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Barbara Denise MacLeod (1929–2000)

by Christine Reghenzani

This article was published online in 2023

Barbara Denise MacLeod (1929–2000), teacher and naval officer, was born on 15 February 1929 at Bunbury, Western Australia, elder child of Western Australian-born parents Charles Robertson Stuart MacLeod, accountant, and his wife Norah Eileen, née Fitzgerald. When she was a toddler, Barbara’s family moved to Como, a suburb of Perth, where she spent much of her childhood. After a brief residence in Northam, from about 1943 she lived at Capel in the State’s south-west. She was educated at Perth Girls’ School and Bunbury High School (1943–45), where she became a prefect and star hockey player. Pursuing a career in education, in 1948 she began training as a primary school teacher at Capel and Boyup Brook schools before undertaking study at Claremont Teachers’ College, Perth (1949–50). After graduating she worked at the State school, Northampton, for the next three years.

Refused a promotion to a secondary school post, in 1953 MacLeod noticed an advertisement for the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) and on a dare from friends enlisted on 16 November. In case she later wished to return to teaching, she had taken six months’ leave from the Education Department but resigned on 10 November and repaid a bond of £6 13s. 4d. During her recruit training at HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria, she was selected for promotion to officer and in April 1954 was posted to HMAS Melville, Darwin, for administrative training. While there she was commissioned as a third officer on 24 May. A succession of postings as a WRANS quarters and unit officer followed, after which she returned to Cerberus in 1958 to conduct the WRANS officers’ training course, in the rank of second officer. After a posting in 1959 as assistant to the director, WRANS, at Navy Office, Canberra, she returned to Cerberus the next year as officer-in-charge, WRANS, responsible for the training of all new entry Wrans and WRANS officers, as well as the duties of unit officer. In 1962 she was promoted to first officer. Three years later she joined the staff of the flag officer-in-charge, East Australia Area, as an assistant to the chief staff officer (administration) and in 1966 resumed at Cerberus, again as officer-in-charge, WRANS. Granted a permanent commission in 1968, she was posted in 1970 to Navy Office for the staff of the Naval Intelligence and subsequently of the Operations branches. The following year she returned to the office of the (renamed) flag officer commanding East Australia Area, as command WRANS officer; while at this post, she was promoted to chief officer.

On 25 April 1973 MacLeod assumed the role of director, WRANS. She was promoted to acting captain on 30 December 1974 and confirmed in the rank on 30 June 1975, just weeks after being appointed AM. As director, she managed the implementation of two important conditions of service: maternity leave and equal pay. In 1976 she became the first female officer to complete the advanced course at the Australian Administrative Staff College, Mount Eliza, Victoria. The next year she was awarded the Queen’s silver jubilee medal and an appointment as director of naval industrial policy followed in 1979. Becoming the first WRANS officer to hold the position was a milestone in the advancement of the status of navy women as it was outside the WRANS organisational structure. During her directorship, conditions of service continued to improve for women. Employment categories for Wrans widened, including access to the naval police and physical training instructor branches; the dental, instructor, and engineering branches were opened to WRANS officers, and they could be posted as shore establishment executive officers; the WRANS officer rank titles were abolished and replaced by the male officers’ titles; and servicewomen became entitled to married quarters. In March 1982 she became the first WRANS officer to be appointed an honorary aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II.

MacLeod retired in 1983 and moved to Mollymook, New South Wales, a locality she selected for its excellent and picturesque golf course, and where she also took an active role in the local community, becoming a member of Quota International and supporting local charities. Throughout her career ‘BD’ (as she was affectionately known) had been a role model for navy women, striving to promote fairness and equality. Her successes demonstrated not only her advocacy for broadening women’s careers, but her tenacity in overcoming the challenges they faced. She was described as possessing ‘a forthright, pleasant personality, a decisive mind and quick intellect’ (NAA A3978) and was admired throughout her career for her devotion to the service. A formidable person, she attracted awe as well as respect: her ‘look could freeze at 50 paces, her voice could have a young woman trembling in trepidation, and her criticism, always well founded, could cut to the bone’ (Stackpool 2000, 35).

Having begun her working life shaping the lives of future generations as a teacher, MacLeod went on to shape the careers and futures of hundreds of navy women. Physically fit and a keen fan of sports, she enjoyed golf and swimming and competed with WRANS tennis and hockey teams—the latter, which she also coached, intimidatingly called ‘Barbara’s Bashers’ (Royal Australian Navy News 1962, 11). She found delight in gardening, music (specifically light classical, musical comedy, and opera), and theatre. Survived by her brother, she died at Mollymook on 9 January 2000 and was cremated.

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, Keith. ‘Breaking Barriers of Inequality.’ Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 28 January 2000, 99
  • Commonwealth of Australia Gazette. Periodic. No. P7, 1 August 1977, 10
  • Fenton Huie, Shirley. Ships Belles: The Story of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service in War and Peace 1941-1985. Sydney: Watermark Press, 2000
  • Heywood, Anne. 'Macleod, Barbara Denise (1929-2000).' The Australian Women's Register. Last modified 30 April 2009. Accessed 24 January 2023. Copy held on ADB file
  • MacDonald, Alix. Age (Melbourne), 26 April 1973, 16
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, MACLEOD B D.
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, MACLEOD B D.
  • Reghenzani, Christine. 'Women Serving in the Royal Australian Navy: The Path Towards Equality 1960 to 2015.' Phd thesis, James Cook University, 2016
  • Royal Australian Navy News. 'Gals have their say the Navy way.' 22 June 1962, 11
  • Royal Australian Navy News. 'New Post for Former Director of Wrans.' 10 August 1979, 3
  • Royal Australian Navy News. 'Retiring Director WRANS and her successor rose from the ranks.' 27 April 1973, 3
  • Stackpool, Andrew. 'Barbara Macleod.' Sydney Morning Herald, 1 February 2000, 35

Additional Resources

Citation details

Christine Reghenzani, 'MacLeod, Barbara Denise (1929–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Barbara MacLeod, n.d.

Barbara MacLeod, n.d.

Australian War Memorial, P03559.001

Life Summary [details]


15 February, 1929
Bunbury, Western Australia, Australia


9 January, 2000 (aged 70)
Mollymook, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.