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This International Women’s Day, we’re looking at the achievements of our pioneering Australian female politicians. Leave your party politics at the door.
Women have to contend with a great deal in their professional lives, and female politicians are sometimes singled out for particular treatment. Criticised for what they wear, their weight, their personal lives, they’re often at the receiving end of questions that are never asked of men. More often than not they rise above it, like these five Australian women from various sides of politics who not only made themselves heard but achieved some very distinctive political “firsts”.
Edith Cowan (1861-1932)
A year after Western Australia lifted a legal impediment to women being in parliament, Edith Cowan, then aged 60, became the first woman to be elected into any Australian parliament when in 1921 she won the state seat of West Perth.
It had had a long gestation. Edith’s mother died when she was seven; when she was 15, her alcoholic father shot dead his second wife and was later hanged. Despite this tumultuous childhood, Edith had a stoic personality and an acutely sharp mind. Being married to a magistrate made her aware of the extent of social injustice and she realised the critical importance of education, especially for girls. Over following decades, she spoke out against issues affecting women: domestic violence, equal pay, women’s health, child protection. She campaigned for hospitals, children’s courts, for sex education in schools.
Cowan was elected as a member of the conservative Nationalists. Fiercely independent, she voted with whichever side of politics she felt was promoting the best interests of women and children. In 1923, she introduced a private member’s bill, the Women’s Legal Status Act, which stated that women should be permitted to participate in all public and judicial areas. That Act of the Western Australian parliament has been credited as the basis for the sex discrimination laws that are still in place today.
Edith Cowan was dedicated to social equity and continued her philanthropic work until her death. The woman on the $50 note – she’s worth a second look.
Dame Enid Lyons (1897-1981)
Enid Lyons became the first woman in the federal House of Representatives when she was elected in 1943.
Politics entered her life when at 17 she married 35-year-old Joseph Lyons, then Tasmanian Minister of Education. He became Premier in 1923; in 1929 he moved into federal politics becoming prime minister by 1932. The following year Enid gave birth to her twelfth child. She was 34 years old.
As if having twelve kids wasn’t keeping her busy enough, Lyons played an active role in political life, travelling across the country as the PM’s wife, giving speeches and advising her husband on matters affecting women and families but also on wider issues such as financial security, and given the events in Europe, being prepared for war. When Joe died in 1939, the first Australian prime minister to die in office, Enid decided to enter politics herself.
In 1943, having campaigned for more public housing, better social security and the need for improved family support, Lyons became the first woman ever to sit in the House. During her time in parliament, she fought tirelessly for women, advocating for better maternity services and addressing the gender pay gap, discrimination against married women in the workforce and child support. She was interested in agricultural reform, industry, immigration, medical care for the elderly and energy policy.
In 1949, Lyons achieved another first when she was sworn in as vice-president of the executive council in the Menzies government, the first woman ever to be in Cabinet.
When she left federal politics in 1951 she continued her public life in a range of roles including commissioner of the Australian Broadcasting Commission from 1951-1962. She wrote three memoirs and regular newspaper columns. Lyons proved that in spite of the conservative times in which she lived, women could be supportive wives, active mothers and have successful, productive careers.
Dame Dorothy Tangney (1907-1985)
Significantly, the same election that saw Enid Lyons enter the House also gave us the first woman elected to the Senate, Dorothy Tangney, then aged 36.
Born in Western Australia to a working class family, Tangney became a teacher, focusing her energies on disadvantaged children. A strong social conscience drove her to become involved with the Parents’ and Citizens’ Association, the Boys’ Employment League and the Red Cross. In 1936 she became first woman president of the Societies Council. She was elected branch president of the Labor Party in 1939.
Tangney constantly lobbied for improvements to public housing, social services, stronger support for disadvantaged families, the disabled, victims of domestic violence, and was passionate about establishing a national health system and funding universal education including free tertiary education. A foundation member of the council of the Australian National University, she once challenged the government’s subsidisation of “everything under the sun” by asking “why shouldn’t it subsidise brains?”
Tangney chalked up a few firsts, among them being the first Australian woman to attend an Empire Parliamentary Association (1948), and during the 1960s, the first woman to preside over the Senate.
Tangney fought for equal pay for women, for deserted Australian wives of American army personnel, and she argued for a better deal for nurses, widows, children, the elderly and Aboriginal people. Yet, in spite of her work for women’s rights, Tangney was critical of “radical” feminists, never identified as feminist and had rather conservative views. She was all about merit over gender, and about a fair go for all.
Linda Burney (1957 – )
In 2003 Linda Burney became the first Indigenous person elected to the New South Wales parliament, and so far she remains the only indigenous person to have been part of that state’s parliament. She held a number of ministries in the Labor government including fair trading and community services, and later served as Deputy Opposition Leader.
In 2016, she resigned from state politics to run for a federal seat. Her victory made her the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the federal House of Representatives. Becoming a federal member of parliament is the culmination of an extraordinary life.
Burney was born in country New South Wales. Separated from her mother at a young age she was raised by her non-Indigenous father’s aunt and uncle in a small town rife with racism and inequity. She began her professional life as a teacher and soon became involved in developing policies for improvements in Aboriginal education. She was part of the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, serving as its president for a decade before becoming Director-General of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs.
As well as indigenous issues, Burney has a deep interest in education and social services, in particular, the protection of women and children who suffer domestic violence. She has established herself not only as an advocate for the causes she holds dear, but also as a voice of balance and moderation across the spectrum of political issues.
Julia Gillard (1961 -)
To date, Julia Gillard is the only woman ever to serve as Australia’s Prime Minister. While studying Arts/Law at university, she became involved in student politics, joined the Labor party and honed her networking skills. She became an industrial lawyer fighting for fairer wages and better working conditions for factory workers. Politics beckoned. In 1998, aged 37, she entered federal politics sitting in Opposition until Labor won the 2007 election, when she took on the portfolios of education, employment and workplace relations and also became the first-ever female Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.
Gillard became Prime Minister in June 2010 having replaced Kevin Rudd as Labor leader. In the August 2010 election, she managed to form a minority government by successfully negotiating the crucial support of crossbenchers. Among the issues she fought for were clean energy targets, plain packaging for cigarettes, improvements in health, mining tax changes, education reform (the original Gonski reforms) and the establishment of a national disability insurance scheme. Under her leadership, Australia was elected to serve on the UN Security Council.
In spite of a tenacious Opposition, more than 500 pieces of legislation were passed under Gillard’s leadership. Public perceptions of her government as dysfunctional are clearly exaggerated. However, internal party unrest came to a head and in June 2013, Gillard lost the leadership to Rudd.
Personal criticisms flung at female politicians take many forms. They’re vilified for being unmarried and childless or for being neglectful wives and mothers. But the vicious personal attacks hurled at Julia Gillard were unprecedented in Australian political history. No matter what side of the political fence you’re on, there’s no question that the treatment she received at the hands of fellow parliamentarians and certain elements of the media was simply disgraceful.
It was her handling of these attacks including her now famous misogyny speech that is another of her legacies. Gillard demanded and established a degree of respect for women in the top job. She acknowledged that gender may have played a part in her term as a leader but she was confident that “it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that”. She copped the crap so that other women won’t have to.
This International Women’s Day, we salute these women – from both sides of the political divide.