1939 - 2004 | Canberra | Political Correspondent
Gay Davidson was the first female Canberra political correspondent for a major newspaper in the early 1970s and the first woman president of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. As president of the National Press Club, she reformed finances and realised her vision of establishing club premises, which have since become an important Canberra venue for televised political speeches and discussions. At The Canberra Times, she helped and mentored dozens of female journalists as they entered the male-dominated world of federal political journalism
Miringa Gay Davidson was, in 1974, the first woman to become political correspondent for a metropolitan newspaper in Australia. She was also, famously, the woman who liberated the lavatories in the federal parliament, so short of loos for women in those days that there were none for women senators near the Senate chambers - and precious few for female members of the House of Representatives either.
Davidson simply began using the men’s lavatory in the corridor opposite The Canberra Times bureau. Eventually the Sergeant at Arms recognised her coup by removing the words “Men’s Toilet” and substituting the word “Toilet”. It is a designated sacred site in the Old Parliament House, now titled the Museum of Australian Democracy.
Another indication of her operating at a time which might seem strange to modern journalists was that she twice had to leave The Canberra Times hurriedly so as to give birth, slightly prematurely, to daughters. On both occasions, her first visitor was to be an executive of the newspaper, anxious to get her signature on a resignation note. There was no maternity leave in those days, even if Davidson was welcomed back when she was ready.
Gay Davidson was born in New Zealand, and having studied at Canterbury University completed a cadetship at the Christchurch Press. By the time she and her then husband came to Australia in 1967, she had worked in print, on radio and in television.
Strictly, Australian journalism recognised no distinctions for women, but in practice most female journalists were relegated to lifestyle topics and excluded from police rounds and politics. But Davidson arrived at The Canberra Times at a moment when women were challenging those restrictions and taking up new roles in the newsroom.
Even before she was well recognised for her knowledge of politics, public policy and economics, Davidson was reporting the doings of the local administration, the planning authorities and the rapid growth of the national capital. She had a bright and well-informed column on page three. She moved into writing acute and well informed news and commentary on health, education, and social welfare policy, as well as public administration -- an area of consuming interest to readers in a public service city.
Davidson did not become political correspondent and bureau chief as a result of any act of tokenism, but as a natural development of the fields in which she was writing, and the authority and expertise she had developed.
She knew most of the senior bureaucrats in Canberra, and, she was often, with her husband Ken Davidson, entertaining them at their house in Hobart Avenue. It was a salon where politics and policy, as well as informed if informal discussion of its progress through the bureaucratic mills, was discussed over wine and food.
Guests might be senior Treasury officials, health and social policy academics and officials - sometimes getting more opportunity to be heard at high levels of policy than anywhere else - politicians, minders as well as other journalists, friends and passers-by.
Davidson, herself a senior writer and mother, was equally hostess and enthusiastic participant in debate, mother hen to her children and others with professional or domestic problems, and a superb cook, well able to move guests about as she whipped up food and insisted they stay for dinner.
She was a natural mentor, guide and friend to a younger generation of women getting into the reporting of politics and public policy. She adopted lame ducks at all levels of the trade and was inordinately thoughtful when people had disasters in their lives.
Her family was later to endure its own tragedies, as when her younger daughter Kiri died of a rare and deadly brain disease, as a complication of measles – a disease that had come into the family during a federal election campaign.
Later, Davidson was to use her expertise and her contacts to make politicians, health officials and the public far more aware of the risks of measles, then regarded by many as a fairly harmless childhood disease. She became one of the causes of, and the public faces of, the Bicentennial Measles Campaign.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, Davidson became one of The Canberra Times’s senior commentators and editorial writers before moving into public relations, as well the preparation and editing of major departmental policy statements.
It was to be mixed with community activism in positions with hospital boards, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and various local government planning and development boards. But she remained closely involved with journalism, as a long-term office holder in the Australian Journalists’ Association, a president of the parliamentary press gallery and as president and board member of the National Press Club.
Jack Waterford, a former editor of The Canberra Times, was a colleague and friend of Gay Davidson.
Davidson with Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith at the National Press Club. Courtesy of Fairfax
Portrait of Gay Davidson, first woman bureau chief in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, interviewing Frank Crean in his office, Parliament House, Canberra, 1975. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Courtesy of Fairfax
Davidson, Gay (1939-2004), The Australian Women’s Register
Vale Gay Davidson, Press Gallery Pioneer, Crikey, 22 November 2004