I’ve been reading Do Let’s Have Another Drink, Gareth Russell’s gossipy anecdotal biography of the Queen Mother. I was struck by this claim in the footnotes discussing Sheila Chisholm, the Australian socialite who George VI was infatuated with prior to marrying the Queen Mum:
The British stereotype of referring to an Australian woman as a ‘Sheila’ stemmed from Sheila Chisholm’s fame in British newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s.
The qualification “British stereotype” is important here. The use of the term “sheila” in Australia definitely doesn’t come from the much-married Ms Chisholm. As the Macquarie Dictionary notes, the term is “dated” and “probably from Sheila, Irish female given name”.
The Australian National Dictionary Centre offers some more background:
This word first appeared in Australian English in 1832 with the spelling shelah. It was initially used in Australia to refer to a woman of Irish origin, but from the late 19th century onwards it became a general term for a woman or girl.
The term persisted throughout most of the 20th century, but fell out of favour as its sexist connotations became clearer. In a discussion of how American and Australian slang differ, the Honolulu Advertiser of 11 September 1944 shows that the term remained in general use:
The American boys whistle when a “dame” passes by and the Australians whistle when a “sheila” goes around the corner.
And here’s a widely-syndicated shocker of unabashed sexism, example taken from the Tweed Daily on 20 November 1929:
I didn’t find any notable UK newspaper examples in the archives to strongly back up the idea that Sheila Chisholm was highly influential in the word being adopted in the UK as a term for Australian women. It might just as easily be the result of the large number of Australian troops who passed through the UK during the two world wars, or the ongoing phenomenon of Australians visiting the “mother country” as a rite of passage.
That was famously captured in 1972’s The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie, where the titular character embarks on just such a journey. The improbably titled song ‘My One-Eyed Trouser Snake’ included the infamous couplet: “I met this arty sheila/who I’d never met before/and something seemed to tell me/she’d bang like a dunny door”.
It was a different time, people.
A final pedantic note: Wikipedia’s entry on Sheila Chisholm notes that “she had fallen into obscurity by the time of her death” in 1969. Not entirely, I’d say. She was still getting gushing coverage from the Australian Women’s Weekly on a visit in 1967. “She’s the girl from near Canberra who married the Tsar’s nephew”.
Lead images from The Australian Women’s Weekly, 1938 and 1967