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Rankin, Dame Annabelle Jane (1908–1986)

by Lenore Coltheart

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

Dame Annabelle Jane Mary Rankin (1908-1986), politician, was born on 28 July 1908 in Brisbane, elder daughter of Scottish-born parents Colin Dunlop Wilson Rankin, mining engineer, and his wife Annabelle Davidson, née Thompson. Her father was the member for Burrum (1905-18) in the Legislative Assembly. Growing up on her family’s sugar-cane farm, Tigh-na-Bienne, Annabelle attended Childers State, and later, Howard State schools; she completed her education as a boarder at Glennie Memorial School, Toowoomba.

Active in community life in and around Howard, Rankin taught Sunday school, sang in a church choir, started a local group of the Ministering Children’s League and founded the local company of the Girl Guides’ Association. Her father encouraged her to travel: after leaving school she went to China and Japan; in 1936 she visited England, Scotland and continental Europe. In London she worked in the slums and with refugees from the Spanish Civil War. From Gibraltar she witnessed the bombardment of the town of La Linea de la Concepcion.

After her father’s death in 1940 Rankin became a clerk for the Union Trustee Co. of Australia in Brisbane. She was the commandant of a Brisbane Voluntary Aid Detachment, serving after work at air-raid shelters and hospitals. In 1942 she was State secretary of the Girl Guides’ Association. Next year she became Queensland assistant-commissioner of the Young Women’s Christian Association, in charge of organising the YWCA’s welfare efforts for servicewomen. Her responsibilities included travelling to military bases in North Queensland and northern New South Wales, and she accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States of America, and Lady Gowrie, wife of the governor-general, on their visits to the troops.

Having rejected a post with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Greece, Rankin stood as a Liberal-Country Party candidate for a Queensland Senate seat in the September 1946 Federal election; she particularly hoped to assist servicewomen in their rehabilitation. Successful, she became, at 38, Australia’s second female senator—after (Dame) Dorothy Tangney—and the Liberal Party’s second woman Federal parliamentarian, following Dame Enid Lyons. Rankin was the first female to represent Queensland in the Federal parliament.

Rankin entered the Senate in July 1947. With two Queensland colleagues, (Sir) Walter Cooper and (Sir) Neil O’Sullivan, she formed an Opposition of only three and thus gained the opportunity of becoming the first woman in the British Commonwealth to serve as whip. She and Lyons joined Millicent Preston Stanley’s Australian Women’s Movement Against Socialisation that opposed the Chifley government’s proposed bank nationalisation. This organisation deepened the postwar divide in the women’s movement in Australia, so that the effective feminist political force that had operated between the wars was now split. In October 1947 Rankin took a prominent part in the national AWMAS protest meeting at the Albert Hall, Canberra, attended by hundreds of women.

A member of the Joint Standing Committee on Broadcasting (1947-49) and the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances (1947-50), Rankin was on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (1950-51). She was government whip in the Senate (1951-66) after the 1949 election of the Liberal Party-Country Party coalition. When appointed the minister for housing (1966) in Harold Holt’s government, she became the first Australian woman to administer a government department. She worked to provide housing for single aged pensioners and she introduced a housing system for Aborigines and newly arrived migrants. Retiring from the ministry and parliament in 1971, she was appointed high commissioner (1971-74) to New Zealand—the first female to head an Australian diplomatic mission. She had been appointed DBE in 1957.

Returning to Brisbane, Rankin continued her commitment to building vibrant communities. A well-known figure in a wide network of organisations including the Australian Red Cross Society (Queensland division), the Queensland Country Women’s Association, the Victoria League and the Royal Empire Society (Royal Commonwealth Society from 1958), she was a long-time president and life member (1977) of the Queensland Branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. In the 1984 electoral redistribution the new Queensland seat of Rankin was named for her.

Dame Annabelle was cheerful and friendly. Enid Lyons remarked that ‘Her appearance charmed me [with] her warm brown eyes, her Titian-red hair’. The political journalists Don Whitington and Rob Chalmers described Rankin as ‘active, vigorous and strong-willed’ and ‘tireless and uncompromising’ as a whip. Unmarried, she died on 30 August 1986 in Brisbane. After a State funeral at St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane, she was cremated. The Dame Annabelle Rankin Award for distinguished services to children’s literature in Queensland commemorates her.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Whitington and R. Chalmers, Inside Canberra (1971)
  • E. Lyons, Among the Carrion Crows (1972)
  • W. Browne, A Woman of Distinction (1981)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (1988)
  • M. Fitzherbert, Liberal Women (2004) and So Many Firsts (2009)
  • A. Millar and G. Browne (eds), Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol 3 (2010)
  • Pariamentary Debates (Senate), 16 Sept 1986, p 433
  • Pariamentary Debates (HR), 16 Sept 1986, p 703
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 Sept 1986, pp 1, 5
  • A. Rankin scrapbooks, M2110 (National Archives of Australia)
  • P. Shaw, interview with A. Rankin (typecript, 1983-84, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Lenore Coltheart, 'Rankin, Dame Annabelle Jane (1908–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 28 October 2016.

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

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