One of Australia’s first paid female paramedics reveals the challenges, and perks, of being one of only two women on the job.
Beth Shepherd was only 18-years-old when she became one of the first paid female paramedics with the Northern Territory St John Ambulance service in 1976.
But she says she didn’t feel any sense of trepidation when she applied.
“When they said they were going to advertise, I thought why not, I’m going to give that a try,” says Shepherd. “I guess I’d always been raised with the idea that men and women could do equal work.”
Shepherd started volunteering with St John Ambulance service at the age of 16 and had always been attracted to the nature of the work. “I liked the unpredictability of it. You have to be able to manage anything that you are sent to,” says Shepherd.
On Christmas Day 1974, Cyclone Tracey struck Darwin leaving the hospital without communication abilities and a Government run ambulance service that was unable to operate. The St John Ambulance service, which had until that point only been operating at night in a volunteer capacity, began running operations and formal control was handed over in 1976. It was then that the service employed six paid paramedics. Among those were two women, Maureen Langdon and Shepherd.
“The initiative for employing the first paid female ambulance officers has been credited to the manager, Warren Burgess, who had come up from St John Ambulance in South Australia,” says Frank Dunstan, a volunteer historian for St John Ambulance NT.
From the day she started Shepherd says she was paid equally and expected to do the same work as the men. The only difference she noticed between male and female paramedics was the uniform.
“We started off wearing a dress and stockings but after a while we decided that a dress wasn’t on, so we went to trousers,” says Shepherd.
But some of the public noticed a difference. “Occasionally at the scene of a job, I would go to do the lifting and a member of the public would come and say, ‘Oh no Miss, you can’t do that’,” says Shepherd.
Despite a cohesive team environment, there were challenges for Shepherd when she announced her pregnancy.
“There was no maternity leave, they told me I could work for as long as I can but then I would have to resign,” she says. “I was a bit upset about that.”
Shepherd took some time off after giving birth and then re-applied for her job and was successfully employed again and continued working with St Johns Ambulance in the NT until 1981.
Timeline of Australia’s first paid female paramedics
1976 – Maureen Langdon and Beth Shepherd are employed by the NT St Johns Ambulance service.
1979 – Lee Clout is employed by the NSW Ambulance service
1984 – Cathy Stephenson, Kim Shoard (nee Yarra), Ingrid Mears and Cathy Csucsy are employed by the ACT Ambulance service.
1985 – Women are permitted to enter the Western Australian Ambulance service.
1985 – Catherine McNamara joins the Tasmanian Ambulance service as student ambulance officer. In 1988, she qualifies as a paramedic.
1987 – Andrea Wyatt is employed by the Victorian Ambulance service.
If you have any information regarding the first paid female paramedics in South Australia or Queensland, please email Alix.Piatek@sbs.com.au