From the keyboard of Marie Coleman - Helen Leonard's life journey took her from an isolated only child in the 1950s to a woman celebrated for her Fabulous Fifties in the book of that title, a much-loved partner and mother of three, a lobbyist and networker extraordinaire, and the creator of the largest and most remarkable photographic record of the women's movements from the Seventies onward.
Helen was a person of great warmth, supportive of others, and steadfast in her ideals. She will live in many memories as the woman with the camera, coming late to meetings, positioning herself at eye level with speakers, getting in where many couldn't, because of her camera. "Make sure you're noticed" was the advice she gave to many less assured women trying to influence decision makers and people of influence.
Helen was educated at Hornsby Girls High School, and enrolled as a seventeen year old student nurse at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital. Suffering back injury, she left little more than two years later. She worked for three years as a nurse or dental nurse in various settings, and then her son and two daughters were born within four years of each other. By 1973 she had become an active member of the newly-created Nursing Mothers Association (NMA), working at the local level in Group Leadership and counselling. From the time distance of 2001, many have forgotten the challenges the NMA then provided to the obstetrics and other health professions, at a time when in some States women could be charged with offensive behaviour for breastfeeding in public, and relatively few Australian mothers were encouraged to breastfeed.
Helen developed lobbying skills inspired by her growing conviction that women should be free to make their own decisions and be supported in those decisions. Her empathic ability to invite those who disagreed to cooperate in developing new strategies was honed in those early days. Concurrently with a stint with the NSW Health department running self-esteem and communication groups, she rose through the NMA to the national field.
By 1988 she had been appointed to the National Women's Consultative Council (NWCC) as a representative of NMA, was a co-director of Distaff Associates, and co-convenor of WRITES, the umbrella for the Women's Economic Think Tank, Refractory Girl, Women's Radio Network and others. On behalf of the NWCC, with the Women's Electoral Lobby, Helen organised the Women's Tax Convention in Canberra. By now she was a consultant to the Office of the Status of Women in the Commonwealth Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Working with journalist, writer and friend Anne Deveson, she explored the portrayal of women in the media, became an Australian expert, and founded the National Women's Media Centre. With only 20% of interviewees in the media being women, she led the project to produce the 1998 National Women's Media Directory - no more excuses for journalists with women in droves registering to provide expert comment on issues of the day.
Then followed a career with various NSW departments, together with a host of concurrent activities in women's community organizations. In the mid-nineties, working for the NSW Department for Women, she co-ordinated state-wide International Women's Day activities, produced the Out of Line: 25 years of women's posters exhibition and Women and Media Awards.
She moved to Canberra in 1998 to become National Executive Officer for the Women's Electoral Lobby (Australia). From early 2000 she worked as National Executive Officer for WESNET (Women's Services Network), Iraq anti-sanctions Campaign Manager for the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, and as Manager, Government and Community Relations, for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. She was Convenor of the Coalition of Australian Participating Organisations of Women (CAPOW!), the peak national women's organisation.
Helen created Women's History Month (WHM), Today in History, which profiles the achievements of women, and The Australian Women's Honour Roll. Federal women parliamentarians launching WHM at Parliament House on 7 March 2000 noted a not-so-strange coincidence: that it was also Helen's birthday! Helen had a deep interest in spiritual matters from the time she was a child, receiving pastoral support from her local church, then converting to Catholicism in the late Eighties. Later her formal commitment lapsed. This led inadvertently to her unique contribution as a photographer of the women's movement.
Her interest in spiritual issues from a feminist perspective led her to want to attend the 1987 conference to establish Women in the Australian (Catholic) Church , but being unable to afford the registration fee she instead negotiated accreditation as a photographer. From then on, she was everywhere with her camera, creating for many women's organisations their own record of their activities, and building an extraordinary library of photographs and recordings.
Helen's sudden death in Canberra on October 12, 2001 has been met with a wave of shock and an outpouring of affection and appreciation across the women's movement. Tributes (Condolence Book, Tributes from women's mailing lists) from individuals and groups as diverse as Guides Australia, Business and Professional Women Australia, The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Susan Halliday the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner and hosts of others are being posted online, demonstrating the extraordinary range of people touched and helped by Helen.
She is survived by her partner Judy Harrison, son Christopher and daughters Robin and Carolyn Inman.
Helen's biography is listed in the Australian Women's Archives Project.
Related bio information available for Helen Leonard