Women in Cabinet


On 6 March 2024 Senator Penny Wong becomes the longest serving female Cabinet Minister. Her cumulative 2,769 days in Cabinet (over 7 and a half years from 2007–13 and 2022 onwards) sees her overtake fellow South Australian Amanda Vanstone (who served from 1996–7 and 2001–7). Upon such a notable achievement, this Flagpost article reflects on the broader history of women in Cabinet and highlights their important and varied contributions.

Dame Enid Lyons became the first woman in Cabinet when she was appointed as Vice-President of the Executive Council on 19 December 1949. However, at this time the Cabinet comprised all members of the government Ministry. The first woman in Cabinet (as a separate, elevated component of the Ministry) was Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, who commenced on 12 November 1975 as the Minister for Education. Senator Guilfoyle held this portfolio only briefly, before transitioning to the other Cabinet portfolios of Social Security and later Finance. The first Australian Labor Party (ALP) woman in Cabinet was Senator Susan Ryan, who commenced as Minister for Education on 11 March 1983.

Since 1901, only 34 (8.3%) of the 410 Cabinet members are women. Of these, 17 are from the ALP, 15 from the Liberal party, and 2 from the Nationals. The current Albanese government’s 23-member Cabinet contains 10 women, making it the closest one to achieving gender parity.

Commentators, such as former Parliamentary Secretary Mary Crawford, have also noted that as women became represented in Cabinet, a gendered division of labour became evident as women were allocated portfolios associated with social and cultural services (page 608). More recently these barriers have been broken, with the examples of Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2010, Nicola Roxon appointed Attorney-General in 2011, Julie Bishop appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2013, and Senator Marise Payne appointed Minister for Defence in 2015. However, there still has not been a female Treasurer.

Susan Ryan and Margaret Guilfoyle both passed away at the end of 2020. Speaking at their condolence motions, Senator Wong reflected on their pathbreaking contributions in pioneering women’s involvement in Cabinet. In the condolence motion of Susan Ryan, Senator Wong noted how important her presence in the Cabinet was for other aspiring female politicians:

It is often said 'you cannot be what you cannot see', and yet someone has to go first. Those are the truest of leaders, who have the vision of what is possible, the courage to take on the fight against those vested in the status quo, the intellectual power to craft the strategy and the charisma and humanity to bring people with them. For us, for Labor women, that was Susan Ryan. She could see it: she could see a woman at the cabinet table, and she could see what Australia needed, what Australia needed that woman to achieve, and she made it happen.

In the condolence motion for Margaret Guilfoyle, Senator Wong reiterated that women needed to be in Cabinet to have a true impact on policy:

Speaking at a conference to mark 100 years of women's suffrage in the wonderful state of South Australia in 1994, she emphasised that it was not sufficient to merely increase the number of women in parliament but that women must be in the cabinet. Remarking that our system is one of cabinet government, she said, 'Unless there are women in cabinet, they won't have the effect on policy development and implementation that they would if they were part of a cabinet structure in which the decisions and policy directions are made.’

In 1949 Enid Lyons felt that her Cabinet position was not taken seriously, remarking that ‘they only wanted me to pour the tea.’ This sentiment was similarly shared by Florence Cardell-Oliver, who in 1947 became the first woman in the Cabinet of the Western Australian state government (page 17). From serving tea to near gender parity, significant progress has been made in the representation of women in Cabinet.

Further reading from the Parliamentary Library:


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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