Years ago, I stumbled across an intriguing press clipping from the early 60’s about a celebratory dinner: Women at the Top. The timing of this dinner, along with the fact my grandmother, concert pianist Eunice Gardiner, was invited aroused my insatiable curiosity. Who were these women, and what did they do to get to the top?
However, this was long before Australia’s newspapers and magazines had been uploaded, and unfortunately my curiosity ended up in the too hard basket.
That changed last week.
After reading Mark Lamprell’s: The Secret Wife, I found myself thinking about my grandmother’s career again, and I remembered this reference to Women at the Top, only now I had the vast resources of the World Wide Web at my fingers tips to find out more about it. The only trouble was that the information needed to be captured in the first place, and unfortunately, this stellar event received very little media coverage.
From what I’ve been able to piece together, Sydney’s Royal Blind Society hosted Women At The Top on the 8th February, 1961 at the Australia Hotel. It was based on a luncheon held annually in London, Women of the Year. Although it was held as a fundraiser, the dinner’s primary goal was to raise awareness of women’s achievements.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out much about the identities of these women at the top although it was said: “These women will represent the academic, artistic, literary, professional and business life, as well as the cultural and sporting circles.” It was chaired by lawyer Mrs. Mary Tenison Woods, C.B.E. In 1950, she had been appointed Chief of the Office of the Status of Women in the division of Human Rights, United Nations Secretariat, New York. Mrs Phyllis Burke was the Publicity Officer for the Royal Blind Society. She had a degree in Economics, held membership of the N.S.W. Housing Commission, and also had nine children. The guest speaker was Madame Hélène BurollaudIt, Sales and Technical Director in Paris of the cosmetic firm of Harriet Hubbard Ayer. She was in Australia at the time, and was recommended by the Lintas advertising agency. The only other women mentioned were my grandmother, Eunice Gardiner, aviator Nancy Bird-Walton and the attendance of Lady Amy Woodward, wife of Lieutenant-General, Sir Eric Woodward, Governor of NSW, 1957-1965. Obviously, that barely touches on the 180 women who attended.
While it at least seems significant to me that this dinner took place in the early 1960’s, the write up it received by Sally Desmond in The Bulletin was equally striking. You would hope that as a woman, she would have been pleased to see this celebration of female talent, and cracks starting to appear in what we now as the glass ceiling. You would hope for zealous enthusiasm and support for the sisterhood, even in the days before “the sisterhood” had possibly even become a term. Instead, she is rather critical, and uses her pen sword to cut the tall poppies down instead. Much to my disgust, she specifically questioned my grandmother’s right to be there: “Miss Eunice Gardiner is a pianist, but having seven children has successfully wiped out any claim she might ever have made to being a top-flight one.” Then, she launched into aviator Nancy Bird-Walton: “Mrs Charles Walton is a pilot, but she doesn’t fly a jet on a regular route.” Please! These seven children hadn’t wiped my grandmother off the face of the earth. She was still giving professional concerts, was a music critic with The Telegraph and was also a Professor of the Piano at the Conservatorium of Music. Moreover, on the 8th November, 1960 (only a year earlier) she’d appeared on ABC TV on a panel interviewing African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson on the eve of the election of JF Kennedy. This was a really cutting-edge interview especially for Australia at the time. Meanwhile, Aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton had made a significant contribution to early aviation in Australia. She’d taken her first flying lesson from Charles Kingsford Smith, pioneered outback ambulance services and founded the Australian Women’s Pilots Association.
So, given the questioning and frequently challenging tone of this account of the Women At the Top Dinner, I’ve referenced the full article, and I’d be interested to know your thoughts. I’d also be delighted if anyone knew more about it:
Where is the Top?
When I spoke on the telephone to Mrs Phyllis Burke at Sydney’s Royal Blind Society about covering her “Women at the Top” dinner she was charming but evasive. “You can come beforehand,”she offered. “I can give you a list of the women at the top table. I’m afraid I can’t tell you what the speakers will say.”
Suddenly she broke down. “I’ve had such a lot of trouble with newspaper-women ringing and asking to be invited,” she said unhappily.
“But I’m nobody,” I told her, with a trace of modesty.
“Oh, then,” she said, “do come along! There’ll be a press table where you can have a cup of coffee and sandwiches or a glass of sherry.”
So I went and had a cup of coffee and sandwiches and a glass of sherry while 180 of Sydney’s Women at the Top ate oysters, grilled chicken and pineapple glace flambee and drank Australian wines. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle.
Perhaps what inspired most awe was how those women had got themselves there in the first place.
It was a wet, humid night, but 180 of Sydney’s Women at the Top got into evening dress, then left their husbands comfortably in front of the TV or in front of a long, cold beer. Perhaps some of them left him uncomfortably getting his own dinner or putting the children to bed. Then the Women at the Top had to back the car out of the garage or walk to the station. You can’t park within blocks of the Australia Hotel, so they had to walk, picking up skirts from the wet streets. Most of them had to walk alone, because being at the top is a lonely business!
Although when they arrived many of them seemed to know, or at least recognise, each other. You didn’t see too many peering at the tags with name and Profession which each guest wore.
There were only 180 at the dinner, although it was originally announced that 300 would be invited. Mrs Burke, who does publicity for the Royal Blind Society, and whose varying achievements: a degree in Economics, membership of the N.S.W. Housing Commission and a family of nine, got her to the top table among the Women at the Top, said that 255 had been invited and there were 75 refusals. Whether 75 refused because they were unsure of their own importance or not convinced of the importance of the dinner is an interesting question.
There was a guest of honor, Madame Helene Burollaud, who is sales and technical director in Paris of the cosmetic firm of Harriet Hubbard Ayer. She became guest of honor at the suggestion of Lintas advertising agency, but Lintas was modest about its part in the Women at the Top dinner. “We heard Mrs Burke was organising the dinner for the blind and we thought it would be a good way to get some publicity for Madame Burollaud,” their representative said.
The fee for attending the dinner was three guineas, but, Mrs Burke said, although it was hoped to make money for the blind, the primary purpose of the dinner was to focus attention on women’s achievements.
The Women at the Top all sat down together with only one man in the room, Mr James Hanratty, the head waiter in the Rainbow room. His staff are all women, which might have proved something to the Women at the Top. Mr Hanratty’s nice Irish face grew red and his nice Irish brogue grew more pronounced at the idea of 180 women sitting down to have dinner together.
“Of course, I’ve, had men’s dinners,” Mr Hanratty said, “and I’ve had things like millinery shows here, but half of them are men. I’ve never had all women at dinner before.”
And that was what was mainly wrong with the whole affair. It’s all very well for women to adopt what men like to think are their exclusive callings but why do they have to emulate men’s barbarous habit of one-sex dinners? Men have no social gifts except those poor ones which women after generations have beaten into them. This is called civilisation. Men can sit quite happily like boiled owls at all-male dinners listening to boring speeches, although intelligent men will complain of how gruesome it all is, but why on earth would women try the same caper?
A luncheon would have been much better. Sydney women sparkle at all-women luncheons. They’re a strong tradition and they can be bags of fun, mostly much more fun than all-men equivalents.
Mrs Burke said that the Women at the Top dinner was based on a similar affair held annually in London. But in London it’s a luncheon and it’s called the Women of the Year.
Being at the top sounds so final. What will the selection committee do next year if it does become an annual affair?
Go carefully through the list and see who’s slipped a bit? Or will the same 180 women face each other across the same tables and the same menu of oysters, chicken and pineapple glace flambee for years to come?
Women of the Year sounds much better. If you aren’t one of the women of 1961 you might remember warmly that you were a woman of 1951 or decide that with a bit of luck you might be a woman of 1971 or 1981. Women at the Top sounds so competitive and harsh, and few of the Women at the Top looked competitive or harsh. Many of them were very pretty and most of them were very elegantly dressed.
And most of them looked intelligent enough to question whether they were really at the top and intelligent enough not to worry unduly if they decided they weren’t at the top. After all, where is the top? Mrs Charles Walton is a pilot, but she doesn’t fly a jet on a regular route. Miss Eunice Gardiner is a pianist, but having seven children has successfully wiped out any claim she might ever have made to being a top-flight one.
Some of the Women at the Top didn’t seem to be taking it all too seriously.
But as long as any women take this sort of thing seriously, no one will take them seriously.
Clearly, Sally Desmond didn’t take the event seriously, and to some degree considered it a failure. That’s a shame, because an opportunity was lost to provide a serious account of what truly was a ground breaking event for the status of Australian women. It would’ve been wonderful to have hear a few quotes from Madame Hélène BurollaudIt’s speech, and more about who actually attended, rather than the paragraphs she wasted talking about their struggle to get to the dinner itself.
Such is life.
It would be wonderful to say that I’d managed to walk in my grandmother’s shoes in some regard. However, I did try to interview her about her career, but by this stage she was in her late 80’s and like most of us, she wondered where the years had gone and who the old lady was staring back at her in the mirror. She was very proud of her achievements and being known as “Melba of the piano” and the “Baby pianist of Bondi”. I always intended to juggle work and family myself, but my health intervened. Indeed, I wasn’t juggling anything, but medical appointments for awhile there. However, I did manage to get appointed to the Status of Women Committee of our local council, whose responsibilities included organising the International Women’s Day March down the main street. I also joined a group: Business and Professional Women (BPW) and was able to fly the flag publicly for a bit there. I haven’t given up, but I’m also aware that a percentage of young men also need to be empowered now. Indeed, all our young people are needing compassion and understanding after covid had made it so difficult for them to study, work, have relationships and essentially be young people.
Anyway, I’d love to hear from you.
As much as I’m not happy with the Queen being Australia’s Head of State, she has long been a working mother and I’ve never heard anyone look at how that might’ve impacted options for women during her reign.