Celebrating Canberra’s ‘tour de force’ Marie Coleman at 90


This March Women on Boards celebrates female trailblazers who have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways for Women's History Month, starting with Canberra 'tour de force' Marie Coleman, on the eve of her 90th birthday.


​From social activists and journalists to politicians and educators, Women's History Month celebrates the diverse contribution women have made in Australia's history. In our Women's History Month series, we asked members of the WOB team to nominate an Australian woman who has inspired them, and why. 

First up WOB Executive Chair Ruth Medd celebrates the life and achievements of Marie Coleman, AO, PSM who turns 90 this month. In this tribute, Ruth - who has known Marie for nearly 40 years - writes of the impact one of the doyens of Canberra has had on her career.

Celebrating Marie Coleman at 90

By Ruth Medd

I have known Marie Coleman since 1986 when I was working at the Public Service Board in Canberra.  In those days, the PSB as a central agency of government held a certain cache in the federal bureaucratic pecking order.  In part because the PSB approved all new positions. In other words, Departmental Secretaries were beholden!

After a while as an executive at the PSB I was invited to a gathering of senior PSB women at one of Canberra’s watering holes. This activity was convened by Marie, and although I was invited by an existing member of the group, I suspect Marie was consulted on prospective members.

This was my first exposure to a supportive and influential network of senior women. Women who were very much in a minority at the time in the higher echelons of the PSB. The importance of this network was not only in the camaraderie we created, but in its ability to grease the wheels of policy development; particularly as policy impacted women. Which of course is most policy.

Attention to the impact of policy on women had been gradual over the years and social change comes slowly. Until 1966, women employed in the Australian public service were faced with a choice that is difficult to comprehend today. Under the “marriage bar,” they were required to give up their jobs once they married – leaving many with the choice of relinquishing their paid work or attempting to conceal their new marital status. Or, perish the thought, ‘living in sin’.

Marie was an early warrior for female equality and has spent more than 60 years campaigning against the gender pay gap and other social injustices. Just read below to see all the firsts Marie achieved and the honors she amassed. She did this on behalf of all women and always to advance the cause of women. To this day she has kept a sharp eye on the hidden impacts that government policy continues to have on women and remains a tour de force on the Canberra political scene. 

It has been my honour to know Marie since those early years in Canberra, to have fought with her on various causes and to have served with her on social policy and other committees over the years. She has been a trailblazer, a mentor and friend to me and many other women across the years. On behalf of all at Women on Boards, I wish her a very happy 90th birthday and many more to come. 


Who is Marie Coleman?

  • Marie Coleman had a front-row seat to many of the developments in the women’s movement in Australia in the last century. As a public servant in the Whitlam and the Fraser governments, she was active in providing a positive outlook for women during a period of massive social change. 
  • An only child - born Marie Burns in 1933 in Dubbo - was the first woman to head an Australian national statutory authority and spent over 60 years campaigning against the gender pay gap and other social injustices.
  • Marie attended University of Sydney in 1950, studying economics and politics for an Arts degree, then completing a diploma in social studies. She was also editor of the university’s student newspaper Honi Soit - only the second woman to hold that title. She was talented in the classroom and on the field, playing Inter-Varsity cricket, as well as international debating,[and being a member of the university's Student Representative Council.
  • In 1972 she was appointed as the first Chair of the National Social Welfare Commission, becoming the first woman in Australia to head a Commonwealth government/national statutory agency/authority, becoming “the first woman to hold the powers of Permanent Head under the Public Service Act.” Four years later, Marie was appointed Director of the Office of Childcare.
  • In 1989, Marie became a founding member (Secretary) of the National Foundation for Australian Women (NFAW), a board of Directors working to establish the Australian Women’s Archives Project.
  • Following her retirement from the Australian Public Service in 1995, Marie became a columnist for the Canberra Times from 1995 until 2003 when she became Chair of the Advisory Board to the Hindmarsh Education Centre in Quamby Youth Detention Centre, ACT.
  • She currently chairs the Social Policy Committee of the NFAW, which has played a leadership role for national women’s organisations in research and analysis of the impacts of the former WorkChoices and Welfare to Work policies on women. 
  • Marie spearheaded the campaign which resulted in the establishment of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into a national paid maternity, paternity and parental leave scheme. She has also lead a national project with the National Women’s Alliance promoting the expansion of affordable rental housing. She has spent her life advocating for women and has had a significant impact on our country.


  • In 1989 Marie was awarded the Public Service Medal for contributions to public administration, and in 2001 was awarded the Centenary Medal by the Australian Institute of Public Administration for service to Australian society and government as also induced into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.
  • 2006 saw Marie bestowed with an Edna Ryan Award ("The EDNAS"), for her service to government and in 2011 she was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and ACT’s Senior Australian of the Year for her work as an advocate of women.
  • In 2011 Marie was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for distinguished service to the advancement of women, particularly through the National Foundation for Australian Women and the Australian Women's Archives project.

Event: In conversation with Marie Coleman AO PSM

​On the occasion of her 90th birthday the 2023 Pamela Denoon Lecture will be given by Marie Coleman AO PSM in Canberra on the topic ‘Reflections on feminism – past, present and future’

Date: Thursday, 9 March 2023
Time: 6-7:30pm ( refreshments from 5:30pm)
Venue: Hedley Bull Lecture Theatre 1, ANU
Get your tickets HERE

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