Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 11, 2010

Nothing Like A Dame (2003), by Bernadette Clohesy

It’s chastening for a school teacher to read this biography of Dame Phyllis Frost…all those bossy, opinionated, demanding little girls that throw their weight about and cause so much trouble in the classroom?  Judge not, I find myself thinking now, because they might grow up to be just like Dame Phyllis – and that would be a very good thing.

Dame Phyllis (AO, DBE, CBE)  died in 2004, and was given a state funeral after a lifetime of extraordinary achievement.  Most Victorians my age know her as the driving force behind prison reform and the Keep Australia Beautiful campaign, but her biographer Bernadette Clohesy has made it clear in this very readable book,  that there was much more to Dame Phyllis than that. 

Nothing Like a Dame  paints a remarkable picture of a very down-to-earth practical woman who was determined to make a difference.  Born in 1917 into a middle class background and a generation of women usually denied education and opportunities, Dame Phyllis was fortunate to have had university education and good role models in her older sisters who were both career women, but she used these advantages in the service of others.  She married and raised a family, whilst also working in a voluntary capacity in an extraordinary number of charitable and reform organisations. 

Even that is not so unusual.  Many women of her generation did so too, and in the wake of their retirement their contribution is often sadly missed.  What was different about Dame Phyllis was the extent to which she took on campaigns to change long-established practice, and succeeded through sheer determination.

In recognition of her achievements she was made a Dame in 1974, but as far as she was concerned the title simply made it harder for people to say ‘no’ to her when she rang up wanting them to do something for one of her causes. Clohesy quotes her as saying ‘When you want to throw your weight about, if you’ve got a ‘Dame’ in front of your name, it makes a great deal of difference’ (p118), and even though Australia has now abandoned the British Honours system, it was probably true. 

Clohesy treads a careful line in describing her personality: Dame Phyllis was forceful, formidable, and ‘strong’; she was known to make grown men quake.  These qualities could easily have made her a harridan or a bully, but she had a friendly manner, and could put people from all walks of life at ease. 

This is a well-written and engaging biography.  Photos are spaced throughout the book so that they are integrated with the text, and it includes the subject’s CV, end notes, and an index.  Clohesy has resisted the temptation to ‘tell everything’  so the book is not too long.  Just long enough to convey the story of a remarkable woman who was a role model to many and an inspiration to all who knew her.

Author: Bernadette Clohesy
Title: (Dame Phyllis Frost) Nothing Like a Dame
Publisher: Lothian 2003
ISBN: 0734405553
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Hi Lisa,
    Well what a surprise to see this book reviewed again! And an even bigger surprise was the fact that my son found it online the day it was posted. It’s a shame it’s not still in print – but it is available at most major libraries – and that is keeping Dame Phyllis’ memory alive. What a woman she was – you were so right in saying there was lot more that I could have written. Thank you so much for your very perceptive review. PS: I totally agree with your comments on the much lauded novel, “The Slap”.


    • Hello Bernadette, lovely to hear from you:)
      It must be synchronicity – last night as I was watching Andrew Denton interview Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, I thought to myself, now there’s another great lady that Bernadette Clohesy could write a biography about!
      Are you working on a book at the moment?


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