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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Steele, Joyce (1909–1991)

by Jenny Tilby Stock

This article was published online in 2014

Joyce Steele (1909-1991), politician, was born on 29 May 1909 at Midland Junction, Western Australia, the second of four children of South Australian-born parents Mayo Augustus Wishart, teacher and later head of the local technical school, and his wife Evelyn Vera, née Sampson. Joyce’s happy, outdoor childhood, and her education at Perth College were followed by several secretarial-like jobs, including one organising the domestic arrangements of an eccentric surgeon, Marion Ratcliffe-Taylor. In 1934 she spent two adventurous months at Derby with the family of Dr Theodore Hodge, taking part in efforts to contain a deadly malaria epidemic. While there she met Wilfred Steele, twenty-six years her senior and manager of Yeeda station. They married in St George’s Church of England Cathedral, Perth, on 15 April 1936. After a period in far North Queensland, Wilfred retired from outback life, settling the family in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs in 1939, where their second son was born severely disabled.

After a brief period in 1942 as one of the first two South Australian women announcers with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Steele devoted much of her energy to the educational needs of children with disabilities, including those born deaf as a result of the rubella outbreaks of the early 1940s. She was a driving force behind the opening in 1946 of the South Australian Oral Kindergarten, and was a passionate and persistent advocate for the disabled in a variety of state and national bodies. In 1953 she was awarded Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal. Wishing to influence decision makers in parliament more directly, she first unsuccessfully contested Liberal and Country League (LCL) preselection for a marginal seat in 1956. Three years later, with family support, she went on to beat her local member, Geoffrey Clarke, for preselection for the blue-ribbon seat of Burnside, which she won easily in March. She and Jessie Cooper became the first women to enter the South Australian parliament, an embarrassing sixty-five years after the right had been won.

A conscientious backbencher and local member, in 1961 Steele was appointed the first female member of the governing council of the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT). Widowed in 1964, she became Opposition whip in 1966 after Sir Thomas Playford’s government fell, and was elevated to cabinet when Raymond Steele Hall led the LCL to victory in the 1968 election. As education minister, she began to broaden the curriculum, established regional education offices, ended the bar against married women trainee teachers, and played a key role in the move of the SAIT to The Levels (Mawson Lakes). Fulfilling a core electoral promise, she instituted a ground-breaking inquiry, under Peter Karmel, into South Australia’s education system. But, beset by militancy on the part of the South Australian Institute of Teachers and departmental constraints, she was transferred in early 1970 to the portfolios of Aboriginal affairs, social welfare, and housing, only thirteen weeks before the government lost office.

Although Steele won the new seat of Davenport in the 1970 election, she chose to retire in March 1973 when challenged by Dean Brown, a future premier (1993-96) whom she knew would be preselected in preference to her. She joined the Queen Adelaide Club and continued to be active in several organisations, notably the Phoenix Society and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra subscribers’ committee. She was appointed OBE (1981) for her public and community work.

In a gracious and effective way, Steele paved the way for women in parliament and cabinet in South Australia but, a woman of her class and era, she was out of sympathy with the more confronting aspects of second-wave feminism.  She died on 24 September 1991 in Adelaide and was cremated.  Her daughter and one of her two sons survived her.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Cockburn, Stewart. ‘Should Mothers Go To Work?’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 January 1964, 2
  • Cockburn, Stewart. ‘The Woman Who Upset the Male Applecart.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 January 1984, 2
  • Hutchins, John and Elizabeth Hutchins. To Hear is to Speak: A History of the Cora Barclay Centre for Children with Hearing Impairment 1945-94. Gilberton, SA: Cora Barclay Centre, 1995
  • Hyams, Bernard. ‘Education.’ In The Dunstan Decade, edited by Andrew Parkin and Allan Patience, 70-90. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1981
  • Steele, Joyce. Interview by Anne Geddes, September 1984. State Library of South Australia
  • Steele, Joyce. Interviews by Meg Denton, including speeches at Mrs Steele’s eightieth birthday party, 1989-91. Transcript. State Library of South Australia.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jenny Tilby Stock, 'Steele, Joyce (1909–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/steele-joyce-15719/text26911, published online 2014, accessed online 30 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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