Gladys Ruth Gibson was born in Adelaide, South Australia, on 29th December 1901, the daughter of James Ambrose Gibson and his wife Emma (née Keeley). Educated at Goodwood Public and Unley High Schools before entering Adelaide Teachers College, she began teaching at Westbourne Park Public School in 1921. While teaching at both primary and secondary level she completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Education at the University of Adelaide.

She soon established her reputation as an outstanding educator, being appointed Inspector of Schools in 1941 and Inspector of Secondary Schools in 1952, retiring in 1961. Her reports, extracts of which appeared regularly in the Education Gazette, make interesting reading. She stressed the importance of the basic skills in mathematics and language, commented on co-education, and in 1954 in Perth gave a paper on the role of education in international understanding.

Her community activities involved a large number of organizations, especially those concerning women. To read a list of her activities is exhausting and the records show that she was never a passive member. She invariably played a leading role. All this was done while she continued her educational work on the Public Examinations Board, various curriculum committees, and as a foundation member of the Australian College of Education. One of her graduate friends wrote: ‘A listing of her achievements and distinctions might make her seem a superwoman, an unapproachable person to be regarded with awe and trepidation. But nothing could be further from the truth.’

Among the organizations in which she was prominent were the Australian Federation of University Women, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Soroptimist Club, the Good Neighbour Council, the National Fitness Council and the United Nations Association. She served on the selection committees for Churchill Fellowships and Florence Nightingale Memorial Scholarships and was a founder of St. Ann’s College.

Gibson’s main work, however, was in the National Council of Women, at state, national and international levels. She was President of N.C.W. (S.A.) from 1950 to 1954, presiding over a large gathering of women to welcome the Queen in 1954 and delivering the address. As President of N.C.W. (Australia) from 1952 to 1956, she travelled to other states and attended conferences and meetings of the International Council of Women in other countries. Her national reputation resulted in her selection by the Australian government to represent Australian women at the Coronation in 1953. She was also appointed as the Australian delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, held in Geneva in 1956 and in New York in 1957. When reporting to the women at home she was always able to include interesting anecdotes.

It was no surprise that she was made a life Vice-President not only of N.C.W. (S.A.) but also of N.C.W. (Australia) and, significantly, of the International Council of Women, where she was made a member of the Committee of Honour. The Australian College of Education appointed her a Fellow in 1963 and she was awarded the O.B.E. in 1953, and the C.B.E. in 1970. Her tall, commanding presence might have appeared daunting but she was above all a loving family member and a good friend. Her mother had died when she was 21 and, as the eldest of four children, she assumed the role of homemaker and remained close to her family all her life.

Gladys Ruth Gibson died on 23rd August 1972 and was buried at North Road Cemetery. The Ruth Gibson Memorial Award was established in her honour and there is a Ruth Gibson Room in N.C.W. House on South Terrace, Adelaide, displaying photographs and memorabilia associated with her life. She is also commemorated by a bronze sundial on the Festival Centre plaza, inscribed ‘Generous citizen and educator who worked for the advancement of women’.

By Joan Brewer (research by Philippa Fletcher)

This entry was first published in S.A.’s Greats: the men and women of the North Terrace plaques, edited by John Healey (Historical Society of South Australia Inc., 2001).

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