Newly Appointed an Honorary Companion in the General Division Prof Jill Ker Conway and Newly Appointed an Officer in the General Division Mrs Ernestine Bonita Mabo. Photo: Jay Cronan
When all the formalities were over, Governor-General Quentin Bryce relaxed a little on the steps of Government House, embraced author and academic Jill Ker Conway and declared ''here's my heroine''.
It was a significant meeting of two women of the same generation, each with a fierce affinity for rural Australia who had risen to the top - and paved the way for other women.
Professor Ker Conway, 78, author of the classic Australian memoir The Road from Coorain and a trailblazer in women's education, including as the first woman president of the prestigious Smith's College in the US, formally received the nation's highest honour on Friday, despite not having Australian citizenship.
''I became an American citizen so I could vote against Ronald Reagan,'' she said, with a gentle laugh. ''And at that time you couldn't have dual citizenship.''
Professor Ker Conway had received special permission from then prime minister Julia Gillard to be appointed an honorary companion in the general division of the Order of Australia, the country's highest honour.
She received it for her eminent service to the community, particularly women, as an author, academic and through leadership roles with corporations, foundations, universities and philanthropic groups.
''It is such an inspiration to see all these people are doing and achieving,'' Professor Ker Conway said after the ceremony.
''For me, although I've lived away for several decades now, [Australia's] still home and always will be, and it's just marvellous to be back.''
Ms Bryce said The Road from Coorain had been especially influential for her generation. ''I love to read it again and again and I've given it as gifts to young girls,'' she said.
Another outstanding Australian woman, Bonita Mabo, was appointed an officer in the general division of the Order of Australia.
She was recognised for her distinguished service to the indigenous community and to human rights as an advocate for the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander peoples.
''I wanted to cry but I just had to hold myself and be strong,'' she said, after receiving her award from the Governor-General as the two women warmly held hands.
Mrs Mabo said her late husband, Eddie, would be proud of her, both working towards native title recognition.
''He came to me the other night and gave me a big smile and that was it,'' she said.
''Australia's home but I'm sad to say I'm an Australian South Sea Islander descendent, and we're still fighting for recognition,'' she said.
Ms Bryce said Mrs Mabo had shown great leadership.
''What this signifies is Australia's admiration, respect and affection, if I may say, for your life's work,'' she said.
Ninety-two people were invested with various honours over two days at Government House.
Friday's was Ms Bryce's 50th and final large investiture as Governor-General, presiding over 857 awards and showing a remarkable combination of warmth and memory for detail, working without notes during the ceremonies.
Ms Bryce told the audience she was enormously proud of the honours system for highlighting the service and selflessness among Australians.
''This is what it's all about,'' she said, holding out her arms towards the winners.