Palmer, Helen (1917–1979)

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Palmer, Helen (1917–1979)

Australian writer and teacher. Born Helen Gwynneth Palmer on May 9, 1917, in Emerald, Victoria, Australia; died on May 6, 1979, in Australia; daughter of Vance Palmer (a writer) and Nettie Palmer (1885–1964, a writer and literary critic); attended Presbyterian Ladies' College in Melbourne, 1934; Melbourne University, B.A., Dip.Ed., 1939.

Began career as a teacher (1939); joined the Women's Australian Auxiliary Air Force as director of educational services (1942); traveled to China (1952); founded (1957) and edited Outlook , a journal dedicated to progressive socialist issues (1957–70).

Selected writings:

An Australian Teacher in China (1953); Beneath the Southern Cross (1954); Australia: The First Hundred Years (with Jessie MacLeod, 1956); After the First Hundred Years (with MacLeod, 1961); Fencing Australia (1961); 'Banjo' Paterson (1966).

Helen Palmer was born in 1917 in Emerald, Victoria, Australia, the daughter of Nettie Palmer and Vance Palmer, both writers and social activists. Helen continued the tradition by espousing progressive causes, particularly in education and in humanist socialism. After graduating from Melbourne University in 1939, she began teaching in Victoria, Australia. During World War II, she served as educational services director of the Women's Australian Auxiliary Air Force, and then was employed at the Commonwealth Office of Education in Sydney. In 1948, she returned to Melbourne and resumed teaching.

Palmer was a member of the Communist Party of Australia, and traveled against the Australian government's wishes: while the Korean War raged, she attended the 1952 Asian and Pacific Peace Congress in Beijing, China, and published her experiences on this journey the following year in An Australian Teacher in China. (That year, she also contributed a poem about a famous shearers' strike, "The Ballad of 1891," to the musical Reedy River.) In 1957, around the time she was expelled from the Communist Party, Palmer founded and began editing Outlook, a bimonthly journal focused on discussions of various progressive socialist issues. The range of issues included political developments in the Soviet Union, Australian policy issues, apartheid in South Africa, civil liberties for Aborigines, and the Vietnam War. She served as editor of the journal until it ceased publication in 1970.

Throughout her life, Palmer's spirited debates about the educational process influenced the quality and philosophy of the Australian education system. On a practical level, she made a case for teaching social history and authored several Australian historical texts for schools in the 1950s and 1960s. As a member of the New South Wales Teachers' Federation, she also strove to improve teachers' working conditions. Years later, her analyses concerning the central role of education in the lives of Australians would be at the forefront of educational policy discussions. Witty and quiet spoken, Palmer exerted a profound influence on progressive Australian thinking, and remained an important figure on the Australian left for decades.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Wilde, William, Joy Hooten, and Barry Andrews. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

Bridges, Doreen, ed. Helen Palmer's Outlook, 1982.

Richard C. C. , freelance writer, Eugene, Oregon

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Palmer, Helen (1917–1979)

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