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Norris, Dame Ada May (1901–1989)

by Margaret Fitzherbert

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Dame Ada May Norris (1901-1989), schoolteacher and campaigner for women’s rights, was born on 28 July 1901 at Greenbushes, Western Australia, second of four daughters of Victorian-born Herbert Allan Bickford (d.1911), miner, and English-born Alice Hannah Baggs, who married in 1905.  The family moved to Victoria when Ada was a child; she attended Birchip State and Melbourne High schools.  She majored in French and history at the University of Melbourne (BA, Dip.Ed., 1924; MA, 1926) and then taught at Leongatha and Melbourne High schools.  On 6 July 1929 at the Kew Methodist Church she married (Sir) John Gerald Norris, barrister-at-law.  Living in Camberwell and raising two daughters, she was keen to be involved in community work.  Lady Latham encouraged her to become the foundation honorary secretary (1935-51) of the Victorian Society for Crippled Children (and Adults, after 1959).  She was later its vice-president (1951-76) and patron (1976-78).

Steadily, Norris’s engagement in community organisations expanded, encompassing issues relating to disability, children, the aged and immigration.  She was honorary secretary (1944-51) of the Australian Advisory Council for the Physically Handicapped (life member 1951, president 1955-57, vice-president 1957-62) and was vice-president (1951-80) of the Old People’s Welfare Council (later Victorian Council on the Ageing).  In 1950 she replaced Jessie Street as the only woman on the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council; in 1968-71 she served as deputy-chairman.  She worked towards the creation of a Victorian branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia and served as its founding president (1954-60).

Central to many of these associations was Norris’s prominence in the National Council of Women:  she had joined its Victorian branch as a VSCC delegate in 1935 and was branch president in 1951-54.  In 1967-70 she was national president of the council.  Determinedly advancing the public representation of women’s interests, by the late 1950s she was campaigning for equal pay for equal work as 'part of [women’s] emancipation'.  In 1967 she became the first woman to testify to a wages board in a work-value case; in 1969 she intervened on behalf of NCW in the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ landmark test case for equal pay.  Arguing for 'the essential justice of the claim', she emphasised that 'changed sociological and economic factors', including the contribution of women to the workforce and their changing attitudes to work and life, demanded recognition.  She was appointed OBE (1954) and CMG (1969).

In 1961-63 Norris was the Australian delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.  She travelled extensively to workshops and conferences, including those of the International Council of Women of which she was a member of the executive committee (1966-78) and convenor of the migration committee (1973-76).  Returning with comparisons that showed Australia’s relatively poor performance on women’s rights, she also called for leadership in assisting the women of Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East to achieve better conditions.  In 1964 she enrolled in Indonesian studies at the University of Melbourne, putting to the test her convictions on the need to develop mutual understanding.  She organised the fund-raising campaign to build Luavi House at the University of Papua New Guinea, the country’s first residential college for female tertiary students, which opened on 16 April 1973.  Active in the United Nations Association of Australia, she chaired the national status of women committee (1976-80), its international women’s year committee (1974-76) and the Victorian branch’s status of women committee (1972-78).

Norris’s campaigns showed her tenacity and intellect.  As a leader of NCW she was respected and warmly regarded.  Described as 'razor sharp' in thought, 'fairly austere' and not inclined to waste time on frivolous activities, she maintained her interest in many projects well into her eighties.  Australian women, she maintained, should concentrate on 'using their brains', not 'living an easy life'.  Her history of the VSCCA was published in 1974, and from 1978 she served as patron of its successor, the Yooralla Society of Victoria.  She also wrote Champions of the Impossible (1978), a history of the Victorian NCW.  In 1975 she received the UN peace medal.  Appointed DBE in 1976, she received an honorary LL.D from the University of Melbourne in 1980.  Survived by her husband and daughters, Dame Ada died on 10 July 1989 at Armadale, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Lofthouse, Who’s Who of Australian Women (1982)
  • Melbourne University Characters and Controversies (2001)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 April 1958, p 23, 9 December 1967, p 28
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 July 1962, p 10, 21 July 1989, p 16
  • private information

Citation details

Margaret Fitzherbert, 'Norris, Dame Ada May (1901–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/norris-dame-ada-may-14997/text26186, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 4 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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