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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Kathleen Clare O'Keeffe (1883–1949)

by Louise Chappell

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Kathleen Clare O'Keeffe (1883-1949), public servant and campaigner for equal pay for women, was born on 9 January 1883 at Maitland, New South Wales, second daughter of native-born parents Maurice O'Keeffe, solicitor, and his wife Susan, née Normoyle. Kathleen joined the Department of Mines as a shorthand writer and typist on 28 February 1911, and in 1920 was promoted clerk. In 1922 she gained a diploma in economics and commerce at the University of Sydney, achieving a high distinction in public administration and winning the Sydney Chamber of Commerce prize. Having completed further study at Sydney Technical College in industrial hygiene, sanitary law and health inspection, she transferred to the Department of Public Instruction on 21 June 1929 to work as an inspector under the Child Welfare Act (1923).

A 'staunch feminist' and member of the National Council of Women of New South Wales, O'Keeffe became a strong advocate for women in the Public Service Association of New South Wales. She chaired the women's clerical sub-section and the women's auxiliary, and sat on the clerical management and arbitration committees. In 1929 she was the first woman to be appointed to the P.S.A. executive.

O'Keeffe made good use of these positions to pursue equal pay issues. In 1927 she had played a key role on behalf of the P.S.A. in negotiating the first women's clerical award with the New South Wales government. During 1929 she pushed for the principle of equal pay for equal work to be included in amendments to the Public Service Act (1902). Her efforts in this regard were met with 'evasive replies' by the government and the Public Service Board, and ultimately went unheeded. O'Keeffe also agitated for changes to long-service-leave regulations so that women who left the service on marriage would not be disadvantaged. Throughout the 1930s she joined others, including Dorothy Beveridge, in campaigning for qualified women public servants to be employed as permanent, rather than temporary, staff. In 1936 O'Keeffe was a member of the P.S.A. deputation which met the deputy-premier (Sir) Michael Bruxner to discuss salary cuts in the Public Service.

At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, on 26 December 1934 O'Keeffe married Albert Nelson Graham, a 54-year-old mining warden; he was to be appointed (1936) under-secretary for mines. Despite the existence of the marriage bar in the public service, she continued to work under her maiden name. It was not until 1 March 1938 that she retired from the Child Welfare Department.

Popular with her colleagues, O'Keeffe was respected for her 'thoroughness, mastery of detail, rapidity and soundness of judgement'. She was fondly remembered for her cheerful disposition, clear thinking and eloquence in debate, and for her willingness to be constantly at the forefront of the battle for her sisters. Survived by her husband, she died of a coronary occlusion on 9 September 1949 at her Mosman home and was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Red Tape, 5 Oct 1927, 15 Jan, 15 Apr, 25 July, 25 Aug, 25 Oct 1929, 25 Mar, 25 Apr 1930, 25 Apr 1931, 25 May 1935, 25 May 1936, 25 May 1937, Sept-Oct 1949
  • Australian Woman's Mirror, 2 Apr 1929, p 20.

Citation details

Louise Chappell, 'O'Keeffe, Kathleen Clare (1883–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012