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Doris Jessie Carter (1912–1999)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published online in 2023

Doris Jessie Carter (1912–1999), teacher, athlete, and air force officer, was born on 5 January 1912 at North Carlton, Melbourne, elder child of Victorian-born Edward William Carter, engine driver and later cabinet maker, and his Tasmanian-born wife Jessie Christina, née Marshall. Educated at South Brunswick State School and Coburg High School, where she obtained her Leaving certificate, the tall, willowy girl demonstrated her athletic prowess early. In 1930, after working as a junior teacher for several months, Doris, or ‘Dah’ as she was sometimes known by family and friends, enrolled at Melbourne Teachers’ College where she was soon recognised as a natural leader.

Marked as a progressive, energetic, and highly organised teacher who held her students’ attention, Carter initially taught at Melville Forest State School in western Victoria (1931–33) before being transferred to South Preston (1934–36) and Moreland Central (1937–41). Already assisting with physical education courses for the state Education Department in the late 1930s, she joined its staff in 1941 while also serving as president of the Victorian State Schools’ Amateur Athletic Association (1938–48).

Opportunities for women in athletics opened up in the summer of 1930–31 and Carter regularly made the long trip from Melville Forest in her tiny Austin 10 to compete in Melbourne. Notwithstanding the limited time and facilities she had for training, the ‘fleet-footed girl’ (Sporting Globe 1930, 13) quickly became known for her outstanding athletic ability. Though an all-round athlete, she excelled at hurdles, discus, and high jump, opting for the traditional scissors jump at a time when athletes were experimenting with new techniques. As well as winning titles and setting records at State and inter-club events, she won five national championships in high jump (1933, 1935–37, 1940) and two in discus throw (1936, 1940).

When Carter was selected to join the Australian team for the Berlin Olympics in 1936, she was not only the Australian women’s high jump record holder—a record she held until 1954—but also the Victorian 90-yards hurdles and national discus champion. One of four women in a team of thirty-three, she was placed equal fifth in the high jump while competing with an injured right leg, becoming Australia’s first female field athlete to compete at an Olympic Games. She was later selected for the British Empire Games in Sydney in 1938 where she came fifth in the high jump.

Widely acclaimed as Australia’s most versatile sportswoman, Carter played for the Victorian women’s hockey team in 1937. The following year she was selected for the Australian team to tour England in 1939, but had to withdraw when the education department refused to grant her leave. She also played baseball and cricket and in later life would enjoy golf, bowls, gardening, and fishing. After a bout of ill-health over the summer of 1938–39, she returned to the track fit, setting new national records and gaining second place in long jump at the Victorian State titles.

Soon after the outbreak of war, Carter joined the Women’s Air Training Corps in Melbourne while continuing her work with the education department. In January 1942 she was appointed as an assistant section officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force before being posted as an instructor at the Royal Australian Air Force School of Administration, located at the University of Melbourne, where she was in charge of training new WAAAF officers. From September 1943 she was an assistant to the WAAAF director, Clare Stevenson, except when seconded for three months in 1944 to the Department of Post-War Reconstruction where, at that time, she was the only woman to serve on the Central Reconstruction Training Committee. Demobilised and transferred to the Retired List on 25 October 1945, she returned to the department the next month in the civilian position of assistant to Kathleen Best, the assistant director of re-establishment and training (women). In April the following year Carter was recalled to the WAAAF to lead its contingent in the victory parade in London on 8 June 1946, resuming her departmental post in September. Two years later she was transferred to the Department of Immigration and posted to Australia House, London, as officer-in-charge of child and youth migration, where she was responsible for interviewing and selecting children to come to Australia under postwar immigration schemes.

In early 1951, when the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) reorganised the women’s branch, Carter seemed the obvious choice as director. Noted for her level-headedness, tireless energy, and determination, as well as her ‘good moral outlook’ and ‘common sense attitude to life’ (NAA A12372), she was selected as inaugural director of the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) in 1951. Leading by example with an untiring commitment to the WRAAF, she fostered high morale, improved conditions for air women, and earned the respect of her superiors for the manner in which she dealt with the problems facing the postwar WRAAF. For her service she was appointed OBE in 1957. Although the RAAF wanted her to continue in the role, she resigned in 1960 with the rank of wing officer to accept a position as general secretary of the Melbourne Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She was later a trustee of the Australian War Memorial (1969–75) and became the first woman to lead an Anzac Day march in 1996.

Athletics remained important throughout Carter’s life. She presided over the Victorian Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (1945–48) and Australian Women’s Amateur Athletic Union (1952–61). In 1953 she and the former hockey player and sports advocate Sybil Taggart were also the first women ever appointed to an Olympic organising committee. Three years later, as general manager of the Australian women’s Olympic team, she led the athletes onto the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a role the RAAF felt brought it ‘international recognition and added prestige’ (OBE Citation 1957). She continued to offer her skills as an organiser and leader to women and girls. After a short period at the YWCA, she joined the senior headquarters staff of the Girl Guides’ Association of Victoria (1963–77) and National Fitness Council of Victoria (1971–77). Sometime after her mother’s death in 1973 she moved into Rushall Park, North Fitzroy, with Nancy McBeam, a friend from WRAAF days. She died there on 28 July 1999 and was cremated at Fawkner crematorium. Her estate was valued at $124,495.

Self-assured, congenial, and possessed of immense energy, Carter was among a talented group of interwar athletes who abandoned tunics and knee-length skirts for gender-neutral uniforms and ushered in a new era of women’s athletics. In the male-dominated worlds of sport and the air force, she pushed the boundaries for women in ways that earned widespread admiration. It was under her leadership that an effective and respected women’s air force was forged after World War II. In 1961 Coburg High School named one of their sport houses in her honour. The Royal Australian Mint later recognised her as one of five heroes of the sky in 2021 when they released coins to commemorate the centenary of the RAAF.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Air Force News. ‘Olympian Hit New Heights.’ 1 September 1999, 21
  • Cooper, John. ‘Former Wing Officer Has a Remarkable Background.’ Bowls in Victoria, September 1991, 8
  • Jenes, Paul. ‘Doris Carter (5 January 1912–28 July 1999).’ Athletics Hall of Fame, Athletics Australia. Accessed on 8 March 2023. https://cdn.revolutionise.com.au/cups/aa/files/immrgq6mzgzvs5hq.pdf. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A12372, W35397 CARTER Doris Jessie
  • OBE Citation, Wing Officer D.J. Carter. Copy held on ADB file
  • RAAF News. ‘Leader Was Top Athlete.’ 1 January 1960, 7
  • Robertson, E. M. WAAAF at War: Life and Work in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force. Canterbury, Vic.: Mullaya Publications, 1974
  • Salom, Tom. ‘Pioneer of Berlin Dies.’ Herald Sun (Melbourne), 2 August 1999, 15
  • Silverii, Jason. ‘Doris Sent to the Frontline.’ Herald Sun (Melbourne), 18 April 1996, 7
  • Sporting Globe (Melbourne). ‘Skirts or Shorts?’ 2 July 1930, 13
  • Thomson, Joyce. The WAAAF in Wartime Australia. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1991
  • Writer, Larry. Dangerous Games: Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Carter, Doris Jessie (1912–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carter-doris-jessie-32716/text40668, published online 2023, accessed online 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Doris Carter, 1944

Doris Carter, 1944

Australian War Memorial, VIC0811

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