1923-1982 | VIC | Journalist & commentator
Nancy Dexter's journalistic career began sideways: as a copy-typist with the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser. She got a cadetship with the Melbourne Herald in 1950 but was retrenched, only to return 10 years later as a journalist in the women's section. Six years later she moved to The Age where she documented the second wave of feminism with courageous and robust commonsense in her column 'Nancy Dexter Takes Note'. She brought the same approach to Accent where, as editor for seven years, she balanced traditional content with hard coverage of women's issues.
It’s the line every journalist wants on their CV: “I was hired by legendary editor of The Age, Graham Perkin”. Looks good on the resume, might help you land a plum job somewhere else, moves you up in the journalistic pecking order. If Perkin rated you, then you must be good, really good.
Nancy Dexter was one of the fortunate few. That line was on her CV. She was hired by Perkin – but it wasn’t as rolled gold as it sounded.
In fact, the truth wasn’t something you would list on any CV. Perkin thought he was hiring someone else. Those close to Perkin say he wanted Nancy Cato but he got Nancy Dexter.
One of his few journalistic mistakes turned out to be a great blessing. The woman he shouldn’t have hired helped transform the way women worked in newspapers such as The Age and how those newspapers saw women in the wider world. Dexter encouraged real women to be heard and their voices listened to. With her gentle but firm encouragement, previously taboo topics were discussed in the pages of newspapers like The Age.
Anyone with the first name Nancy doesn’t seem much like a revolutionary but don’t let that gentle name or polite manner fool you. She might have looked middle-class and middle aged (she joined The Age at 44) but beneath that almost bookish exterior was a true radical waiting to pounce.
And pounce she did. Nancy Dexter paved the way for a whole generation of women journalists (such as myself ) to thrive in newsrooms traditionally filled with men. And over time newsrooms changed so it wasn’t important whether you were male or female… but what really mattered was whether your words were magical enough, your story explosive enough to get on page one.
When Dexter arrived at The Age, the paper’s women’s pages (yes, papers had women’s pages then) were often about recipes, parties, frocks and a very saccharine version of who was being seen out with whom. Nancy Dexter changed that. In between that traditional women’s fare, she added tiny nuggets of what was seen by many as harder-edged feminism. These days it wouldn’t ruffle any feathers. Back then it was courageous, controversial and oh-so avante-garde for a newspaper in Melbourne.
In a column called Nancy Dexter Takes Note, she wrote about things considered hugely radical at the time. As Jane Sullivan penned so eloquently in The Age in 2004, Dexter gave sanitary pads a mention in her first column at a time when such things were never discussed. Abortion became a regular topic, as was equal pay and domestic violence.
Her battles with the right-to-lifers over abortion law reform were legendary. She encouraged real women to tell their stories about terminating pregnancies. And plenty of women were brave enough to consider speaking out. Dexter persuaded them to talk and then pushed for The Age to publish their stories.
Founder of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Beatrice Faust recalled that Dexter documented the women’s movement with “guts and substance’’. She sure did but Dexter probably wouldn’t have seen herself as doing that.
When Dexter spoke it was usually with a soft tone. There were no raised voices or rants about feminism – just a quiet but steely determination to slowly change the tenor of the argument on issues she believed important. She was respected and admired for her common sense by men (and even some women) who didn’t feel comfortable with those known then as “women’s libbers”.
In 1972, Dexter took over the editorship of The Age’s “Accent” section. It became an influential chronicle of the women’s movement – and the issues many women considered relevant and important. Dexter’s favourite saying (“A drip wearing away at a stone”) was an apt description of how the section – under her editorship – doggedly covered some of the big issues of the day for women.
And if it sounds like all hard work and a smidge earnest – well, it simply wasn’t. That wasn’t Dexter’s style. At times when copy was needed to fill the pages, Dexter (an enthusiastic cook) was happy to provide readers with recipes on what to cook for dinner tonight as well as her column.
Hard-edged commentary, reports on issues that matter to real women, and then something to whip up for tea – Nancy Dexter was a multi-talented journalist who would be any editor’s dream hiring.
Jill Baker has worked in newspapers, magazines and books. She has won a Walkley Award, the Sir Keith Murdoch Award and the Melbourne Press Club Gold Quill. She is editor of The Sunday Herald Sun.
Jill Baker has worked in newspapers, magazines and books. She has won a Walkley Award, the Sir Keith Murdoch Award and the Melbourne Press Club Gold Quill. She is the editor of the Sunday Herald Sun.
Portrait of Nancy Dexter, courtesy National Library of Australia (with permission from Bruce Howard).
The Age staff, from left: Claude Forell, Roger Aldridge, Michael Richardson, Les Tanner, Graham Perkin, Percy Beames, Ben Hills, Bruce Grant, Nancy Dexter and Geoffrey Hutton.
'Dexter, Nancy Nugent (1923-1983)', Sybil Nolan, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, 2007.