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Stella Edith Swinney (1911–1999)

by Meghan Adams

This article was published online in 2023

Stella Swinney, Australian Information, Service, 1973

Stella Swinney, Australian Information, Service, 1973

National Library of Australia, 44035888

Stella Edith Swinney (1911–1999), army officer and political advisor, was born on 15 March 1911 in North Sydney, New South Wales, younger child of New South Wales-born parents Herbert Augustus Swinney, chemist, and his wife Ida Beatrice Swinney, née Foskett. Stella attended North Sydney Girls’ High School where she enjoyed tennis, riding, and swimming. Her father died when she was twelve. She received a teachers’ scholarship to attend the University of Sydney (BA, 1933), graduating with honours in psychology. During the Depression she was unable to find work as a teacher, and instead began working in 1933 for the department store, Farmer and Co., as assistant to the staff training officer, before taking on the role herself in 1937.

After the outbreak of World War II, in 1941 Swinney joined, first as an assistant commandant, the Women’s Australian National Service (WANS), which trained women for roles traditionally filled by men, including as signallers, first aid officers, and mechanics. She trained as a firefighter and was appointed liaison officer for the training headquarters of the Women’s Fire Auxiliary. The success of the WANS paved the way for the formation of the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS), which she joined in December 1941 with the rank of lieutenant. She rose quickly and was appointed captain in March the following year. By July 1943 she was serving as the assistant controller of the AWAS at Victoria Barracks in Sydney with the temporary rank of major. Tragedy struck that September when her brother, Tasman, was killed in an aircraft accident while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force in England.

Swinney was demobilised in August 1944 and appointed to the re-establishment division of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, which assisted service personnel to return to civilian life. As an investigation officer in Melbourne she worked predominantly with war widows and ex-servicewomen, supporting them to obtain education, vocational guidance, and rehabilitation. By late 1946 she had become the principal of Macquarie Secretarial School in central Sydney, and later worked as personnel officer for a city retail store. She also served as the first chairwoman of the peace-time program of the WANS, of which she was a former board member, and as president of the AWAS Ex-officers’ Association.

In 1948 Swinney was appointed as an interviewing and selection officer in the Department of Immigration based at Australia House in London, where she spent three years working mainly with women hoping to migrate to Australia. She returned to Australia in 1951 and worked until December 1953 as secretary of the University of Sydney Women’s Union. With the army struggling to attract recruits at this time, it turned again to women, in 1951 establishing the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps, with a Citizen Military Forces arm soon following. In 1953 Swinney was appointed commanding officer of the No. 4 Company, WRAAC (CMF), Eastern Command, where she served alongside many of her former AWAS comrades until she was transferred to the Reserve of Officers in June 1959. From 1962 she was principal of Duval College for women at the University of New England, Armidale, a position she held until August 1972.

Swinney moved to the Canberra suburb of Waramanga and in June 1973 accepted a three-month appointment as women’s advisor to Doug Anthony, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Country Party, with whom she was acquainted. This was just months after Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had appointed Elizabeth Reid as first advisor on women’s affairs. Swinney’s role was to consult with women’s groups and report on ways to involve women in Country Party politics and policy making. She professed no prior active involvement in politics, and informed journalists pointedly that she would discuss neither abortion nor her age.

In Canberra, Swinney became an active member of the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Returned & Services League of Australia, for the rest of her life. In her sixties she was described as having ‘steel grey hair, sparkling eyes, a warm sense of humour and a refreshingly crisp, no nonsense style’ (Canberra Times 1973, 3), and as having ‘a brisk walk and a brisk way of talking’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1973, 2). She died on 4 June 1999 at Morling Lodge Nursing Home, Red Hill, and was cremated at Norwood Crematorium, Mitchell. No immediate family survived her. Over the course of her life, Swinney gained a reputation as a trailblazer and as an advocate for women and the veteran community.

Research edited by Peter Woodley

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Researcher Has Direct Approach.’ 11 June 1973, 3
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, Stella Edith Swinney
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, Stella Edith Swinney
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Anthony Job for Woman.’ 8 June 1973, 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Appointee for London.’ 29 June 1948, 2

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Citation details

Meghan Adams, 'Swinney, Stella Edith (1911–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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