1915-2006 | Queensland | Reporter & editor
Patience Rosemary Thoms redefined coverage of women’s issues in Queensland’s leading newspaper and gave women a voice in the newsroom. She was women’s news editor of the Courier-Mail from 1956 to 1976. She gained access to daily news conferences and successfully lobbied for a woman to sub-edit her pages. Thoms travelled widely and filed stories, sometimes for the front page, from overseas, and she used the Courier-Mail to lobby for the introduction of Asian languages to Queensland schools. She was the first Australian president of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women and deputy Chancellor of Griffith University.
When Patience Rosemary Thoms became the first women’s news editor of the Brisbane Courier-Mail in 1956 she presided over a section described by male colleagues as the “the hen house” or “the hen’s coop”. The section’s pages were similar to those of other metropolitan dailies: photographs of society girls and local social news. Over the next 20 years Thoms changed the “hen house” format to include stories about the practical barriers to equality for Australian women.
Thoms pursued a broadly reformist agenda and identified what she called “the educative” potential of the post-WW2 women’s pages. Thoms childhood experiences of travel and community service influenced her later professional life. The Koyong School she attended in Moss Vale, New South Wales, was dedicated to encouraging girls “to reach their full potential.”
As a young woman Patience travelled between Australia and England with her parents before settling in Brisbane in 1939, where she served with the Department of the Army from 1940 to 1945. Over the ensuing decades she became well known for her work both as a journalist and as a community representative who worked to improve workplace conditions for women. On leaving the Courier-Mail in 1976 she pointed out that women had achieved equal pay but not equality of opportunity.
In the 1950s Australian newspapers were dominated by local affairs and sport although advertising revenue from the women’s sections was a major source of income for newspapers. Thoms’s first job in journalism in 1945 was as social editor and assistant advertising manager with Queensland Country Life. Women’s sections on daily papers offered steady employment for women journalists but their stories infrequently made the front page of a city daily. She was recruited to the Courier-Mail in 1950 by Sir Theodore Bray and by 1956 was the first Women’s News Editor.
Thoms fought to attend the all-important 5pm news conference but she was pragmatic about how much change she could achieve in her role. She said there were two reasons why society news was published in the Courier Mail’s Women’s pages: people wanted to see what old Queensland families were doing and people wanted to see what other people with a lot of money were doing.
She regarded herself as a feminist, but “not a radical one.” Her stories appealed to the many women who returned to household work after working outside the home during WW2. She sometimes upset the Brisbane business establishment and religious institutions. On one occasion a story on the benefits of margarine offended the influential dairy lobby and on another she offended the Anglican Church. She spoke later of the terrible fuss that ensued when she branded as “apartheid” the Anglican Church’s policy of not allowing divorced women to be members of its Mothers Union.
Thoms was mindful of her predecessors’ struggles in journalism. She acknowledged Winifred Moore, the Social Editress of the Brisbane Courier, later the Courier Mail, as a journalist who “wrote as a woman, not a feminist, but as one conscious of the contribution women could make if they had the will”. Thoms wanted to harness this willpower. She organised phone interviews with Brisbane women around election time “to try to find out how women were going to vote.”
She noticed a distinct change in the late 1950s and early 1960s when women no longer followed their husband’s voting pattern. Later, however, she regretted the passing of “the women’s pages” arguing that Australia’s post-WW2 boom delivered a period of materialism and consumption that meant that Women’s Sections became “purely trade.”
Her journalistic skills and business acumen made her an ideal representative of the growing network of Business and Professional Women’s clubs in this period. She became President of B.P.W. Australia (1960-1964) and International President in 1968. These roles meant that Thoms travelled widely, later writing a history The First 25 Years B.P.W. Australia, in which she identifies the diversity of challenges for women in post-war Australian society, from securing equal education to the injustices of superannuation schemes.
The BPW supported then ACTU President Bob Hawke’s submission to the 1969 Equal Pay Case in Australia. Thoms wrote that “when equal pay for work of equal value finally is universal in this country, much will be owed by the women of Australia to those members of the Australian Federation who have through the years worked devotedly and selflessly for this aspect of social justice.”
Thoms exemplified the contribution of women to public service. She was a member of the Queensland Films Board of Review and she served on the ethics committee of the Australian Journalists' Association, the National Drug Advisory Council and the Council of Queensland Women.
After retiring from the Courier- Mail “Miss Thoms” was able to further her education. Her interest in China and Asian languages led her to enrol in a Bachelor of Arts in Modern Asian Languages at Griffith University in 1976. In 1981 Thoms became the first Chair of the new Brisbane College of Advanced Education Council. She was a member of the Griffith University Council from 1980-1994 and in 1988 was elected Deputy Chancellor of Griffith University.
Susan Carson is Academic Program Director, School of Communication, Queensland University of Technology.
Courtesy of the Griffith Archive, Griffith University, Queensland
The first 25 years . . .BPW Australia: the history of the Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs compiled from official records, Patience Thoms, Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Melbourne.
‘Thoms, Patience Rosemary (1915 – 2006)’, The Australian Women’s Register website