Seven pioneer women in the Senate
Dorothy Tangney, the first woman senator, was elected to the Senate for Western Australia for the Australian Labor Party in August 1943. She was thirty-six years old at the time of her election, and she remained in the Senate for twenty-five years. Although she was conscious that she bore the honour of being the first woman senator, Senator Tangney saw her responsibility as being far more than just the representation of women. In her first speech to the Senate, 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 … with the full responsibilities which such a high office entails.
Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 24 September 1943
During her time in the Senate, Senator Tangney was committed to an agenda of social reform which included extending federal government responsibility for social services and instituting Commonwealth assistance in education. In a crucial period between 1943 and 1946, she was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Social Security, which made influential recommendations to the government on such matters as child endowment, invalid pensions, and medical and hospital benefits. She was a champion of the rights of ex-service men and women, deserted wives, civilian and war widows, and the mentally ill. A supporter of the establishment of the Australian National University in Canberra, she was a member of the Council of that University for many years.
The second woman senator was Annabelle Rankin, Senator for Queensland from 1947 to 1971. Senator Rankin, a member of the Liberal Party, was particularly interested in housing, health and communications issues. In 1947 Senator Rankin was appointed Opposition Whip in the Senate, the first woman in the Parliament to hold a whip’s position. She was the Government Whip for fifteen years from 1951. As Minister for Housing she became, in 1966, the first woman responsible for the administration of a government department. After retiring from the Senate in 1971, Dame Annabelle Rankin became Australia’s first woman ambassador, when she was appointed High Commissioner to New Zealand.
Women who entered the Senate after Senator Rankin have acknowledged that her strong presence and manifest ability paved the way for a greater acceptance of women in leadership roles by their Senate colleagues and by the public in general.
Ivy Wedgwood represented the state of Victoria in the Senate from 1950 to 1971. She was a foundation member of the Liberal Party. She was the first woman to chair a Senate committee when, in 1968, she was elected Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs. The developing Senate committee system provided many opportunities for Senator Wedgwood to pursue her interest in and responsibility for social welfare issues. In 1970 she was Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare when it presented a landmark report on mentally and physically handicapped persons in Australia. For more than fifteen years, Senator Wedgwood was a member and sole woman on the powerful Joint Committee of Public Accounts, a joint parliamentary committee with authority to examine the financial affairs of government authorities such as the Audit Office.
Agnes Robertson was elected to the Senate for Western Australia for the first time in 1949, at the age of sixty-eight. She came to the Senate as a representative of the Liberal Party, after formidable experience as a leader of women’s political associations in Western Australia. When the Liberal Party declined to re-endorse her for election in 1955 due to her advanced age, she successfully stood for election for the Country Party. She was the first woman to represent the Country Party in the Parliament.
A teacher in Western Australian schools for many years, Senator Robertson spoke frequently in the Senate on the subject of education, and on the health and welfare of children. She was also active in the area of international affairs, and from February 1956 was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs. She retired from Parliament in 1962 at the age of eighty.
In 1955, Nancy Buttfield, representing the Liberal Party, became the fifth woman to enter the Senate, and the first woman to represent South Australia in the federal Parliament. She was the first woman nominated to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate.
As a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare, she took part in inquiries relating to social services entitlements, ultrasonic aids to the blind and rehabilitation services for the disadvantaged, as well as chairing an inquiry into repatriation. She was also a member of the Senate Select Committee on Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse and a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. Nancy Buttfield served a total of sixteen years in the Senate.
The sixth woman elected to the Senate, Marie Breen was elected as a Liberal Party senator for Victoria and served from 1962 to 1968. In her public speeches, Senator Breen placed considerable emphasis on the importance of family life, as affecting all other areas. She was an active supporter of Australia’s role in the provision of economic and humanitarian assistance to developing countries in the region. She chaired the Senate’s Printing Committee.
Margaret Guilfoyle entered the Senate to represent Victoria for the Liberal Party in 1971. In a parliamentary career which spanned sixteen years, she served, at various times, as Minister for Education, Minister for Social Security, Minister for Finance, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister in Child Care Matters. She took an active interest in a wide range of issues including taxation, Aborigines, social welfare, international affairs, immigration, health and industrial relations. She was a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations which examined matters relating to repatriation, death duties, income tax, superannuation, Australian foreign aid and all aspects of television broadcasting. Other committee service in which Senator Guilfoyle was engaged included the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Enterprises, and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts.
When the Maternity Leave Bill was debated in 1973, Margaret Guilfoyle argued for the extension of maternity leave to all women, not just Commonwealth employees. She was acutely aware of the importance of child care and the need to provide women with a choice as to how they interpreted their role as parents.