Women Who Led The Way

October 14th, 2022 - by Brad Gillespie

Changemakers, rule-breakers and risk-takers – we look at the lives and legacies of some of the diverse women who’ve made a difference to our neighbourhoods.

The advocate: Mum Shirl

Much-loved Indigenous leader Mum Shirl left an indelible mark on Sydney and its people.

Of Wiradjuri descent, Shirley Smith was born in Cowra in 1924. As a child, her epilepsy impacted her school attendance, so Shirley’s grandfather took responsibility for much of her education.

After marrying, Shirley and her husband moved to Surry Hills, and she would spend many years living and working in suburbs such as Erskineville and Redfern. When her brother was imprisoned at Long Bay, Shirley often visited him and continued visiting other inmates after her brother’s release. During this time she earned her enduring nickname: when asked by prison staff about her relationship to the prisoners she visited, she’d always reply, “I’m his mum”.

With her epilepsy making stable employment difficult, Shirley relied on the pension, and used her meagre income to support others, in particular children and single mothers. In the 1970s she played a key role in establishing the Aboriginal Children’s Service, Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Black Theatre, Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Housing Company, and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Mum Shirl received an Order of Australia, Order of the British Empire and Parent of the Year award for her tireless work. She died on 28 April 1998 and was honoured with a state funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral. A statue commemorating her life and work can be found at St Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Redfern.

The dancer: Hélène Kirsova

If you’re an Erskineville local, chances are you’ve come across Kirsova 1 and Kirsova 2 playgrounds. And perhaps you’ve wondered about their interesting names.

Hélène Kirsova was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1910 and began taking ballet classes as a child. She continued studying ballet in Paris, and soon joined the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.

In 1936–7, Hélène toured Australia with the Ballets Russes and the country clearly left its mark. She returned to Europe with the company, but headed back to Australia in December 1937 and in February the following year married Erik Fischer, the Danish vice-consul.

Hélène founded a ballet school in Sydney in 1940, and soon after formed the Kirsova Ballet. By the end of 1941, the company would be the first professional ballet company in Australia.

Contributing to society was important to Kirsova, and she donated much of the income raised by her company’s performances to the Red Cross and Legacy War Orphans’ Appeal. She also donated a portion of profits from her 1943 season to buying land in Erskineville for the playgrounds we know today as Kirsova 1 and Kirsova 2.

The mayor: Mary Nielson

Mary Nielson was dedicated to her community.

Born in Waterloo in 1895, Mary witnessed first-hand the rewards of working to benefit others. She was the daughter of Moses Wheeler, the first secretary of the Sydney Trolly and Draymen’s Union, which later became the Transport Workers’ Union.

Mary lived her entire life in Waterloo, and in adulthood became active in the community, serving on the board of Royal South Sydney Hospital. She was a member of the ALP Waterloo branch and helped with community and fundraising events when her husband, John Neilson, was mayor.

In 1945, Mary was elected to Waterloo Municipal Council as its first female alderman. A year later she was elected the first, and only, female mayor of Waterloo.

On her election, Neilson stated that she aimed to improve living conditions for Waterloo residents. This involved establishing baby health centres and community centres, and building cottages for residents living in squalid slum conditions. She was also an advocate for teaching sex education in schools.

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Photo credit: From left to right - Mom Shirl, Hélène Kirsova, Mary Nielson