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Burke, Phyllis Le Cappelaine (1900–1969)

by Carolyn Allport

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Phyllis Le Cappelaine Burke (1900-1969), social reformer and housing commissioner, was born on 27 January 1900 at Maldon, Essex, England, daughter of John Le Cappelaine Taylor, innkeeper, and his wife Bridget Emily, née Dooley. Phyllis came with the family to Sydney as an infant and was educated at Monte Sant' Angelo convent, North Sydney. She enrolled at the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1922) and became a schoolteacher. On 31 July 1922 she married a mercer John Murray Burke at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Sydney; she bore him four sons and five daughters between 1924 and 1943.

Mrs Burke undertook extensive political and commercial surveys on market conditions for various firms. In the early 1940s she was an active member of the Legion of Catholic Women and in 1942 was appointed by the Commonwealth government as woman organizer for the War Savings Campaign in New South Wales. Concerned at the dangers to young women from the influx of servicemen during World War II, she campaigned for the eradication of venereal diseases. Like many feminists of the time, she put a deal of energy into the cause of the fledgling United Nations, running the local publicity for its relief and rehabilitation appeal in 1946 and its appeal for children in 1947.

An excellent public relations officer who had a personable manner, tenacity, efficiency and wide social contacts, she also worked for the Australian Red Cross Society, the Smith Family, the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children and the Royal Blind Society. She was active in educated women's circles in Sydney, among them the National Council of Women of New South Wales. Although she was not a member of the United Associations of Women led by Jessie Street—she was wary of Street's support for the Soviet Union—Burke attended their lunchtime meetings and wrote on housing issues for the Australian Women's Digest.

Deeply religious, she supported an independent and politically-aware role for women. Despite Archbishop (Cardinal Sir) Norman Gilroy's disapproval, in 1943 Burke formed the Altair group of educated lay Catholic women which included Mary Tenison Woods and Jean Daly. While calling for government support for larger families, she argued that motherhood and public service were not incompatible. The members of Altair formed a Sydney branch of the St Joan Social and Political Alliance in October 1946; Burke was a committee-member. She promoted the employment of women by government bodies and was appointed to the Housing Commission of New South Wales in 1945. Respected by her colleagues, she stressed the 'feminine viewpoint on the home', and used her influence to sponsor the introduction of modern design and layout in public housing in an attempt to reduce the burden of housework. She retired in 1965; the commission named a block of flats at Artarmon after her in 1968.

Considering herself to be a professional, Burke retained membership of the Economics Society of Australia and New Zealand, and of the Sydney University Women Graduates' Association; from 1954 she was a member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission's advisory committee on women's sessions. She belonged to the Business and Professional Women's Club of Sydney, the Soroptimist, and the Stage and Society clubs, and enjoyed reading, swimming and amateur theatricals. An impressive figure, Phyllis Burke was assertive, direct and confident of her abilities. Survived by her husband and nine children, she died on 20 August 1969 in the Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, and was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Kennedy, Faith and Feminism (Syd, 1985)
  • H. Carey, Truly Feminine, Truly Catholic (Syd, 1987)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Aug 1942, 9 Feb 1965, 10 Aug 1968
  • Sun (Sydney), 15 Feb 1945
  • Department of Housing (New South Wales) Archives.

Citation details

Carolyn Allport, 'Burke, Phyllis Le Cappelaine (1900–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burke-phyllis-le-cappelaine-9630/text16985, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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