Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bate, Thelma Florence (1904–1984)

by Melanie Oppenheimer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Thelma Florence Bate (1904-1984), community leader, was born on 3 August 1904 in Sydney, second surviving daughter of Olaf Olsen, a Norwegian seaman, and his Melbourne-born wife Florence Beatrice, née St Clair. In 1912 her mother married Carl Gustav Sundstrom, whom Thelma regarded as her father. She was close to Sundstrom, who believed that a good education was important for both girls and boys. A bright and talented student, unafraid to speak her mind, she attended the selective Fort Street Girls’ High School and the University of Sydney (BA, 1928).

After teaching at Meriden Church of England Grammar School, Strathfield, and travelling abroad with her parents, Thelma married a grazier, Richard Falkner Harvey, on 20 June 1934 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney. They lived on his property near Ivanhoe, where she was introduced to the Country Women’s Association of New South Wales. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she was encouraged by members of the Country Party to stand as that party’s candidate in the 1947 State election for the Labor-held seat of Dubbo. Although defeated, Mrs Harvey attracted attention as the first woman endorsed by the Country Party. A skilled and forceful debater, she developed a taste for politics. On 8 December 1949 at St John’s Church of England, Darlinghurst, she married Kenneth Kirkby, who was a member of the Country Party State executive. They lived at Bellata, near Moree, and were later divorced. Thelma Kirkby ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1951 and 1953 on the combined ticket of the Liberal and Country parties. In December 1953 she was defeated in a by-election for the Federal seat of Gwydir, when the Country Party endorsed two candidates.

Increasingly based in Sydney, Kirkby made a considerable contribution to postwar Australia through organisations such as the Free Kindergarten movement, the Business and Professional Women’s Club and the Air Ambulance Service (for which she was awarded life membership). A staunch anti-communist, she was secretary-general of the Australian Women’s Movement Against Socialisation in the late 1940s. In 1953 she was the New South Wales representative to the Associated Country Women of the World conference, held at Toronto, Canada. In the 1950s, as part of these international women’s networks, she was also involved in the Pan Pacific Women’s Association (from 1955 Pan-Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association of Australia), including periods as national and international treasurer. During the Vietnam War, she organised a group that provided `rest and recreation’ for American servicemen in Sydney. She served as a committee member of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign. In 1975 she was the New South Wales representative on the United Nations Association of Australia International Women’s Year national committee.

But it was as part of the State branch of the CWA that Kirkby really made her mark. For over forty years, she was an active member, serving as honorary secretary (1957-59), and, as Thelma Bate, president (1959-62). On 12 June 1958 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Chatswood, she had married Henry Jefferson Percival (Jeff) Bate, long-standing Liberal member for the Federal seat of Macarthur and dairy farmer at Tilba Tilba. She had met him in conservative political circles and found him virile and charming. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1968. Her three marriages were childless.

Bate was probably best known for her passionate, and often defiant, stance on the inclusion of Aboriginal women in the CWA organisation and its branches. `When we say we work for country women and children, where do we draw the colour line?’, she asked CWA members as branches with mainly Aboriginal membership opened at Toomelah, Burnt Bridge-Green Hills and Copmanhurst-Baryulgil from 1956. In the 1960s she was treasurer of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. She chaired the women’s committee that, in partnership with Rotary, helped to establish International House at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales.

In 1969 the petite, energetic and enigmatic Thelma Bate was appointed CBE. She attributed her belief in equality and fair treatment for all, irrespective of colour, creed or sex, in large part to the enlightened influence of her stepfather. The significance of her contribution may have been partially lost through her name changes. She died on 26 July 1984 at Gordon and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Mayer and J. Rydon, The Gwydir By-Election 1953 (1954)
  • H. Townsend, Serving the Country (1988)
  • Country Women’s Association (New South Wales) Annual Report, 1961, p 9
  • Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, vol 2, no 1, 1997, p 57
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Apr 1953, p 7, 27 Apr 1960, p 3, 27 Jan 1965, p 2
  • Country Woman, Mar 1960, p 5, May 1962, p 5
  • Sun (Sydney), 30 Jan 1969, p 34
  • H. de Berg, interview with Thelma Bate (typescript, 1975, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Melanie Oppenheimer, 'Bate, Thelma Florence (1904–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bate-thelma-florence-12184/text21841, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Olsen, Thelma
  • Harvey, Thelma
  • Kirkby, Thelma
Birth

3 August 1904
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

26 July 1984
Gordon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation