the first female stockbroker in Australia and one of the first in the world, and to occupy positions of power in the nation's public and private spheres. If her name is unfamiliar, it is because Margaret Mittelheuser lived her principles rather than spruiking them, showing rather than telling. To her it was simple: you did your job, you did your best, you did what you thought was right. Quietly, and regardless of gender. In effect: you got on with it.

The tea-making was merely a case in point. As the first female graduate to work at the then Commonwealth Department of the Interior in Queensland, she did the same work as her male colleagues. This included rent collection on government properties: each Friday, she ventured out to the less genteel areas of the city with her hat and gloves, a suitcase and a gun. The hat and gloves she was never without, and the suitcase was to carry the cash. She was never given any instructions about the gun. How to use it, or when. It was simply there, in the suitcase, the first day she opened it in the seedy wharf area of South Brisbane.

Odd, she thought, that men and women were given equal access to the firearm, but only women to the kettle. When her turn came up on the tea roster, she went directly to her supervisor, the Public Service Commissioner. 'I didn't go to university to do that,' she told him. She was polite, but firm. He raised his eyebrows, but agreed.

Mittelheuser's blend of intelligence, integrity, courtesy and steely determination characterised a particular group of women who emerged from the post-war ennui of the '50s and early '60s with aspirations to more than white picket fences and tuckshop duty. Long before the sexual revolution and the scaffolding of anti-discrimination legislation, these qualities were their tools. They were, in any case, averse to noisy protest or self-promotion; it wasn't their way. But they were willing to be intrepid, dauntless, and to use their own networks to advance themselves and other women in the same way that men always have.

There wasn't a lot of choice. The talk in the coffee shops of Paris might have been of patriarchy and tokenism, but in Queensland there was no female member of State Parliament, women's wages were considerably lower than those of their male counterparts and women were compelled to resign from the public service when they married. 'Real' jobs in the law or in medicine or science were advertised only in the 'Male' classifieds, and women were still expected to take up jobs in 'caring' vocations: nursing, teaching, secretarial or domestic work. Patriarchy and tokenism were more than words here: they were embedded in women's lives.

Little wonder that eyebrows were raised when Margaret declined a place on the tea roster, or when she moved to Sydney soon afterwards to pursue a career in finance. A young single woman, alone in Sydney? And working in finance? Her bemused parents fielded many such questions from friends whose daughters went straight from their private schools to arts degrees and the social circuit. Women might be dab hands with the housekeeping money, but who would want one as a financial advisor?

But Margaret Mittelheuser was already ahead of the game. Years earlier, with a 'modest' inheritance from an uncle, she had bought her first shares. She'd always loved numbers and analysis. She opted for a discreet range of blue-chip investments, and the shares kept appreciating. 'She would study the financial pages and company balance sheets, read everything she could, and work out which shares she wanted to buy,' says her sister, Cathryn, an eminent plant physiologist with her own list of achievements. 'This is how she lived her life: she would think very hard about things, then make a decision, feeling confident, knowing it was the right one. She would have it all under control.'

After working in research for financial companies, Margaret was offered a position with Ralph W King and Yuill, where she quietly thrived in the all-male environment. Her gift for figures and analysis was not overlooked. Within three years, after returning to Brisbane because her father was ailing, and working for a local broking firm, she was asked by King and Yuill, by then Sydney's leading stockbroking firm, to open and manage a branch for them in Brisbane.

This alone was groundbreaking: gentlemen of the city did not make an appointment for financial advice and expect to find a woman in charge of the information. Shortly afterwards, with the branch expanding, the firm took the extraordinary step of inviting Margaret Mittelheuser to become a partner, making her Australia's first female stockbroker.

These were times when news was still carried by telegram, when wheat and wool reigned, and 'chalkies' ran around the old Sydney and Brisbane stock exchanges manually marking the movements of stocks. Yes, some male clients hesitated when they walked in to find a woman as their broker, she said at the time. 'But it only takes a few minutes for them to see that I know what I'm talking about, and then they don't hesitate to take my advice.'

Neither did the country folk she took to the road to visit and advise. While her male counterparts did business in city offices and men's clubs, Margaret drove the long roads of regional and isolated areas she remembered from childhood, visiting farms, town clerks, harbour masters, secretaries of hospitals and utility boards, dispensing sound investment advice. The pension market was growing fast and needed places to invest, and regional entities needed to raise money for public works. Many small Queensland towns owe much of their modern infrastructure to her: hospital wings, library buildings, water towers, community halls.

This foresight became legendary when, in the early 1970s, she went alone to Port Moresby as Papua New Guinea moved towards independence. Money would be going into the fledgling economy, she knew, as well as going out. With some high-level contacts in place, she flew all over the country, in small planes with canvas seats and livestock and once, memorably, an occupied coffin that slipped up and down as the plane banked.

Cathryn was alarmed to hear her sister then hired a car in Goroka and continued her journey through the highlands. 'It would have been dangerous even then,' she says. 'Not least for a woman on her own. But she wasn't afraid – or only once, sitting in the foyer of a remote hotel when a traditional tribesman arrived, grass skirt, bone through the nose and all. In her own way she was fearless, intrepid. But trusting at the same time. She didn't do anything to draw attention to herself, only what she felt she had to do, the right thing. And she just got on with her work in a businesslike way. Men and women respected her for that.'

Margaret's keen intellect and her interest in the welfare of women ensured her friendship with disparate groups of people. For instance, the feminist writer Dale Spender, from a different generation and mindset, has been a close friend for years, despite their vastly different natures and approach. 'Margaret has always been a beacon of impeccable behaviour,' Spender says. 'She didn't approve of anything she didn't feel was proper. So perhaps she saw me as a bit of a challenge. She disapproved of feminists, I think. Saw many as bad-mannered, loud. Like me. But from the beginning we've always enjoyed each other's company.' Spender met Margaret and Cathryn when Spender's partner was deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland. The Mittelheusers were also actively involved with their alma mater, as alumni and as major donors, and Spender frequently found herself at their dinner table.

Spender was fascinated by the contradictions of Margaret's life: the hard-won achievements and single-mindedness alongside an apparent naivety that Cathryn also described. 'How could someone so successful and so strong-minded be so naive and so sheltered from the world? She'd had a very protected life, and had an almost blind faith in authority – and yet she was able to refuse to make the tea in the public service. It wasn't as if she hadn't been out in the world. Going alone to New Guinea! I said to her, there would have been raskolsthere, even then. And cannibals, once. She'd say, raskols? Cannibals? Really? I didn't see any. She would have sailed on in there in that majestic way she has.

'But while she was naive, you wouldn't want to cross her. She walked out on businesses she felt were unethical. Her parents had told her, you do what you think is right, and she took that standard into the world of broking. Her integrity and honesty were unsurpassable. She once told me I was the only person who ever said to her, you're wrong. The only person who questioned her. I don't know how she put up with my swearing, but she did. I think she saw me as a bit extreme. For example, she would never have gone to a protest. She didn't want to change the world. I wanted to change the world. But she was terribly interested in the advancement of women. She would never have seen herself as a feminist – she simply lived it.'

She was also a stickler for thoroughness, for doing the research. Three generations of clients in Queensland and elsewhere can testify to that, and, according to Cathryn, many say they owe their current lifestyles to her. But not without some effort from each on their own behalf. 'She insisted they get involved, read the annual reports, the financial press, all the figures they could get their hands on,' she says. 'She'd tell them they had to keep themselves informed.'

Margaret practised what she preached. Her complete immersion in the ways of the stock market was, she believed, the basis of her own success; the financial media, reports and research were constantly at her elbow. Cathryn remembers a rare holiday with her sister in Italy, after she had apparently retired. She lost track of Margaret in the environs of the Church of St Francis in Assisi, only to find her sitting outside on the steps, deeply engrossed in the pages of the Financial Times.

Another 'post-retirement' trip saw her at a conference in London, just as news broke of oil finds in the North Sea off Norway. She flew to Oslo, walked into the largest bank she could find and asked to speak to the chief finance officer. You should think about investing in Australia, she told him. Shortly after her return, the faxes from Norway began to arrive, Cathryn remembers. Buy BHP, they said.

But her close attention to and interest in the welfare of women won her as many admirers as did her financial acumen. Former Queensland governor and Chancellor of Griffith University, Leneen Forde, who was dealing with estates in a law firm when they met, remembers her as an 'outstanding and practical, hands-on broker' but also a 'good, kind woman'. 'She had some elderly spinster friends who had come through the war, many of them nurses, and never married. They were in nursing homes and she'd make great efforts to make sure they were all right. That one got to physio every week, another to her GP. And she'd bring some to me to look after their legal affairs. She got me involved in all this then. We'd take these old girls out to lunch and for drives in the country.

'She was very generous with younger women, too, and with schools. She gave money for scholarships for young women at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, to the universities, and sponsored students to go overseas. Margaret was a crusty, no-nonsense person who crossed every t and dotted every i, but she had this soft side. She really cared about and valued her friends and looked after them. But as a stockbroker she was extraordinary. If you followed her advice you'd do well. I didn't do anything without asking her! I was in awe of her, really. She was a real presence.'

She remembers Margaret visiting company headquarters to look over their offices, big or small. After one such trip to Melbourne, Margaret called her as soon as she got off the plane. 'Sell those shares,' she told her. 'They've got gold taps in their bathrooms.'

NOW THAT MARGARET is ailing, it is Cathryn, always the 'quiet offsider' according to Leneen Forde, who cares for her. They had always promised to look after each other, and Cathryn has been her sister's helpmeet for many years, despite a spectacular start in her own chosen field and academic accolades.

Cathryn had initially done what her parents expected of her, and gone into nursing, but found it wasn't sufficiently challenging. She enrolled in science at the University of Queensland and immediately loved it. During PhD studies in the Botany department she became one of the first Australians to be published in the prestigious international research journal Nature. For a female researcher in a male-dominated field, it was an extraordinary achievement.

Her discovery of a substance that inhibited a plant's loss of water caused much excitement in scientific circles and the Nature article was quoted worldwide, but was not, she says, celebrated in her own department. 'There was a lot of discrimination against women at universities then,' Cathryn says. After a few years as a post-doctoral research fellow and acting lecturer, she left the university and focused more on the arts.

Cathryn also turned her attention to voluntary work and the garden of the house she shared with Margaret, and excelled there, too. With her expertise in plant health, she soon had an enviable garden that featured each year in garden competitions, and led to her hosting five television gardening programs for the ABC.

That interest was overtaken, however, by one that would unexpectedly consume her: Antarctica. She and Margaret made two voyages in the early 1990s, when tourism to the continent was limited, and both were enchanted. 'It was the purity,' Cathryn says. 'I'd never breathed air like it. And the silence. It was just beautiful.'

Cathryn made professional films of both voyages, taught herself to edit, and hired auditoriums at the State Library and the then Sheraton Hotel to show the films to their friends. On both occasions, hundreds turned up. She has since become an expert in Antarctic literature.

Both she and Margaret have devoted substantial time and funds to the arts and to scholarship, but it is the art of Indigenous women they feel closely linked to: their mother was a nurse with John Flynn's Inland Mission in the 1920s, and had 'always felt keenly for Aboriginal people and the hard times they had' says Cathryn.

Their generosity is clear in the rich store of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork throughout the Queensland Art Gallery: they get as much, if not more, pleasure, says Cathryn, in ensuring everyone can see the paintings they've bought. There are singular rewards occasionally, though, for the benefactors. Reluctantly, Cathryn tells of a recent gift from women elders in the central desert: two paintings and two hand-woven baskets. 'They had been told that, just as they were elders, that Margaret and I were elders in our own area, two sisters, and that one was looking after the other,' she says. 'It was very moving to hear. A lovely thing to have happened.'

LENEEN FORDE SHARED the same kind of secure and sheltered younger life the Mittelheusers enjoyed, a joyous, unencumbered family life in Canada and a girlhood dreaming of Prince Charming. Even her early marriage to lawyer Gerry Forde, son of a former Australian prime minister, seemed blessed. Gerry went to work and Leneen stayed happily at home in suburban Brisbane, produced five children and polished the floors. Gerry bought her an MGB for their tenth anniversary.

It didn't occur to her then that she was an ingénue, that not all lives were like this. She felt she'd been made to be a mother, born to this life. 'When Gerry came home in the evenings, I'd have my makeup on and the children all bathed and dressed and he would sit in an easy chair and read the paper while I played the piano for him,' she says.

But when Gerry died suddenly when the children were all under ten, Leneen was catapulted out of naivety. 'The night he died the priest came over and said, what are you going to do now, girly? And I said, oh, play the piano and paint. I really thought that's what I'd do,' she says.

Gerry's life insurance was quickly used up by 'various lawyers and advisors', leaving his widow almost penniless. The ingénue was quickly replaced by a different woman, a working mother who would go on to become Queensland's first female governor, a quiet protester and fighter for women's rights, chair of a groundbreaking inquiry into the abuse of children in institutions and chancellor of Griffith University.

At the insistence of the priest – she was accustomed to listening to her father and husband – she resumed the law studies she'd begun earlier 'to understand my husband's work'. She was thirty-one in 1966 and one of only six or seven women studying law on campus at the time. 'I'd get the children to school and go to lectures in the morning, come home and mother all afternoon. Then at night I'd leave them alone with a dog in the house and a neighbour who knew they were alone, and go back to the library,' she says.

The study and practice of law provided her real awakening. The handful of women from her law class met up regularly after graduation to exchange stories of inequity and outrage: single mothers pushed to the bottom of the public housing queue, de facto wives denied legal rights to their partners' estates, women's shelters threatened with closure by politicians certain they were run by 'lesbians and communists'. 'I'd never met a communist and didn't know what a lesbian was,' says Forde. 'I didn't know Indigenous people had problems until the (1971) Springbok tour of Australia. I was never really a firebrand. But I'd go along to these things. I went to the Springbok protests with the others. I was there when the police charged, up on the hill, and I ran from the police and didn't get arrested. When [then premier] Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] banned street marches I was a demonstrator, but I always stayed on the footpath. 'I had five children at home. They'd say, what would we do if you were arrested? So I had to be responsible.'

Like the Mittelheusers, Leneen Forde also learned the power of networks through women's clubs and associations, moving up through the ranks of the Zonta Club to become its worldwide president. The worldwide Zonta Club brings together women in business and professional roles to support and advance the status of women. It funds scholarships, awards and grants for programs including the elimination of violence against women, and encourages young women to participate in public affairs.

The job often involved delicate negotiations over funding between high-level members around the world. Her approach, again like the Mittelheusers', was quiet but firm.

'You can achieve a lot with a soft glove,' she says evenly. 'You can get most people around. You have to let them be heard. I find most people are reasonable.'

The years with Zonta, and on various boards and committees from Brisbane's City Council to the Scouts and military reserves, taught her a great deal, she says. 'I learned from those Zonta women. How to convince people they aren't on boards and such just for their own patch, but for the greater good, more than your own. You can pull people together to do that. I also learned that you need to surround yourself with bright people. Here at the university, I have a wonderful council, made up of unions and staff, all kinds of people, but they know they're there for the good of the university, and if they have a problem they can come and see me any time.'

Forde spent years as a partner at her law firm and was chairing the office on the status of women when the then premier, Wayne Goss, invited her to become the State's first female governor. She was thrilled but concerned. 'The only previous female governor had been Dame Roma Mitchell in South Australia, but she'd been a judge. They live very different lives, judges and generals,' she says. 'And I had five children!'

But she decided to make the job her own, and Fernberg, the imposing Government House at Paddington, the 'people's house'. She had remarried by then, to Angus McDonald, a retired senior police officer, and together they set about changing the concept of 'governor'. They altered the old and stodgy invitation lists for receptions, relaxed the menus, and opened Government House every year so that all Queenslanders could visit and poke about the rooms.

'It took me a bit of time to realise the job carried a bit of clout,' she muses. At the end of her term, though retirement beckoned, she once again accepted a call to public service and chaired a comprehensive and often-heartbreaking inquiry into the abuse of children in 159 institutions in the state from 1911 to 1999 that found abuse had occurred. The Forde Inquiry heard evidence from three hundred people who had been abused in orphanages and detention centres across the state. In her forty-two recommendations, Leneen Forde set out the ground rules for significant changes in legislation, policy and practice in child protection.

Leneen Forde, Margaret and Cathryn Mittelheuser have been enormously influential through their memberships of boards, women's and charitable organisations.

Margaret Mittelheuser's include: chair of the Queensland Local Government Superannuation Board; member of the board of Queensland Rail and the Queensland Mortgage Secondary Market; the Girl Guides Association and the Australian Federation of University Women. She is a Member of the Order of Australia, and has received the Olave Medal from Australian Girl Guides, a Centenary Medal, and honorary doctorates from Griffith University and the University of Queensland. Margaret is also the founding patron of Griffith REVIEW.

Cathryn Mittelheuser is also a Member of the Order of Australia and has received honorary doctorates from Griffith University and the University of Queensland. Both she and Margaret have been longtime benefactors of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Griffith University and the University of Queensland, amongst other institutions.

Leneen Forde's board memberships have included the Queensland Small Business Association, Queensland Council for Civil Liberties and the Institute of Modern Art. She was the founding president of the Queensland Womens Lawyers Association and the first convenor of the Women's Consultative Council. She is a former chair of the Office of Economic Development for Brisbane City, the Queensland Supreme Court Probate Rules Review Committee and the Social Security Tribunal, as well as the Defence Reserve Support Council. She is currently a board member of the Queensland Community Foundation, and patron of the Forde Foundation, Rosies, Karuna Hospice Service and the Toowoomba branch of the Alzheimers Association of Australia.

She was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1993, and has received a Centenary Medal and Queenslander of the Year Award.

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