75 years of women in the Parliament
21 August 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the election of the first women to the Commonwealth Parliament. Enid Lyons of the United Australia Party and Dorothy Tangney of the Australian Labor Party were both elected on that day in 1943; Lyons to the House of Representatives and Tangney to the Senate.
The Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 had enabled Australian women in all states to vote in Commonwealth elections and to sit in the Commonwealth Parliament. However, the legislation specifically excluded Indigenous women (and men) unless they were already enrolled to vote in a state. Women in South Australia and Western Australia (who were granted voting rights in 1895 and 1900, respectively) had been eligible to vote in the first Commonwealth elections in 1901. Four women were candidates for the 1903 federal election, but it would be another 40 years before the first women were elected to the Commonwealth Parliament.
Prior to the election of Lyons and Tangney, a total of eleven women had served in state parliaments (in Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria). The first was Edith Cowan of the Nationalist Party, who became the first woman elected to any Australian parliament when she won a seat in the Parliament of Western Australia in 1921.
Although neither Lyons nor Tangney self-described as a feminist, both worked in the Parliament to actively promote the interests of women.
Enid Lyons stood for the seat of Denison at the 1925 Tasmanian state election, losing by only sixty votes. Her husband, Joseph (Joe) Lyons, served in the Tasmanian Parliament, including as Premier, before moving to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1929. He was Prime Minister from 1932 until his death in 1939. Enid Lyons was a major factor in his popularity and appeal. Recalling campaigning alongside her husband, she said ‘Together on the platform, Joe and I worked like partners in a game of bridge.’
In her first speech as the Member for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin in September 1943, she said ‘I am well aware that, as I acquit myself in the work that I have undertaken for the next three years, so shall I either prejudice or enhance the prospects of those women who may wish to follow me in public service in the years to come.’ Over the following years she spoke in the House of Representatives on many subjects of particular relevance to women, in addition to Tasmanian and national issues. She ‘could take some credit for the extension of child endowment, free medical treatment for pensioners and free distribution of life-saving drugs’.
Enid Lyons was re-elected with increased majorities in 1946 and 1949. In December 1949 she was sworn in as Vice-President of the Executive Council, becoming the first woman member of a federal Cabinet. However, she later lamented that it was ‘a toothless position’ and that ‘they only wanted me to pour the tea’. She resigned from Cabinet in May 1951 and did not contest the next election.
Enid Lyons was appointed Dame of the Order of Australia on Australia Day, 1980. She died the following year, survived by eleven of her twelve children. The electoral division of Lyons in Tasmania is named in honour of both Enid and Joseph Lyons.
Dorothy Tangney contested the seat of Nedlands, without success, at the 1936 and 1939 state elections in Western Australia. In 1940 she failed to gain a Senate seat, but in 1943 she was elected to fill a casual vacancy as a Senator for Western Australia.
In her first speech in September 1943 she said: ‘I ... realise my great honour in being the first woman to be elected to the Senate. But it is not as a woman that I have been elected to this chamber. It is as a citizen of the Commonwealth; and I take my place here with the full privileges and rights of all honourable senators, and, what is still more important, with the full responsibilities which such a high office entails.’ In the Senate, Tangney advocated for improvements to social services and housing, increased pensions, a national health system and free university education. She was the first Australian woman to attend an Empire Parliamentary Association conference (in London in 1948) and to preside over the Senate (intermittently in 1962–63 and 1965–68) as temporary chairman of committees. She was re-elected in 1946, 1951, 1955 and 1961.
At the 1967 election, Dorothy Tangney fought hard but was defeated. She was appointed Dame of the Order of the British Empire on 8 June 1968. In her valedictory speech in the Senate, on 13 June 1968, she noted that unlike ‘most of the other senators who are retiring, I am not doing so voluntarily’. Dorothy Tangney died in 1985. The electoral division of Tangney in Western Australia is named in her honour.
Australia’s 100th female senator and other statistics on women in the Parliament
Dr Mehreen Faruqi (Australian Greens, NSW), who was sworn in as a senator on 20 August 2018, is Australia’s 100th female senator. She fills the casual vacancy created by the retirement of Senator Lee Rhiannon on 15 August 2018.
To date, a total of 115 women have served in the House of Representatives. (Six women have served in both chambers.) The 100th woman to serve in the House of Representatives is Terri Butler MP (ALP, elected 2014), the Member for Griffith.
As at the date of publication, 73 of Australia’s 226 Commonwealth parliamentarians (32.3 per cent) are women. The proportion of women in the Senate (38.2 per cent) is higher than in the House of Representatives (29.3 per cent).
Internationally, Australia is currently ranked 50th globally by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a ranking based on the percentage of women in each country’s lower house. In comparison, New Zealand (38.3 per cent) is ranked 19th, the United Kingdom (32.0 per cent) is ranked 41st, Canada (27.0 per cent) is ranked 60th, and the United States of America (19.5 per cent) is ranked 102nd.
Enid Lyons, image source: Antoine Kershaw (National Library of Australia), via Wikimedia Commons
Dorothy Tangney, image source: Broothorn Studios (National Library of Australia), via Wikimedia Commons