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Of all the iconic posters of World War 2, few have enjoyed such enduring popularity as the one pictured below. “We can do it!” the poster boldly declares, over a striking image of a woman with her sleeves rolled up, ready and able to take on whatever needs doing. A dispute continues over who the no-nonsense woman is modelled on, but it may as well have been Cecile Phyllis Connor.

Phyllis certainly had the right background for her resourceful and self-reliant approach to life. Her father is believed to have come from a successful farming family based in the Geelong Region, and was reportedly appointed Commissioner for Agriculture Development in the South West region of Western Australia when Phyllis was very young. However, with the economic downturn of the 1920s, the position was dispensed with and the Connor family returned to Victoria. Living through those years of economic downturn must have surely impacted Phyllis’s approach to managing money – and her understanding of the impact that financial hardship can have on entire communities.

The young Phyllis began her education at Melbourne Girls Grammar School (MGGS) in 1919 under Ms Kathleen Gilman Jones, a forward-thinking headmistress who did much to advance the education of young women and promote vocational training beyond the social conventions of the era. She continued her education at college, after which – unusually for a young woman of her background – she began working at the then-relatively new State Electricity Commission, learning shorthand, typing and book-keeping.

In 1939, World War 2 erupted. Great Britain declared war on Germany while Imperial Japanese forces began tearing their way southwards through Asia. True to her nature, Phyllis rolled up her sleeves and became a driver for the Australian Army, making such an impression that the military secret service recruited her to conduct intelligence-gathering.

When the war ended and everybody returned home to ticker-tape parades and peace-time tranquillity, Phyllis did not rest on her laurels. Ever the capable and independent woman, she set about securing her financial future through prudent investments. She also became a client of Equity Trustees, the start of a fruitful relationship which was to last more than 30 years.

Phyllis passed away aged 99 in May 2010, concluding her long and productive life. Yet her story – and her relationship with Equity Trustees – did not end there. Through her Will, Phyllis established a perpetual charitable trust – the Phyllis Connor Memorial Trust – for “the general benefit of charity in Victoria”. Since then, the Trust (of which Equity Trustees shares responsibility for with co-trustee Norman Bourke) has awarded grants to numerous charities and causes around Victoria – many supporting the education and advancement of women and girls.

In 2018 the Trust gave away almost $1 million in philanthropic funding. This included $259,000 in grants to Good Shepherd for development and rollout of the Firmer Foundations program, which empowers women to leave domestic environments where they are exposed to, or at risk of, violence. Through the program, specially trained staff work with affected women to help them set and maintain personal and financial goals, thereby freeing them of financial dependence on their partner – a key reason, traditionally, that victims of domestic violence remain in abusive relationships.

In 2018 the Trust gave away almost $1 million in philanthropic funding. This included a $132,000 grant to Good Shepherd, the latest in a series of grants commenced in 2014 for the development and rollout of the Firmer Foundations program, which is designed to increase women’s financial skills, knowledge and confidence; access to resources and supports; economic participation and financial stability. Outcomes in these areas are intended to increase women’s safety and wellbeing in the longer term, as women become less vulnerable to economic abuse and other forms of family violence.

Another recent beneficiary of the Phyllis Connor Memorial Trust was the ‘Healthy Mind, Healthy Body’ project at the Western English Language School (WELS), which delivers after-school activities to support and ease young women’s transition into Australian society and culture. The activities focus on women’s health, nutrition, career pathways and opportunities, sports, networking and discussions relevant to their experiences. WELS aims for the young women supported to have a positive transition into Australia assisting them to succeed in Australia’s multicultural society.

Phyllis Connor’s spirit shines through the story of her life, an inspiring combination of determination and benevolence – a woman who rolled up her sleeves and made her own way in life, but left behind legacy that continues to help other women find their feet and make their way in the world, their way.

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