1894 - 1964 | NSW | War correspondent & editor
“Connie” Robertson was a war correspondent and magazine editor who ran the women’s supplement at the Sydney Morning Herald for 26 years from 1936, transforming the way women were portrayed in the media. She insisted on coverage of social issues and hard news as well as the traditional fare of cooking, fashion and beauty tips. She highlighted women who excelled in areas traditionally considered masculine. Connie had a good eye for trends and in the post-War period introduced her readers to such exotic overseas imports such as Dior, seagrass matting and moussaka. She believed passionately that women could succeed in male-dominated professions while retaining the ideal of femininity.
As a young teenager, Connie Stephens met poet Mary Gilmore, the editor of the Australian Worker’s women’s page, at the office of the literary monthly the Bookfellow, where Connie filed and typed and ran errands and cleaned the office for her father, A. G. Stephens, the journal’s editor and proprietor. Gilmore, a financial supporter of the Bookfellow, became her heroine and role model and from then she was determined to be an editor.
Constance Stephens was born in Sydney on 16 October 1895, the eldest of six children of Constance and Alfred Stephens who as editor of the Bulletin’s Red Page from 1895 to 1906 transformed it into the country’s most influential and widely read literary page. After he left the Bulletin, he began the Bookfellow, a venture that drained resources from his family and eventually ruined him. Educated by her father, Connie worked at the Bookfellow from 1911 to 1916, meeting many of Sydney’s literary figures and becoming adept at aspects of editing.
When the Bookfellow closed, Connie began her journalistic career as a proof reader on the afternoon Sydney daily, the Sun, progressing to “social editress” of the popular Sunday Sun. Then she built up the daily Sun’s women’s pages and developed its women’s supplements under editor Monty Grover, a master of tabloid journalism. Backed by increasing advertising, the women’s sections aimed at the interests and concerns of the traditional homemaker, went from strength to strength.
By 1927, Connie’s reputation was so well established she was chosen to represent the women’s sections of all Australian evening papers as one of only two women journalists to report the historic opening of Federal Parliament in Canberra. She was able to enlist many of the stars of the Sydney writing world as voluntary contributors to the first issue of Ink which she edited for the New South Wales Society of Women Writers. Flora Eldershaw, Marjorie Barnard, Ethel Turner and Amy Mack contributed stories, Kenneth Slessor, Mary Gilmore and Zora Cross provided poems and there were articles by Brian Fitzpatrick and Florence Baverstock and illustrations by Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor.
Officially, Connie retired in 1928 when, at the age of 32, she married journalist Bill Robertson but their honeymoon was to Hawaii where she covered the first Pan Pacific Women’s Conference sending stories back to the Sun where they made the front page. When her first and only child, a daughter Margot, was born, she went back to work after six months carrying her baby in a basket which she put in a filing cabinet drawer while she worked at her new job as editor of the weekly Woman’s Budget. When it was incorporated in a new magazine Woman, established in 1934 to compete with the Australian Women’s Weekly, Connie became editor.
Two years later, Connie moved to the prestigious position of women’s editor of the Sydney Morning Herald where she was to remain for 26 years becoming an institution in Sydney journalism. She established a formidable reputation presiding over a staff of eight “with a majesty all the more absolute because it was so quiet”. Blunders occurred rarely as reporters worked under constant pressure to meet Connie’s exacting standards covering society balls and weddings and climbing up rope ladders in their high heels to get stories of celebrities arriving by ship.
Chic, black-haired and quiet, she was a versatile journalist who wrote, subbed, did layouts and checked page proofs on the stone. She prided herself on getting hard news as well as “social” news into the women’s section and had a flair for recognising and passing on new trends in fashion, home design and cooking. She included articles on books and authors and social issues and, reflecting her own and her staff’s status as women doing skilled work, she also included stories on women performing work usually considered a male preserve.
In the early stages of World War II as the tenor of the women’s pages reflected women entering the workforce in greater numbers taking over jobs previously done by men, Connie tried to get permission to go to the Middle East to report on the war work being undertaken by women. The Minister for the Army, Percy Spender, appeared to entertain her request although the Government had banned women journalists from going to theatres of war. But the Minister for Information, Senator Harry Foll, was adamant. Although Foll acknowledged the press would welcome a woman’s angle on the life of Australian women on active service, he believed all war stories were being covered by the male official war correspondents.
Women journalists continued to be banned until early in 1943 when the Department of Information organised a tour by eight women correspondents to write about women in the services in centres in New South Wales and Queensland. Connie, the most senior journalist in the group, represented the ABC and The Age as well as the Sydney Morning Herald.
During the next two months, she published about a dozen stories datelined “Somewhere in Australia”.
Most featured newsworthy women in the AWAS, WAAAF and WRANS chosen to work in highly secret specialised technical positions. Her first article described WAAAFs doing work so “hush hush” they were padlocked by the male officer in charge inside the operational structure where they worked in a secret bush location.
Connie found other WAAAFs working as photo-interpreters and draughtswomen preparing target maps for pilots carrying out bombing raids over enemy territory, another working as a flight-rigger and one with hammer and chisel stripping a tailplane. At an army base, in the first week of March 1943, she observed AWAS servicewomen plotting the course of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, a pivotal battle of the Pacific War. At a northern operational base, she wrote of AWAS working on bearings for the ack-ack guns guarding the coastline and hoping that before long the gun position officer will also be a girl.
Patricia Clarke is a former journalist, now a writer and editor. She has published a dozen books on Australian women writers and the media.
Constance Robertson (nee Stephens), c1920. Courtesy of Fairfax
Robertson, Constance (Connie) 1895-1964’, Julia Horne, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. II, 1988
Connie Sweetheart: The story of Connie Robertson, Valerie Lawson, William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1990
‘Somewhere in Australia’, Constance Robertson, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February– 20 April 1943.