Woollahra Council to honour their first female mayor

Woollahra Council to honour their first female mayor
Image: Brenda "Dutchie" Backhouse, Woollahra Council Chambers. Image: Woollahra Municipal Council website. Collage: Grace Johnson



In advance of next year’s International Women’s Day, Woollahra Council will honour the first female mayor of the municipality, Brenda “Dutchie” Backhouse, by commissioning a portrait up to the value of $20,000. 

At yesterday’s council meeting (Wednesday November 15), council unanimously passed a motion to commission a portrait of Woollahra’s first female mayor, with the portrait to be funded from Council’s Public Art Reserve. 

The motion was brought forward by Mayor Richard Shields and received unanimous support. 

Mayor Shields told City Hub, “Dutchie deserves to be honoured by having her portrait hung in the place where she dedicated many hours and much of her energy to community service.”

“By all accounts Dutchie Backhouse was an incredible woman who shared her commitment to our community with generosity. She is a great source of inspiration to all of us.  It will be wonderful to have her portrait on display in March next year to coincide with International Women’s Day.”

The campaign theme for next year’s International Women’s Day is “Inspire Inclusion.” In the notice of motion, it highlights the aim of next year’s campaign to “collectively lead and support a more inclusive world for women.” 

“Honouring the former Mayor, Brenda (Dutchie) Backhouse in this manner supports other women to see themselves in positions of influence,” the notice of motion states. 

“Her hard work and no-nonsense approach during her eight years on Council earned her the respect of her colleagues and her example encouraged other women to seek election to Woollahra Council.” 

Dutchie’s Background

Brenda Backhouse was born Brenda Somerville on April 8, 1912. It is believed that she became known as “Dutchie” during her school years due to her mother’s maiden name, Holland. 

She began her professional career as the Physical Education Mistress at Kambala, a private Anglican girls’ school in Rose Bay. The principal at the time, Fifi Hawthorne, described her as an “enthusiastic teacher” who encouraged in her students a “great upsurge of keenness.” 

In the 1930s, athletics and track and field clubs for women were just beginning to be established. The first female-only sporting groups were only established in 1900, but were fairly restricted to lawn bowls or golf clubs. This was a continuation of the tradition from colonial times, during which women were only encouraged to play sports that did not “challenge the gender stereotype.”

After her teaching career ended, just a year before World War II broke out, Dutchie Backhouse continued her work with the local community, supporting in particular, the needs of children, the elderly and sporting bodies.

In 1978, Dutchie Backhouse became the first female mayor to be elected to Woollahra Council. In another first for women, she also became the first woman to chair a council meeting on November 24, 1975. She was also the first woman to be elected as deputy mayor, a position she held twice. 

Dutchie was quoted in the Wentworth Courrier as saying, “I think my greatest satisfaction so far has been the rebuilding of the Holdsworth Street Children’s Playground and its extension to include fuller community activities.”

Her work for the community was officially acknowledged when she was awarded the British Empire Medal for community service in June 1973. 

Dutchie Backhouse died on 21 October 1985.

The Portrait

Woollahra Council anticipates that the portrait, roughly sized at 90 centimetres by 70, could be painted with commission fees ranging from $3,000 to $25,000, plus GST, depending on the artist selected. Preference will be given to a female artist.

Mayor Shields told City Hub, “The portrait will be painted in a traditional style and the brief for the artist will be to convey Dutchie’s strength of character and leadership qualities in a way that does justice to her commitment to public service and our community.”

“We hope the painted portrait will capture her strength, resilience, as well as her generous commitment and determination to represent her local community.”

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