Backward Glance: Women of the Sunshine Coast
  • Wednesday 01 March 2017
International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 and today we acknowledge the development and progress of the Sunshine Coast would not have been possible without the contributions of women from all walks of life. 

Woman have contributed through their labour, intelligence, handicrafts, community spirit and, through many organisations, individuals have given of their time freely for the betterment of the Sunshine Coast.

Courageous pioneer women came to this area when it was nothing more than scrub and rainforest. 

Women worked the land, raised their children and laboured tirelessly through all seasons in an extremely isolated and difficult environment.

During the war years, women were forced to undertake manual labour and non-traditional jobs to keep their farms and communities viable as men were called to war. 

They became the farm labourers, stockman, shop assistants and mechanics, as well as performing their traditional roles as mothers, wives and care givers. 

Women were also the organisers of the many fundraising activities to support the troops. 

Amelia Luke did her nursing training and went on to establish Sunny Brae Hospital, a private hospital in Eumundi which aided soldiers when they returned from the Great War. 

Alice Steggall and other women were indispensable to the community as home midwives in the Sunshine Coast district. 

Nambour’s Selangor Private Hospital was established by two brave ex-Australian Army nurses, Sister Christine Oxley and Sister Dorothy Ralston. 

Sister Oxley was taken prisoner and interred in Malaya’s Selangor War camp and Sister Ralston saw active service in Singapore, thankfully evacuated just before Singapore fell to the Japanese during WWII. 

The nurses set up an old home in Nambour using their savings and a war service loan calling the building Selangor after the POW camp. 

With tremendous effort the two women never faltered opening the hospital in 1947 and dutifully looking after the people of the district including returned veterans from both WWI and WWII. 

In 2017, Selangor still looks after Australian veterans and those in the Sunshine Coast community.

The post-war years saw a change for women. 

Some freedom from traditional women’s roles came as women moved to higher education and new careers. 

Maleny Library is named after Peg Burnett, a stalwart who worked tirelessly in that community. 

Peg’s mother and a friend had been instrumental in establishing Maleny’s first library, applying to the School of Arts headquarters in Ann Street, Brisbane for assistance. 

This original library was in the annex of the Maleny School of Arts Hall, Maple Street. 

A paid librarian, Betty Blacklaw, managed the library until her marriage. 

Peg then successfully applied for the job and following training in Brisbane at the Ann Street Library, she took over the role, running the library until her own marriage in 1939.

As Peg said, “married women didn’t work then”, but this did not end her involvement with the library service or the community. 

Women were also active in various sporting activities. 

Most notable were mountain climbers Jean Easton and Norma Dimes who climbed Mt Lindesay and other local peaks including the iconic Glass House Mountains during the 1930s. 

Beauty pageants, now a thing of the past, were a popular activity for young women. 

June Upton, a local Nambour identity, worked tirelessly for the Miss Australia Quest until its conclusion in 2000. 

June guided many young women through the rigors of the beauty pageant and was rewarded an OAM for her efforts to this charity. 

One Sunshine Coast beauty involved in the quest was Helen Newton, who won Miss Australia in 1968. 

Of course, being a mecca for water sports, surfing and lifesaving the Miss Surf Girl Quests were also very popular and well supported events.

Women were noticeably absent for many years in the realm of politics, but by the 1960s, both Landsborough Shire and Maroochy Shire had serving female councillors. 

Landsborough Shire Division 5 Councillor Miriam Westaway was the first female elected to local government on the Sunshine Coast. 

Her period of representation in council was from April 29, 1961 to March 30, 1973. 

In 1918, the then Miriam Costello, was one of the first teachers at Caloundra State School. 

She married William “Bill” Westaway, of Meridan Plains, and was a popular figure in the Caloundra community. 

She worked tirelessly on the RSL Women’s Auxiliary from 1920 and was their president for 12 years. 

She started the Caloundra CWA Branch with Mrs A Lamkin in September 1937 and was a foundation member of the Red Cross in Caloundra. 

During WWII she was the superintendent of the Citizen First Aid Post from 1942 until 1945. 

Miriam Westaway supported many local charities and sporting groups. 

As a lifelong member of Metropolitan Caloundra Surf Life Saving Club, she was fondly known as Aunty Miriam. 

Caloundra’s Westaway Towers is named after Miriam Westaway.

In 1967, Elizabeth “Betty” Daniels was the first woman elected to the Maroochy Shire Council. 

She represented Division 4 from 1967 until 1984. 

Elizabeth made an enormous contribution to the Sunshine Coast by being a catalyst for the establishment of many women’s organisations. 

Elizabeth's community work saw her involvement in the formation and service to at least 19 organisations. 

She was the branch secretary of Red Cross, foundation member of Civil Defence Maroochydore and Mooloolaba Yacht Club, Sunshine Coast Tourism and Development Board director and Central Sunshine Coast Citizens Club president. 

Buderim’s Elizabeth Daniels Park and the RSL’s Elizabeth Daniels Lodge bear her name. 

Elizabeth was recognised for her outstanding contributions, receiving the British Empire Medal in 1986 and being Quota Women of the Year in 1979.

She was also made a Rotary Paul Harris Fellow and listed in a Who’s Who of Australian Women. 

Easter weekend marks the Ma and Pa Bendall Memorial Surfing contest held at Moffat Beach. 

During the 1960s-1970s, Ma Bendall, along with her husband Pa, surfed the waves of Australia and Hawaii. 

Ma’s influence on beach culture and the surfing industry during the formative years of surfboard riding was significant. 

Her impact is well documented in the archives of Australian surfing history. 

She helped pave the way for women in the male dominated sport and was loved by the surfing fraternity. 

Their boards, emblazoned with the words “Ma and Pa” are on display at the accredited Australian surfing museum at Torquay in Victoria.

Women have held management positions in many organisations including sporting clubs, business women’s clubs and other organisations. 

The Women’s Information and Support Association operated in the 80s and was the catalyst for many of the women’s services of today, such as domestic violence services, family planning and women’s refuges. 

One of the largest women’s organisation on the Sunshine Coast is the Country Women’s Association which has had branches across the region. 

CWA aims to improve the lives of women and children, especially those living in rural and remote Australia, and they also provide material aid to Asia Pacific countries. 

Many weddings, dances, significant events have been catered for by the CWA and it has been an integral part of the Sunshine Coast community.

Women have been movers and shakers, leaders and vital participants in the community life of the Sunshine Coast since the first settlers came to make their homes here.

Thanks to Sunshine Coast Council’s Heritage Library Officers for the words and Picture Sunshine Coast for the images. 

In 2017 we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Naming of the Sunshine Coast. For more information on this milestone anniversary visit

Image captions
Hero image: Woman climbers sitting near the top of Beerwah Mountain which is one of the Glass House Mountains, ca 1945.

Carousel images:
Image 1: Ladies participating in a fashion parade for Mrs Bendixon, Nambour, 1960
Image 2: Order of the Rainbow for Girls Charter night, C.W.A. Hall, Nambour, 15 May 1963.
Image 3: Staff at the Queensland Egg Marketing Board Depot, Nambour, 1959. Women from the Board's Brisbane office pictured training four local women as graders.
Image 4: US Colonel Whitney aide to General Douglas MacArthur with Jean MacArthur, wife of General Douglas MacArthur, outside Strathallan Guesthouse, Caloundra, ca 1944.
Image 5: Women stringing and hanging tobacco in a curing barn in the Glass House Mountains, 1964.
Image 6: Ma Bendall, surfing legend of Caloundra, ready to set off on a surfing adventure with suitcases and surfboard.