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Annie Laurie Douglas (1914–1999)

by Yves Rees

This article was published online in 2023

Annie Douglas, 1979

Annie Douglas, 1979

courtesy of S. Keenihan and C. Brophy

Annie Laurie Douglas (1914–1999), public servant and librarian, was born on 8 December 1914 at South Fremantle, Western Australia, second of six children of South Australian Francis (Frank) Douglas, engineer, and his Queensland-born wife Annie Laurie, née Cole. When Laurie was eight her father died in an accident in the gold-mining town of Yalgoo. The family subsequently moved to Perth, but the loss of the male breadwinner brought financial hardships and, as the eldest daughter, she had to shoulder home responsibilities while her mother went to work. Though she left school at sixteen, she had a rich education: she attended West Leederville Primary and Perth Modern schools, passed music examinations set by Trinity College of Music, London, studied French with the Alliance Française, and took a course at Perth’s Metropolitan College of Shorthand. In 1932 she enrolled at the University of Western Australia, where she studied first commerce and then history and English (DipCom, 1937; BA, 1940). She also trained as a librarian, working as a junior assistant in the university library from March 1933.

Amid shortages of male staff during World War II that compelled the temporary employment of women, in 1943 Douglas was appointed temporary librarian and research assistant in the post-hostilities planning division of the Department of External Affairs in Canberra, working under her former university acquaintance (Sir) Paul Hasluck. Though she had been seconded from the university on the basis that this position would be only for the duration of the war, in 1946 she became one of the first women appointed as a permanent officer of the Commonwealth Public Service. Around this time, she also became involved in the newly formed Canberra Association of Women Graduates.

Douglas’s career did not confine her to the nation’s capital, however. In October 1946 she was posted to New York, where she joined the Australian mission to the United Nations and was tasked with maintaining and administering its records. For the next four years she worked mainly on ‘colonial matters’ (Farquharson 1999, 22), a field that encompassed non-self-governing territories. A member of Australian delegations to two sessions of the UN General Assembly in New York and Paris and several sessions of the Trusteeship Council, she enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere and the opportunities to mix with international leaders. A personal highlight was a gathering at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Greenwich Village apartment. There Douglas discussed global social and economic issues that affected women while enjoying the homemade pumpkin pie the ‘wonderfully gracious’ (West Australian 1954, 11) former First Lady served her guests.

Upon her return to Canberra in 1950 Douglas was placed in charge of UN documents at the Department of External Affairs. Drawing upon her library training, she introduced order to the large and complex body of paperwork. In 1957 she was promoted to the more senior role of clerk in the United Nations section of the Department of Territories (later External Territories), where the experience she had gained in New York was put to good use. She became an expert in the administration and development of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and rose through the ranks (first to the role of investigation officer in 1962 and then to senior investigation officer in 1968) to become officer-in-charge in the government and constitutional section by 1972. Making several visits to PNG, Douglas contributed to the processes leading to independence in 1975. After the Department of External Territories was abolished, she moved to the Department of the Special Minister of State. There she worked on the path to self-determination for the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which had been an Australian territory since 1955.

In 1977 Douglas was presented with a Queen Elizabeth II silver jubilee medal; the following year she was appointed MBE. When she retired in 1979, having spent thirty-six years in the public service, she was one of its longest serving women officers. Her career took place during a period of entrenched sex discrimination within the Commonwealth Public Service, with a marriage bar in place until 1966 that deterred women from joining and inhibited their promotion. Douglas’s own career progression was likely hampered by this institutional sexism, although the fact she never married or had children allowed her to take opportunities many of her contemporaries could not. She was a vocal advocate for women and mentored junior colleagues. ‘The Public Service has greatly benefited by women being admitted to the service in the general professional and clerical grades’ (Gaind 1979, 12), she said on her retirement.

Driven by a strong sense of propriety and always tastefully dressed, throughout her varied career Douglas commanded the respect of her colleagues. Sir David Hay, former secretary of the Department of External Territories, described her as a ‘resolute and knowledgeable person’ (Farquharson 1999, 22) with a broad range of interests. Although reserved, she was a warm and generous friend who became lively in the company of trusted intimates. Seventy guests, some of them senior figures, attended her retirement party at the Royal Canberra Golf Club.

During her final years Douglas remained in Canberra, living in a flat at the base of Mount Ainslie and catching up on pastimes she had previously neglected, such as reading and walking. Close to her sisters and their children, she travelled as far as England to visit them. She died on 1 August 1999 at Canberra Hospice and was buried in Woden cemetery alongside her mother. In 2011 a residential street in the northern Canberra suburb of Casey was named in honour of Douglas’s significant contributions to the public service. Passers-by today may not be familiar with her name, but she helped set a precedent for women’s participation in the Australian public service.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • A Celebration of Contribution: Tales of the Courage, Commitment and Creativity of Modernians 1911–1963. East Perth: Department of Education, 2016
  • Farquharson, John. ‘Obituary: Annie Laurie Douglas.’ Age (Melbourne), 30 August 1999, 22
  • Gaind, Rama. ‘Family Reunions, Parties Mark Festive Season.’ Canberra Times, 23 December 1979, 12
  • Keenihan, Sheridan. Personal communication
  • Macdermott, Kath. ‘Public Service/Policy.’ The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia. Accessed 23 March 2023. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0446b.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • West Australian (Perth). ‘A W.A. Graduate Dined with Mrs. Roosevelt.’ 11 February 1954, 11

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Yves Rees, 'Douglas, Annie Laurie (1914–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/douglas-annie-laurie-33271/text41514, published online 2023, accessed online 24 July 2024.

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