Honouring women in leadership in the Council Chamber

In early 2020, the City of Adelaide took steps to rectify the lack of female leaders represented in the portraits displayed in the Adelaide Town Hall and Council Chamber. 

Among the more than 40 portraits represented in the Council Chamber, only one depicted a woman, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Council decided to re-curate the Chamber, acknowledging women who played a vital role in shaping our state and the City of Adelaide. 

Six female subjects were identified and approved for this portrait series. 

Portraits of Wendy Chapman AM, Dame Roma Mitchell AC, DBE, CVO, QC, and Aunty Shirley Peisley AM have been completed and are now on display. 

Catherine Helen Spence and Mary Lee’s portraits were unveiled on International Women’s Day 2024. 

The sixth and final portrait in this series will honour Iparrityi.

The portraits

Catherine Helen Spence (1825-1910), a Scottish-born writer and reformer, migrated to South Australia in 1839. Known for the first Australian novel by a woman, Clara Morison (1854), she contributed to the South Australian Register and authored The Laws We Live Under (1880), the inaugural social studies textbook in Australian schools. Co-founding the Boarding-Out Society in 1872, she later became a Vice-President of the Women’s Suffrage League of South Australia in 1891 and played a pivotal role in obtaining women’s voting rights in 1894. Spence, a pioneer in political candidacy, ran for the Federal Convention in 1897, securing a respectable twenty-second position out of thirty-three candidates.

Deidre But-Husaim navigated the complex task of creating a portrait with limited source imagery, relying on a small, monochromatic photograph of Spence and her mother. Despite setbacks, including a broken painting hand, But-Husaim embraced the opportunity, recognising the importance of portraying a woman dedicated to social and political reform.

The artist’s creative choices symbolise Spence’s commitment to suffrage, with the inclusion of a green garment as a nod to the suffragette’s tradition of wearing ‘green for hope’. The background features Adelaide suffragettes holding banners that declare ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’.

Deidre But-Husaim is an acclaimed painter with a notable portfolio, including recognitions such as the Doug Moran Portrait Prize and the Archibald Prize. 

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Catherine helen spence portrait by deidre but husaim 2023

Mary Lee (1821-1909) was a pivotal figure in the late 19th-century women’s suffrage movement, pioneering early efforts for gender equality. Devoting herself to advocating for legal changes in women’s sexual and social status, she was the foundation secretary of the Social Purity Society, which inaugurated the South Australian Women’s Suffrage League in 1888.

Through her work in the league, Lee played a vital role in the passing of the Constitutional Amendment Act on 18 December 1894. This landmark legislation, enacted by the South Australian Parliament, positioned South Australia as the first jurisdiction worldwide to grant women the right to stand for public office, alongside their right to vote. This achievement preceded New Zealand’s similar legislation, solidifying South Australia’s place as a trailblazer in women’s rights advocacy.

The artist, Jess Mara, carefully crafted Lee’s portrait based on primary source material from the State Library of South Australia. An acclaimed painter and lecturer at Adelaide Central School of Art, Jess Mara showcases a distinguished portfolio and has earned recognition as a finalist in the Shirley Hannan Portrait Award and the Royal South Australian Society of Arts Portrait Prize.

Mary lee painting portrait by jess mara 2023

Aunty Shirley Peisley AM is a Ngarrindjeri / Boandik Elder who has dedicated her life to working towards reconciliation. Aunty Shirley played a pivotal role in the Aboriginal rights movement, contributing significantly to the 1967 referendum, which sought to amend the Constitution to grant full citizenship rights to Aboriginal people. Born in 1941, Aunty Shirley was the inaugural Co-Chair of the City of Adelaide Reconciliation Committee (2002-2005) and received the Order of Australia Medal in 2000 for diverse services to the Aboriginal Community.

In the 1960s, Peisley advocated for essential services through the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia. In the 1970s, she made history as the first Aboriginal female Probation and Truancy Officer. Additionally, she received a Papal Blessing in 2010 for services to the Catholic Church and played a pivotal role in the historical recognition of Aboriginal peoples in South Australia’s Constitution in March 2013.

The photographic portrait by Dr Ali Gumillya Baker pays homage to Aunty Shirley’s roots in the South East of South Australia. The artwork features feather flowers worn in Aunty Shirley’s hair, symbolising the long tradition of feather flower making for Aboriginal communities. Red Kangaroo Paw flowers honour the place of the Red Kangaroo, Tarndanyangga (Adelaide). Dr Baker intricately weaves ceremonial, medicinal, and food-related plants into the background, grounding the portrait in the rich tapestry of Kaurna Yerta.

Dr Ali Gumillya Baker is a Mirning person whose family are from the West Coast of South Australia, she is an Associate Professor at Flinders University and a multidisciplinary artist who is a member of the Unbound Collective - a group of First Nations artist academics.

Aunty shirley peisley council chamber portrait by ali gumillya baker


Dame Roma Mitchell (1913 –2000), a trailblazing South Australian, achieved numerous historic firsts. Admitted as a barrister in 1935, she became Australia’s first female Queen’s Counsel in 1962. She made history as the first female judge for the Supreme Court of South Australia in 1965 and later, the first woman Chancellor of University of Adelaide (1983-1990). She went on to serve as the inaugural female Governor of South Australia (1991-1996). Mitchell ardently campaigned for women’s rights, advocating for jury participation and equal pay.

Esteemed painter Kate Kurucz’s portrait incorporates symbolic elements, such as the Latin phrase ‘Floreat Scientia’ on the book spine, representing the flourishing of knowledge, and images of the Black-eyed Susan and Sturt Desert Peak, symbolising justice and South Australia’s floral emblem.

Kurucz, a 2012 graduate of the Adelaide Central School of Art, has exhibited widely and garnered recognition, including the Royal South Australian Arts Society Portrait Prize in 2020 and the Emma Hack Art Prize in 2016. She has been shortlisted as a finalist in prestigious national portraiture prizes.

More of Kurucz's work can be viewed on Instagram.

Dame roma mitchell unveiling


Wendy Chapman AM (1942-) made history as Adelaide’s first female Lord Mayor in 1983, becoming the inaugural woman to hold such a position in any Australian capital city. Serving one term until 1985, she had previously been an Alderman between 1981 and 1983. A trained nurse and company director, Chapman represented Adelaide on various boards, including the Adelaide Convention Bureau and the Local Government Association of South Australia. She played a pivotal role in securing Adelaide as the host for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix between 1985-1995 and later served on the Australia Formula One Grand Prix Board. Chapman was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia in 1986 for her service to local government and the community.

Tsering Hannaford was commissioned to paint Chapman’s official portrait, drawing inspiration from historical photographs. The green-hued background brings a warmth and simplicity to the portrait, directing attention to the focal points: the mayoral robes, Order of Australia medal and Chapman’s expression. A celebrated artist based in Adelaide, Hannaford has been shortlisted for the Archibald Prize multiple times, highly commended for the Portia Geach Memorial Award in 2014, and was a semi-finalist in the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2014 and 2015. With a notable career as a realist portrait painter, Hannaford learned her craft from her renowned father, South Australian painter and sculptor Robert Hannaford.

More of Hannaford's work can be viewed on Instagram.

Former lord mayor wendy chapman portrait queen adelaide room

These remarkable women are also celebrated through the City of Adelaide’s Suffrage 125 City of Adelaide Honour Roll which showcases some of Adelaide’s founding females and trailblazers, Lord Mayors, Councillors and Council employees, cultural icons, and significant Kaurna women.