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Gates, Minnie May (1878–1966)

by Alison Pilger

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Minnie May Gates (1878-1966), community worker and women's leader, was born on 13 September 1878 at Willoughby, Sydney, fourth of nine children of English-born parents Robert Forsyth, currier, and his wife Stephana, née Gates. Educated at Miss Emily Baxter's Argyle School, Minnie spent her childhood in the comfort and security of a large family home. After her father's tanning business was forced to close about 1900, memories of the family's sharply reduced circumstances remained with her.

On 27 March 1901 at the Wesleyan Church, Chatswood, she married Edmond Charles Gates (d.1953), a dentist. By 1928 she was the mother of six children and honorary secretary of the Women's League of New South Wales. That year she formed a special committee of fifteen women to provide friendship and practical assistance to country girls coming to Sydney to seek employment. Under Mrs Gates's direction, the committee's clubrooms in Hosking Place were developed as the means of offering 'sisterly help' through counselling, training, clothing, food and money.

Mrs Gates was elected honorary secretary (later president) of the Council for Social and Moral Reform in 1929 and was accepted as an associate of the National Council of Women of New South Wales. Entering her fifties, comparatively well-off, with a husband who supported her activities, she was very much at the height of her powers. She was a good-looking woman of medium build, with a strong personality, an authoritative air, the ability to organize and a skill for public speaking. Her work as treasurer (1929-54) of the N.C.W. reflected her continuing interest in securing for women a more prominent role in public life: she constantly urged equal access to areas of education, training and employment traditionally set aside for men.

As the Depression deepened, Mrs Gates managed to persuade the N.C.W. to direct virtually all its employment-relief funds for 1931-32 towards maintaining a twelve-bed hostel in Bligh Street for homeless young women. Worried by costs, in 1934 the N.C.W. baulked at moving the hostel to new quarters in York Street, withdrew its financial support and placed responsibility for the hostel's administration in the willing hands of Mrs Gates. From that time the Big Sister Movement, as her committee had become known, was formalized; Mrs Gates was its founder-president until her death.

Under her direction, the movement expanded to assist elderly disadvantaged women. Hostels were established at Pennant Hills (1936) and Burwood (1953). Money was always scarce, obliging the B.S.M. to depend on fund-raising, donations and voluntary help. Mrs Gates donated furniture from her home at Longueville to equip the Pennant Hills hostel. In 1958 the Minnie Gates Hostel for elderly women was opened at Cronulla, close to where she and her husband had moved in 1941.

Maintaining the family tradition set by her grandfather and father, Mrs Gates was a member (1940-60) of the board of Royal North Shore Hospital; she pressed for a child-care centre within the hospital's grounds and in 1960 had the pleasure of opening the Minnie Gates Playground. During World War II she had also worked for the Australian Red Cross Society. In 1941 she was appointed M.B.E.

In spite of her busy life, she had not learned to drive a motorcar, and neither she nor her husband ever owned one. Even in her late seventies, she made the three-hour return trip to the North Shore by train. She was a lifelong teetotaller and kept fit by swimming each morning at Cronulla beach. Survived by her two daughters and three of her four sons, Minnie Gates died on 30 August 1966 at Caringbah and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • National Council of Women of New South Wales, Seventy-Five Years, 1896-1971 (Syd, 1971)
  • G. Sherington, The Royal North Shore Hospital, 1888-1988 (Syd, 1988)
  • E. Braitling, The History of the Big Sister Movement (Syd, 1991)
  • National Council of Women of New South Wales, Minutes, 1929-58
  • Herself, 2, no 3, 5 July 1930
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sept 1929, 30 May, 5 Aug 1930, 4 Feb, 3 Mar 1931, 3 July 1934, 20 Apr 1935, 4 Sept 1936, 28 Sept 1938, 26 Sept 1939, 12 June 1941, 28 Sept 1943, 31 Aug 1966
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney),16 Oct 1960
  • private information.

Citation details

Alison Pilger, 'Gates, Minnie May (1878–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gates-minnie-may-10284/text18193, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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