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10 Inspirational Australian Women’s Stories You Need to Hear

International Women’s Day, held annually on 8 March, is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This day – as well as the whole month of March, which happens to be Women’s History Month – marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. International Women’s Day is celebrated across Australia by organisations, universities and individuals.

International Women’s Day 2024 is poised to be especially powerful with the UN dedicating this year’s theme to investing in women. “Invest in women: Accelerate progress” is a much-needed push for governments to prioritise gender-responsive financing and increase public spending on essential services and social protection.

In celebration of this important day, we’ve compiled fascinating stories from some of the most inspiring Australian women. From women’s rights activists in Australian history to famous Australian migrant women, you can read their incredible stories below.

Edith Cowan

Got a $50 banknote? Take a look at the woman on the back – that’s Edith Cowan, the first female member of the Australian Parliament and one of the most renowned women’s rights activists in Australian history.

Edith used her term in Parliament to promote migrant welfare, infant health centres and women’s rights. Her key achievement was the introduction of the Women’s Legal Status Act in 1923, which aimed to open professional pathways to women that were previously reserved for men, such as practising law.

Chanel Contos

Chanel Contos is revolutionising the conversation on sexual consent in Australia and beyond. As a student and activist, she gained international attention in 2021 with her Teach Us Consent initiative, urging better consent education after her Instagram poll unveiled numerous sexual assault stories from young women.

Her advocacy sparked a nationwide conversation, leading to significant actions like collaborations with the New South Wales Police and meetings with politicians, including former Prime Minister Scott Morrison. With her book, “Consent Laid Bare,” published in 2023, awards such as the 2021 Australian Human Rights Awards Young People’s Medal and a spot on BBC’s 100 Women list, Contos’s journey is not just inspirational but a catalyst for change.

Linda Burney

Linda Burney has broken barriers and made history by becoming the first Indigenous woman to serve in a federal cabinet position in Australia. Her political career started in 2003 as the Member for Canterbury in the New South Wales Parliament, and since then she has achieved numerous milestones, including becoming the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and later to the Australian House of Representatives. Burney has been a passionate advocate for Indigenous rights and issues, including addressing the high rates of incarceration of Indigenous Australians and promoting the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. She is also a strong advocate for social justice and human rights issues for refugees and asylum seekers.

Burney’s contributions to politics and advocacy have earned her recognition and awards, including the Officer of the Order of Australia in 2013 and the Outstanding Alumni Award by the University of New England in 2019. Her inspiring journey and commitment to social justice make her one of the most inspirational women in Australia.

Ash Barty

Anyone who follows tennis would have seen Ash Barty’s meteoric rise to the top of the game. Originally from Ipswich, Queensland, this 23-year-old is now world number one, making her the second Australian woman to hold the title. Barty is also the National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador for Tennis Australia and works to promote Indigenous participation in the sport. She was honoured as Young Australian of the Year in 2020.

Tennis aficionados supported her decision to take a two-year hiatus from the game when things got slow on the court. Since then, she has returned stronger than ever. A firm believer in the power of enjoying what you do, Barty has found her balance in dedicating herself to her sport while still spending time with her family.

Grace Tame

Grace Tame is an absolute powerhouse of courage and resilience, and her unwavering dedication to raising awareness about sexual violence has made her a role model for survivors and allies alike. As a survivor of sexual abuse herself, Tame has turned her trauma into a powerful tool for change, using her platform as 2021’s Australian of the Year to speak out against sexual violence and advocate for systemic change. Tame has made waves across the world for her fearless and unapologetic approach to addressing this critical issue and her tireless work to empower survivors and give them a voice.

Whether you are a survivor yourself or simply an ally in the fight against sexual violence, Tame’s work is a reminder that every voice matters, and that we all have a role to play in creating a more just world. Find out more about her story in her recent memoir, The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner, in which 75 per cent of profits go towards fighting sexual abuse.

Shemara Wikramanayake

In 2019, CEO of Macquarie Group, Shemara Wikramanayake, was named Australia’s highest-paid CEO with a salary of $18 million. But her list of impressive accolades doesn’t end there: she was also listed on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International list for her outstanding achievements.

After joining the company in 1987, Shemara worked in 15 different roles in six countries before becoming the first Asian-Australian woman to head an ASX 200-listed company. As a member of the UN’s Climate Finance Leadership Initiative, her focus areas include climate-resilient investments and green technology investment. She has led efforts that have resulted in raising $1 billion for investment in renewables.

As the CEO at Macquarie, she’s also made huge strides for women in the workplace, enhancing flexible work arrangements and easing childcare costs.

Melanie Perkins

Odds are, if you’ve taken a graphic design course or created a thumbnail for social media, you’ve used Canva. But did you know that the wildly successful platform was actually co-founded by an Australian woman? Entrepreneur and CEO Melanie Perkins launched the Canva journey back in 2007 as a University of Western Australia student. Now, she is recognised as Australia’s third-richest woman and one of the youngest female CEOs of a tech start-up valued at over $1 billion.

However, few people know about Melanie and Canva’s humble beginnings. In fact, the empire was born in her mother’s Perth loungeroom, which she turned into her office to develop and grow the business. A problem-solver by nature, Melanie founded Canva with the goal of making design simple for all. Today, her software has more than 20 million people from more than 190 countries using it – largely for free.

Hon Julia Gillard AC

Without a doubt, one of the most iconic and inspiring Australian women in history is Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister. Serving from 2010 to 2013, Julia was the 27th Prime Minister of Australia, delivering nation-changing policies throughout her term.

Prior to her political career, she studied arts and law at The University of Adelaide. Upon graduating, she began working as a solicitor in Melbourne before eventually joining politics and making history in the sector. She now serves as Chair of Beyond Blue, one of Australia’s most prominent mental health awareness organisations.

Discover more about Julia by reading her memoir, My Story, or listening to her unforgettable speech highlighting the misogyny women continually face in personal and professional contexts.

Jo Horgan

Joining our list of inspiring Australian women is co-CEO of MECCA Brands, Jo Horgan, who founded the brand in 1997. Through her work, Jo has redefined the Australian beauty landscape, fostering an environment of innovation and excellence for her customers. With over 98 stores throughout Australia and New Zealand, Mecca Brands is one of the most well-recognised beauty enterprises in Oceania. Not to mention, the company has ranked in the BRW Best Places to Work Top 5 for the past four years in a row.

When asked about her business plan, she responded simply yet strongly: “I had an idea and was pretty bloody-minded about pursuing it.”

Senator Mehreen Faruqi

Mehreen Faruqi is an influential Pakistani-Australian politician and engineer, celebrated as the first Muslim woman in the Australian Parliament. Moving to Australia from Pakistan in 1992, she built a career in civil engineering before stepping into politics. Faruqi then joined the Australian Greens and was appointed to the New South Wales Legislative Council, advocating for environmental protection, women’s rights, racial equality and LGBTIQ+ rights. In 2018, she expanded her impact nationally by becoming a Senator for New South Wales.

Faruqi’s dedication to social justice and sustainability marks her as a pivotal figure in fighting for a fairer and greener Australia.