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Ruth Violet Dobson (1918–1989)

by Sylvia Marchant

This article was published:

Ruth Violet Lissant Dobson (1918-1989), diplomat, was born on 5 October 1918 at Neutral Bay, Sydney, elder daughter of Austin Arthur Greaves Dobson (d.1926), an English-born draughtsman, and his wife Marjorie, née Caldwell, from Victoria. The granddaughter of the English poet and essayist Austin Dobson and sister of the Australian poet Rosemary Dobson, Ruth was educated at Frensham School (1929-36), Mittagong, New South Wales, and the University of Sydney (BA, 1940). She tried various jobs including teaching briefly and acting as secretary to the principal of Women’s College, where she had resided as a student. In 1942 she joined the Sydney office of the Commonwealth Department of Munitions as a records clerk.

Interested in international affairs, Ruth applied for a cadetship with the Department of External Affairs in 1943. Although her application was unsuccessful, she was employed as a temporary research assistant. Within the department she faced the institutionalised discrimination that hampered many women of her generation in the public service. Regarded as too old (over 25) for appointment as a graduate and eager for an overseas posting, she resigned from the department in 1946 and went to London. In June she joined the Australian High Commission as a locally engaged temporary employee in the external affairs office.

Miss Dobson acted as adviser to Australian delegates at many sessions of the United Nations, and at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. In February 1949 she was appointed third secretary (temporary). This work led to her selection for the Geneva office of the Australian UN Delegation in 1950. Attending UN conferences and meetings of the General Assembly and participating in the committee meetings of various international and specialised agency conferences, she also served on the third committee of the UN General Assembly, which dealt with social, cultural and humanitarian matters and drafted the Convention on the Status of Women.

Dobson’s status as temporary and locally engaged dogged her until 1953 when the rules were relaxed and she was appointed as a clerk, third division, in Canberra. This change was not intended to encourage aspirations to a position in the diplomatic service. Another attempt to gain a cadetship in 1953 was unsuccessful, but she was officially appointed to the diplomatic staff in 1957. Two years later Miss Dobson was included in the Australian delegation to the UN General Assembly, again sitting on the third committee. She went to New Zealand as second secretary in 1961 and while there was promoted to first secretary. From 1964 she was the department’s international conference officer in Canberra until appointed as first secretary to Brazil in 1965. She did not take up the position because in September that year she was seconded to Government House, Yarralumla, as private secretary to Lady (Maie) Casey.

On her return to the department in 1967, Miss Dobson was posted as first secretary in Manila but fourteen months later was invalided home after contracting pneumonia. In 1968 she became first secretary, later counsellor, in the Europe, Africa and Middle East branch in Canberra and again represented Australia at the UN General Assembly. She was counsellor (1971-74), and, briefly, chargé d’affaires at the Australian embassy in Athens. The acme of Miss Dobson’s career was in 1974, when she became the first woman career diplomat to be appointed as an ambassador. She went to Denmark as the first resident Australian ambassador and, in 1978, to the Republic of Ireland, where she remained until her retirement in 1981. Next year she was appointed OBE.

Indomitable despite ill health, Miss Dobson continued to travel and to serve in many organisations, including the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society (councillor 1982-85), the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Immigration Review panel (1984-88), the Additional Rhodes Scholarship selection committee (1981-84), Winifred West Schools Ltd, Mittagong (1982-87), and the Australian Federation of University Women. She died on 14 December 1989 in Canberra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Foreign Affairs Record, Mar 1974, p 213, Dec 1989, p 733
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Mar 1974, p 3
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 May 1981, p 26
  • I. Hamilton, taped interview with Ruth Dobson (1984, National Library of Australia)
  • series A6371 and series M3072, item 4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sylvia Marchant, 'Dobson, Ruth Violet (1918–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 May 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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