1936 - | South Australia, ACT, NSW | Reporter
Stott Despoja was in the vanguard of women journalists who fought for equality and respect in post-war Australian journalism – and triumphed. She was the first woman to be employed in the general newsroom of the Advertiser in Adelaide. She was the paper’s first arts editor when the arts carried significant political and economic influence in Adelaide. She never took a job on the women’s pages of any publication. She wrote feisty columns on social issues.
If there was so much as a comma wrong in her copy, the editor would hurl the Oxford Concise Dictionary at her. And thus, by dint of swift reflexes and quick wit, did Shirley Stott Despoja become a fastidious grammarian.
When, some five decades later, another editor was to clash with her, it had nothing to do with grammar.
That first editor was Francis James of The Anglican in Sydney. He was a colourful and controversial figure of mid 20th-century Australian journalism and his early influence on Stott Despoja imbued in her the disciplines of old-school journalism typical of The Times of London, establishing a lucid and elegant style that would be the hallmark of a feisty career.
Today Shirley Stott Despoja has an Order of Australia medal for her services to the profession. She is a member of the Journalism Hall of Fame in South Australia, recipient of the 2010 United Nations Media Peace Award and also the Mary MacKillop Award for her contribution to journalism. Women in Media in South Australia have saluted her as their patron.
Shirley Stott was born in Sydney to working class parentage. Her father was a wharf carpenter and a communist. He was a Gallipoli veteran and a deaf and frustrated man. Her mother was a traditional homemaker who once dared to go out and seek a job only to be dragged home by the hair by her husband.
Stott Despoja, youngest of five children, recalls a childhood of domestic violence wherein, as her older siblings left home, she saw her role in life as keeping her parents from killing each other. The suffering and indignity inflicted upon her mother at the hands of her brutal father were to establish a ferocious lifelong devotion to the causes of feminism, although she never quite stopped feeling vulnerable deep within herself.
Her high IQ gained the young Shirley Stott an education at academically selective Sydney schools. But she dropped out of a university arts degree when given the opportunity to become a journalist with The Anglican.
Opportunities for a young woman in Sydney journalism at the time were paltry and Stott Despoja made a brave leap to Canberra where she soon established her reputation as a general reporter at The Canberra Times. While she loved the work, covering courts and writing features and arts criticism, she realised that her future there as a woman reporter was limited.
By serendipity, through a South Australian press gallery connection, she was headhunted to Adelaide to work for the conservative broadsheet, The Advertiser. She was offered a C-grade and a promise that she would work in general news not the women’s pages. Thus did she become the first woman on general on that paper.
Shirley Stott was to marry Mario Despoja, a Croation refugee renowned for winning the national $3000 Coles Quiz program. He went on to be a diplomat, public servant and real estate agent. Their 12-year marriage produced two children: Luke, who later ran businesses in the snow country and became a leading national trout guide; and Natasha, the former leader of the Australian Democrats who, as a former Democrat Senator, holds the record as the youngest woman to sit in the Australian Parliament.
In those years, Stott Despoja had moved back to Canberra with her husband and worked as a freelance features writer until, with the dissolution of her marriage, she was invited by The Advertiser’s progressive editor Don Riddell to return to Adelaide in the role of the paper’s first arts editor.
This was the beginning of the rise and rise of the arts in South Australia through the thrilling period of emancipation now known as "The Dunstan Decade", the 1970s period when Don Dunstan was premier of the state.
Stott Despoja became a force in her own right in these evolving days of Adelaide festivals and the ensuing slew of arts controversies. She took festival management to task, wrote uncompromising reviews and periodically stirred the arts pot right onto the front page of the paper. Her fearlessness was renowned.
With the increasing failure of her hearing, Stott Despoja moved to the paper’s literary pages where she was able to continue flexing her cultural and intellectual muscle through vigorous books pages, opinion columns and leaders.
The plight of women, the issues of domestic violence, feminist equality and Indigenous issues were never far from her pen. She was outspoken and defiant on all fronts, even said to be feared by mere editors.
Until one. In 1998 there was a much-publicised “disagreement” with editor Piers Akerman. It was alleged that he had threatened to assault her in the workplace. The dispute went to the full bench of the Supreme Court where the paper’s appeal against Stott Despoja’s workers' compensation case was dismissed.
In 1992 Stott Despoja retired from the paper, describing the circumstances generally as “appalling”. There was much sadness in Adelaide where she remained much respected as a fine scribe and a gutsy old-school feminist.
Throughout her newspaper career, she had striven for equality for women. In retirement, she realised that it was equality for old people that required a champion.
And in 2008, a new career was born through The Third Age column in The Adelaide Review. “Old people have a long fight ahead … from their traditional situation of being regarded as feeble, mentally incapable, unemployable and, without that which we all need: equality. Equality to be ourselves, to contribute to society, to be respected…”, she wrote.
Despite painful physical infirmities and severe deafness, Shirley Stott Despoja was still keeping up the good fight in her 80s.
Samela Harris is a member of the South Australian Journalists Hall of Fame, convenor of Women in Media in South Australia and a former News Corp columnist and writer.
Courtesy of the Stott Despoja family
Shirley (foreground) subediting at the Anglican in Sydney, 1959. Courtesy of the Stott Despoja family
Shirley Stott Despoja receiving the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award in 2010
Shirley Stott Despoja, The Australian Women's Register
Shirley Stott Despoja's 'Third Age' column, The Adelaide Review
'Working with Words: Shirley Stott Despoja', The Wheeler Centre, Sophie Quick, 2015