But, after all that time and “almost running out of puff”, she said it finally felt like the stage was set for women’s achievements to come into the spotlight.
“I think we are at a really important moment in history and we’re all fully aware of the #MeToo and #ItsTime and the momentum that’s been built,” Ms Haussegger said.
“We only have to look at the nominees tonight, 13 of the 16 are women.
“Every single one of us has won tonight.”
While she said her work at the foundation had only made her more concerned about backlash to the women’s movement, she stressed gender equality was not about a “power grab” or usurping male authority.
“It’s for everyone,” she said.
Ms Haussegger underwent surgery in July after she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Local entrepeneur Hannah Wandel joined Ms Haussegger on stage at the National Arboretum to claim the ACT’s Young Australian of the Year Award.
At the age of 13, Ms Wandel’s family home was engulfed by flames. Out of tragedy, the generosity of her rural community inspired her to create Country to Canberra, a mentoring program designed to break down both geographical and gender barriers for girls in regional Australia.
This year, she clocked up more than 32,000 kilometres travelling to 80 bush communities across Australia where she and a small team of volunteers ran workshops for more than 3500 girls.
“This award means the absolute world to me,” she said. “It can be really tough in the bush, [it’s] harder to access career and educational opportunities.”
At the start of the workshops, she said hundreds of young women struggled to name a single strength they saw in themselves but by the end they could all describe something.
Also honoured on Monday was paediatrician Dr Sue Packer AM, who was named the territory’s Senior Australian of the Year after a long career working to protect children from abuse.
Dr Packer, who admits her young patients sometimes confuse her with the fictional Dr Seuss, said the award made her reflect on the delight she still felt each day working with children.
David Williams was named Local Hero of the Year for his work – inspired by a public speaking workshop – coaching people with intellectual disabilities to find their voice.
Two decades on, the Confident Speakers program had seen participants, many of whom were once thought to be non-verbal, speak everywhere from the stage of TEDxCanberra to the United Nations.
Mr Williams said he is set to launch another program this week focussing on improving digital literacy for people with disabilities.
Monday’s award recipients will join other interstate winners at the national awards on January 26 in Canberra, when the four Australians of the Year in each category will be announced.
The full list of ACT nominees were:
2019 ACT AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
Megan Gilmour – Education advocate for sick children
Kate Grarock – Ecologist and conservation advocate
Virginia Haussegger AM – Journalist and women’s advocate (Winner)
Rebecca Vassarotti – Community advocate
2019 ACT SENIOR AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
Julian Cribb – Science writer
Cathi Moore – Social justice champion for women and girls
Dr Sue Packer AM – Paediatrician and child advocate (Winner)
Agnes Shea OAM – Indigenous elder and reconciliation advocate
2019 ACT YOUNG AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
Sophie Fisher – Mobility enabler for refugee and migrant women
Sally Hill – Indonesian language and bi-lateral relations advocate
Karlie Noon – Role model for Indigenous youth and STEM advocate
Hannah Wandel – Change agent for young rural women (Winner)
2019 ACT LOCAL HERO
Peter Gordon – Hands Across Canberra CEO
Jayanti Gupta – Supporter of women of South Asian origin
Juliet Moody – Comedian and domestic violence advocate
David Williams – Disability advocate (Winner)
Fairfax Media is a print partner of the Australian of the Year Awards 2019.
Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs