Colonial Women in the ADB

Colonial Women in the ADB
L-R: writer, Catherine E. Andrews (1861-1915); songwriter for Waltzing Matilda, Christina Macpherson (1864-1936); matron, Sarah Birt (1809-1890); pioneer selector, Ann Baulch (1814-1901)

The Australian Dictionary of Biography is currently calling for nominations for its Colonial Women project.

Since the first volume of the ADB was published in 1966, women have been underrepresented. Over time, as ideas about who is important and who should be chosen as examples of Australian society have changed, there have been efforts to respond to this imbalance. These efforts have included a supplementary volume of “missing person” entries in 2005, a two-volume biographical register of names who have just “missed out” on ADB articles and various spin-off projects.

The Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography, which has recently published online entries for Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, aims to help redress the underrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

Similarly, the Colonial Women project seeks to improve the gender balance of the ADB. Women still only account for about 12 per cent of all ADB entries. For the colonial period, the situation is even more worrying, with less than 4 per cent of articles recognising women. This project will add 1500 new entries for women who flourished during, or prior to, the colonial period. It is a large and ambitious initiative which will significantly increase the representation of women in the ADB.

The advisory sub-committee for the project was led from 2016 to 2021 by the General Editor Professor Melanie Nolan with committee members Professor Joy Damousi, Dr Carolyn Rasmussen, Professor Pat Grimshaw and Dr Liz Rushen. It oversaw the first stage of the project, to establish a list of possible candidates for inclusion. This involved developing a template and publicising the issue, which included the popular ‘Recovered Lives’ anthology.

As of the beginning of 2021, we have received over 800 nominations. We are still accepting nominations, and will continue to do so until we have received at least 1500 names. To qualify for the project women must have lived their 'productive' years in the colonial period, although they can have died in the 1900s.

Meanwhile we are forming a Women Australia Working Party in 2021 as the key advisory body on the broader issue of women’s representation in the ADB. Their first task will be to seek funding for the Colonial Women’s project and to begin the process of commissioning ADB articles.

If you would like to nominate a woman (or women) for the project, please email

Before nominating, check to see that your nomination does not already have an entry in the ADB and has not already been nominated (a full list of nominations can be found below). In your email, please include the following information to the best of your knowledge:

  1. Full name(s) (including all married and maiden names).
  2. Year(s) of birth and death, or approximate dates.
  3. Reasons for nomination (the ADB includes individuals who are both significant and representative).
  4. Any known sources (primary and secondary) that might assist a future researcher.
  5. Any suggested authors or scholars with expertise of the woman (or women) being nominated.
  6. Any photographs or artistic representations of the woman (or women) being nominated.

A full list of all nominations to the project can be viewed at: Nominations_for_the_Colonial_Women_in_the_ADB_Project_June_2021.pdf (PDF, 520 KB).

To learn more about the colonial women in the ADB project, please see ‘Reshaping the Australian Dictionary of Biography: Feminist interventions’ on the Australian Women’s History Network, and the ‘Recovered Lives’ initiative with Inside Story and The Canberra Times.


Why is the number 1500 significant for the project?

It is an ambitious but not impossible figure. Adding 1500 entries to the ADB would raise the proportion of women in the colonial period to a third.

I have emailed my nomination to the Colonial Women email server. When will I know if my nomination has been considered by the committee?

After emailing your nomination, our research officer will confirm receipt of your nomination. The project is still in its early stages so it will be several months before the committee will be in a position to assess the nominations. We will notify nominators as soon as possible.

Can I nominate more than one colonial woman for the project?

Yes, there is no limit on the number of nominations an individual or organisation can make.

Should I include references to newspaper articles I found on Trove in my nomination?

Usually not. Our researchers will be able to quickly trace online records for most nominations, including birth and death certificates. If you suspect that the newspaper or magazine article might be difficult to locate (for example, if it is not properly transcribed or there is a misspelling), please include the reference in your nomination.

I have information about one of the existing nominations. Would the ADB like to hear from me?

Yes, absolutely. For some of the women who have been nominated we only have basic biographical details so if you can provide further information, or contact with descendants, we would be pleased to hear from you. For any inquiries relating to existing nomination, you can email our research officer at:

Can I nominate a woman from the pre-colonial period?

Yes, the sub-committee welcomes nominations for women from the pre-colonial period. As the ADB is currently in the process of editing the Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography we recommend you consider nominating women to this project if they are eligible. For more information on the IADB, see the project website: You can also read more about the project in a recent Conversation article by Managing Editor Dr Malcolm Allbrook: ‘Indigenous lives, the “cult of forgetfulness”, and the Australian Dictionary of Biography’.

Updated:  21 June 2021/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications