Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Benjamin, Sophia (Zoe) (1882–1962)

by Margaret Hinsby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Sophia (Zoe) Benjamin (1882-1962), pioneer of kindergarten work and of parent and sex education, was born on 24 December 1882 in Adelaide, daughter of Phillip Benjamin, journalist and later company secretary, and his wife Minnie, née Cohen, who were orthodox Jews. About 1888 the family moved to Sydney. Educated by governesses until 10, she went for three years to Darlinghurst Superior School, after which she shared governesses and tutors with cousins. Her intelligent and cultured father, for whom she had great respect and affection, contributed breadth and richness to her education: she read widely in history, the arts and philosophy. After gaining the Kindergarten College's diploma in 1905, she took charge of several kindergartens, then lectured to nurses at the Norland Nursing College until she joined the staff of her old college in 1912 as a lecturer in psychology and education; she later became vice-principal. Known as Zoe, she was diminutive in stature, radiated vitality and confidence, and always commanded attention. Her clear logical lectures were punctuated with searching questions. While nervous or reluctant students might quail before her, she encouraged those struggling to think for themselves. At a time when sex education was minimal, students always found her a sympathetic counsellor.

Zoe was continually pioneering new ventures. As a student she could not reconcile the constant direction of children in kindergartens with Friedrich Froebel's concept of creativity, so she won permission to introduce a daily free-play period, a practice which soon spread. In 1910-11 she launched and edited the Australian Kindergarten Magazine. Fired with enthusiasm by the Women's Institutes in Britain, in 1924 she established the Free Kindergarten Mothers' Union to enrich the lives of mothers of inner-city children. As president, she organized an annual handiwork exhibition for ten years and later a dramatic society, helping her raw recruits to reach remarkable levels of skill. In 1930 she established a holiday home for children from congested areas.

In 1916 Zoe Benjamin, after presenting a paper on sex training for young children, had been invited by the department of tutorial classes, University of Sydney, to begin child study tuition for parents. Her dynamic, family-centred approach to issues of child development and management was very popular and her classes flourished. In 1937 she resigned as vice-principal of the Sydney Kindergarten and Preparatory Teachers' College to concentrate on parent work; she also gave private consultations at her Hunters Hill home. Colleagues and parents urged her to write, and her pamphlet, Education for Parenthood (Melbourne, 1944), was described by Professor Tasman Lovell as 'almost perfect in both form and matter', the reader being 'borne along by an unfailing clarity of exposition'. Radio talks for the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 'Kindergarten of the Air' were published as Talks to Parents (London, 1947). Her other publications included The Schoolchild and his Parents (Sydney, 1950). When the New Education Fellowship established a parent-education committee in 1950, she became chief lecturer.

Zoe Benjamin's lively interest in and enjoyment of all types of people made her very perceptive of human situations. The diversity of her interests, ranging from theatre and philosophy to gardening and dressmaking, enabled her to meet people at the point of their own enthusiasms, while her imaginative application of psychological and educational principles equipped her to give sound and practical advice. Long troubled by poor sight, she was blind when she died of cerebro-vascular disease at Hunters Hill on 13 April 1962; she was cremated with Anglican rites. Her estate was valued for probate at £9693. The Zoe Benjamin Memorial Fund was established and in 1963 presented to the Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales; the Trustees used part of it for an initial purchase of books and have continued to administer the fund.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Dumolo, ‘Zoe Benjamin’, Sydney Kindergarten … Teachers' College Magazine, Dec 1937
  • Ivrian Journal, Oct 1938
  • D. Mohr, ‘… A woman of infinite interests’, Australian Highway, Feb 1953
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Apr 1962
  • Z. Benjamin letters (Sydney Kindergarten Teachers' Colleges Archives, and State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Hinsby, 'Benjamin, Sophia (Zoe) (1882–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benjamin-sophia-zoe-5205/text8759, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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