Dame Leonie Kramer AC DBE (1924-2016)

PJT Hall remembers a colourful USyd identity

Simpler times, Dame Leonie with Gough Whitlam. Simpler times, Dame Leonie with Gough Whitlam.

Dame Leonie Kramer was one of the University’s most well known, and controversial figures. For this, she was unapologetic.

Born in Melbourne, she studied at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College and the University of Melbourne. She gained a Doctorate from the University of Oxford and returned to Australia to teach English at the University of Sydney, before being appointed the first female professor of English. The Emeritus Professor of Australian literature at the University, she wrote both the Oxford History and Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature.

Dame Leonie became a household name during her time as Chancellor of the University of Sydney. A figure also deep in Sydney society, Patrick White called her “Killer Kramer” referring to his view that her style of operation was both swift and ruthless. At a later date she received a Tyrannosaurus rex toy “given to her in acknowledgment of her reputation for ferocity”. She did not shy away from this reputation. Other honours included being appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a Companion of the Order of Australia.

As a role model for women she attracted both adoration and resistance. Supporters pointed to the fact that she was the first female Chancellor, first female Professor of Australian Literature and first female Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation amongst a series of corporate board appointments. The late Justice Roderick Meagher AO QC in his book Reflections on Yellow Paper wrote, “[Kramer] is the most distinguished woman in Australia”.

Her views on gender often caused controversy. No friend of the feminist movement, in Broomstick: Reflections of Leonie Kramer, she wrote, “Women who now devote themselves entirely to their careers have no significant barriers to their advancement, though in later life they might regret that their choice of a career deprived them of a family.”

After serving as a Fellow of the University, she was elected Chancellor. In this time, she resisted the changes and corporatisation that were happening to other universities across the country. After various Fellows of the University Senate decided that Dame Leonie provided the wrong image for the new millennium, she resigned to both horror and delight before the meeting that was set to remove her, so ending one of the most turbulent periods of University history. She later labelled the episode a “conspiracy”. However, no one questioned her commitment to the University and her dedication to her principles as to what she perceived to be the real purpose of a University.

She died on April 20 at Lulworth House, one of the many distinguished Australians to have passed away there in the past few years. Her husband, Harry Kramer, passed away in 1988. She is survived by her daughters, Jocelyn and Hilary and a legacy as one of the University’s most controversial and famous identities.