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Lucas, Elizabeth (1912–2007)

by Charles Wright

Elizabeth Lucas, by Evert Ploeg, 2006

Elizabeth Lucas, by Evert Ploeg, 2006

Elizabeth Field Lucas (nee Ratten) OAM, who died in Lower Plenty on March 11, aged 94, spent much of her lifetime confounding tradition. As a 26-year-old in the 1920s, when the Depression had snuffed out the feminist fervour of a decade earlier, she cracked the barriers against women in business, by the simple expedient of establishing her own.

At the outbreak of World War II, she could see no reason why women shouldn’t serve their country in a military role. Still not yet 30, she was a pioneer of women’s services in the forces, and became one of Australia’s highest-ranking female officers during the war, eventually rising to command the Australian Women’s Army Service. The service has since dissolved into the Australian Army.

Elizabeth’s father was a bank manager, who moved around the country as required. She was born on September 12, 1912, in Toowoomba, Queensland. The family settled in Melbourne, where Elizabeth was educated at Methodist Ladies’ College. She then completed an art diploma at Swinburne College.

Elizabeth had a particular talent for drawing, but her artist’s eye was not blind to business opportunities – an ability possibly inherited from her convict ancestor, William Field, who founded a Tasmanian dynasty and became Australia’s richest man, with a fortune equivalent to that of the Packer family – unfortunately dispersed generations before her birth.

It was in 1938, with graphic design becoming an important element in marketing, that the then Elizabeth Ratten established Creative Displays in Park Street, South Melbourne. It was a highly successful venture that employed more than 20 staff, including creative artists and tradesmen, who had to adjust to the idea of the boss being a female, and a young one at that.

Her enthusiasm and attention to detail overcame entrenched attitudes, and her ability to provide imaginative marketing material that helped sell products and services to people who did not yet understand their duties to the economy as ‘consumers’, made her a respected member of the local business community.

Soon after the outbreak of war, fired by the belief that women could actively serve their country, she first joined the Prisoners of War Bureau and then became commanding officer of the Australian Women’s Service Corps, a uniformed group of women training in marching and map reading. Many of these women, including Elizabeth Ratten, later joined the new Australian Women’s Army Service.

Selected as one of 20 Australian candidates for the first AWAS Officers’ Training School in November 1941, she closed Creative Displays and joined up. She was commissioned a lieutenant, then rapidly promoted to ever more senior ranks and duties, until, as a major, she took over as controller (commanding officer) of the AWAS at army headquarters in January 1947. In that role she oversaw the process of demobilisation of the AWAS, and emerged as its longest-serving member – from November 12, 1941, to June 25, 1947.

In April 1947, Elizabeth married Charles Hugh Lucas. A former RAAF flight lieutenant, he was outranked by his wife, but he had an equally sharp eye for opportunity, great personal charm and ability. He founded C. H. Lucas Advertising, based in Carlton, and quickly built it into a thriving business.

In 1966, Elizabeth was left to grieve the sudden death of her husband. Without insurance and with two young sons still at school, the family faced a bleak future, but she soldiered on in true military style. Rejecting less-than-generous offers to buy her interest in the company, she instead took the reins as chief executive. Over the next 20 years, she expanded the business and opened a second office in Fiji. Her client list included the Australian and Fijian governments and some of Australia’s best-known brands, including Paddles Shoes and Western Star butter.

At the same time, she continued her involvement with the affairs of ex-servicewomen. Having been the first chair-woman of the AWAS reunion committee in Victoria in 1947, she continued to serve on the committee, and from 1973 to 2002 she was president of the AWAS Association, campaigning tirelessly for improved welfare for ex-servicewomen.

In the mid-80s, Mrs Lucas led the Anzac Day march in Melbourne, in recognition of the contribution by women to Australia’s military efforts.

After 20 years of profitable and expanding operations, Elizabeth sold C. H. Lucas Advertising, and entered a new phase of her life, through her role as Melbourne president of Zonta International, the professional women’s association. She led the growth of Zonta in Victoria and established eight new clubs in outer-suburban areas and country towns.

Mrs Lucas’ two sons inherited her drive and vision. One is a senior Australian banker and the other established and leads an international high-technology software company.

Throughout her life, Elizabeth Lucas provided untiring assistance to voluntary clubs and associations. For many years she ran the juniors program at the Blairgowrie Yacht Squadron. She was made a life member of the Australian Aircraft Restoration Group for her contribution to the formation of its aircraft museum at Moorabbin Airport, which has since become the Australian Aviation Museum.

In 2006 she was awarded the Order of Australia medal for services to women, in particular to ex-servicewomen and Zonta.

Mrs Lucas had a keen sense of adventure and a love of travel. She was an inspiration to her family and several generations of women, many of whom found themselves, after an innocent chat with her, successfully taking on challenges they might otherwise never have attempted.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 30 March 2007, p 12

Additional Resources

Citation details

Charles Wright, 'Lucas, Elizabeth (1912–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lucas-elizabeth-617/text618, accessed 9 July 2020.

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