Doris Mary McRae (1893–1988), headmistress of Flemington Girls School from 1942 to 1949, made a remarkable contribution to the school and the broader Flemington community. McRae was a leader in the women’s movement and throughout her life strove to improve the position of women and advocate for workers, students and others.
McRae’s professional career and political activism began at the start of the First World War in 1914. From the 1920s McRae was an active unionist. In 1935 she joined the newly established Teachers’ Peace Movement and the Movement Against War and Fascism. After travelling overseas, including to Russia, McRae joined the Communist Party.
In the middle of WWII, after almost 30 years of teaching in various rural and suburban schools and while she was vice-president of the Victorian Teachers’ Union, McRae was appointed to Flemington Girls School. During the war she also sat on the Victorian committee of the Women’s Charter Conference and was a member of the Council for Women in War Work. From 1945 she was a member of Melbourne’s International Women’s Day Committee.
McRae is described as having “cared deeply about the welfare of the children she worked with, her fellow teachers and society in general, and was a passionate advocate of equal pay for women.”
McRae worked closely with locals and parliamentary representatives to help establish a number of new types of community services in Flemington and Kensington. She said the following:
When I was principal at Flemington Girls High I was most concerned about how the young girls spent their leisure time. The huge American Army Camp was just down the road Camp Pell (Royal Park). Most of the families lived in very cramped homes. So we had a public meeting to discuss the need for some recreation centre for youth. Eventually we did establish a youth centre in the old Kensington Town Hall.
I remember how Arthur Clarey (who later represented the Flemington/Kensington district in the Legislative Assembly) said how heartening it was to see so many citizens interested in a joint project. He hoped that this might be the beginning of developing a sense of local identity in the district.
Lynette Deveney, who studied at Flemington Girls School, recalled the following from McRae’s activities in the 1940s:
Miss McRae helped to form the Flemington-Kensington Progress Association. This brought together the residents and the shopkeepers to campaign for the removal of the tanneries from Debney’s Paddock. In the 1960s these sprawling, smelly sheds were removed and we now have a large park, a community centre as well as hundreds of flats on the area. The park was only a dream in the 1940s.
The pinnacle of McRae’s teaching career coincided with the post-war “McCarthy era”. She was actively monitored by the Commonwealth Investigation Service, criticised in state parliament and mentioned in the Lowe royal commission into communist activity in Victoria. With Catholicism particularly strong in the local community, McRae was accused of teaching with political bias. Although she was later exonerated by a Department of Education investigation, McRae found the strain too much and resigned from the teaching profession.
In 1951 McRae unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Henty. Thereafter she devoted her energies to the Union of Australian Women, of which she was a foundation member (1950) and president (1964-66).
McRae was also active in the Flemington-Kensington Progress Association, lobbying for the establishment of a youth centre and for the conversion of abandoned local tanneries into recreational grounds.
McRae continued to be “vigorous and prodigiously active well into her eighties”, dying on 9 October 1988 at East Brighton. A memorial service was held at Coburg High School when, amongst others, Joan Kirner spoke about McRae’s contribution to women and society. In 2001 McRae was one of the original inductees to the Victorian Roll of Women, celebrating the achievements and contribution of women to Victoria.
Victoria Alexander, “A biography of Doris McRae, 1892-1988”, 2005, unpublished thesis (University of Melbourne)
Ruth Crow, “A tribute to Doris McRae, 1893 to 1988: a life dedicated to peace and social justice”, 1988, unpublished (available at the State Library of Victoria)
Suzanne Fabian and Morag Loh, “Left-Wing Ladies: The Union of Australian Women in Victoria, 1950-1998”, 2000, Hyland House, Flemington
Cheryl Griffin, contribution to “Australian Dictionary of Biography”, Vol.18, 2012, Melbourne University Press (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcrae-doris-mary-15052)
Photo image from the Australian Women’s Weekly, Sat 26 Feb 1938, p.41 (under “What Women are Doing”, with a profile on McRae’s return from a trip abroad, available on Trove)