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Nancy Nugent Dexter (1923–1983)

by Sybil Nolan

This article was published:

Nancy Dexter, by Bruce Howard, c.1975

Nancy Dexter, by Bruce Howard, c.1975

National Library of Australia, 42270300

Nancy Nugent Dexter (1923-1983), journalist, was born on 16 February 1923 at Coburg, Melbourne, elder child of John (Jack) Hanks, iron-moulder, and his wife Hilda Evelyn, née Barratt. During the Depression Jack resettled the family at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, where he built a successful foundry business. An energetic, cantankerous man, he gained prominence in 1948 when he closed the foundry for several months after the communist-influenced Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia signed up his workforce.

Nancy was educated at Wagga Wagga High School until the age of 15, and then—encouraged by her strong-willed mother to vocational study—at the local commercial college. Attracted to journalism, she obtained her first job in newspapers in 1941 as a copy-typist for the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser, and then moved to Sydney to monitor radio news for the Daily Telegraph. In 1946 she became a copy-typist at the Melbourne Herald, and in 1950 a cadet on its social pages, but she was retrenched amid economic uncertainty in 1951.

On 17 September 1951 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Box Hill, Melbourne, Nancy married Harry Norman Dexter (d.1979), a locally based sports and racing correspondent for the Sydney Sun. Harry was twenty-two years her senior and from a well-known family of racing writers. The couple worked for the same public relations firm until, in 1960, Nancy Dexter returned to the Herald women’s section as a journalist. By 1964 she had inherited responsibility for a banal column of shopping and social news, which she began spiking with substantial commentary on consumer and women’s issues: articles on ‘working wives escaping from boredom’ followed notes on seaweed diets and the ‘frazzle’ of Christmas shopping.

Dexter resigned from the Herald in 1966, frustrated, she said later, by its ‘stifling’ editorial atmosphere. Graham Perkin then offered her work with the Age, and from 1967 her column ‘Nancy Dexter Takes Note’ appeared in Accent, the women’s section. A few years before Women’s Liberation emerged, she discussed such issues as the fight for equal pay, domestic violence and abortion-law reform. In 1968, for example, she encouraged women who had terminated pregnancies to tell their stories, and received many responses. She was to clash repeatedly with the Right To Life Association, Victoria.

As the women’s movement gained momentum in the 1970s, Dexter documented its agendas and debates with ‘guts and substance’ (so recalled Beatrice Faust, a founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby) while also normalising discussion of controversial subjects: ‘a drip wearing away a stone’ was Dexter’s favoured metaphor. Her middle-aged, middle-class appearance and down-to-earth demeanour were at odds with popular stereotypes of second-wave feminism, and part of her appeal. Always an advocate of equal opportunity, she offered a perceptive, sometimes prescient, occasionally caustic analysis of women’s issues that was shaped by her own experiences, including her years as a working mother relishing a measure of financial independence. As editor of Accent (1972-79), she maintained a balance between its traditional fare and hard coverage of women’s issues. A resourceful cook, she also happily turned her hand to cookery writing for Accent in addition to her column.

In 1979 Dexter became the Age’s travel editor, embracing this task with typical energy. She died suddenly on 21 April 1983 while on assignment at Jaipur, India. Her two sons survived her. The newspaper established a prize in her name at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s school of journalism.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Larkins and B. Howard, A Tribute to Australian Women (1980)
  • S. Morris, Wagga Wagga (1999)
  • Lip (Melbourne), 1980, p 24
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 May 1987, p 18 and 29 May 1987, 'Accent', p 1
  • R. Smallwood, Guts and Substance (BA Hons thesis, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, 1985)
  • E. Owen, taped interview with Nancy Dexter (State Library of Victoria)
  • Nancy Dexter papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sybil Nolan, 'Dexter, Nancy Nugent (1923–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 6 March 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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