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Dame Enid Lyons AD GBE

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Member for Darwin (Tasmania), 21 August 1943 to 19 March 1951
United Australia Party 1943 to 1944
Liberal Party 1944 to 1951

Enid Lyons (1897 - 1981) was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first appointed to federal Cabinet. As the wife of Prime Minister Joe Lyons, she had been ‘a partner in the most prominent marriage in Australian politics’ and one of the few in which both spouses served in the federal Parliament.1 Her election remains, in her own words, a ‘turning point in history’ for all Australian women.2

Born in Tasmania, Enid Burnell was working as a trainee teacher when she married Joe Lyons, then state Treasurer and Minister for Education.3 The pair formed a strong political partnership and she played a leading role in his many election campaigns. She later recalled: ‘Joe and I worked like partners in a game of bridge’.4 A staunch advocate for women’s political participation, she unsuccessfully contested the 1925 state election for Labor.

Lyons re-entered politics four years after her husband’s death, determined to get back ‘in the thick of things’.In 1943 she stood as the UAP candidate for the federal seat of Darwin (Tasmania). While Labor won Government, Lyons narrowly won the seat, defeating future Tasmanian Premier Eric Reece.Cognisant of her pioneering role in the Parliament, she declared:

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

She was re-elected with increased majorities in 1946 and 1949. An accomplished orator, Lyons advocated for many ‘subjects of particular relevance to women­­’, in addition to Tasmanian and national issues.8 She ‘could take some credit for the extension of child endowment, free medical treatment for pensioners and free distribution of life-saving drugs’.9 In December 1949, she was appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council in the Menzies Government.10 However, she later lamented that it was ‘a toothless position’ and that ‘they only wanted me to pour the tea’.11 Lyons resigned from Cabinet in May 1951 and did not contest the next election.

After leaving politics Lyons continued her civic work, with the Australian Women’s National League, the Victoria League, the Housewives Association, and St Joan’s Social and Political Alliance. In 1951, she began more than a decade of service as a commissioner for the ABC and in 1954 became the inaugural vice-president of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. She maintained her public profile as a newspaper columnist, occasional broadcaster, and author of three memoirs. Lyons was appointed GBE in 1957 and AD in 1980 for her public and parliamentary service. She died in Devonport the following year and received a state funeral.

Sir William Alexander Dargie CBE
Artist and teacher William Dargie (1912-2003) is best known for his contribution to Australian portraiture. A prolific portraitist and eight-time winner of the Archibald Prize, Dargie was inspired by the Heidelberg School of impressionist artists. In 1941, while teaching art at Swinburne Technical College in Melbourne, Dargie was appointed an official war artist for the Australian Army. He worked for five years recording the aftermath of battles across the Middle East, India, Burma and New Guinea. After the war, Dargie built a distinguished career as a leading portrait artist, taking on several commissioned portraits of eminent figures, including the HMC portraits of Her Majesty The Queen, Dame Enid Lyons and Prime Minister John McEwen. He simultaneously held several administrative positions, serving on the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board for 20 years and heading up the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and the National Gallery of Victoria. In 2002, to mark his 90th birthday, the Australian War Memorial, Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery held exhibitions to pay tribute to his contribution to Australian art. His work is represented in national and state galleries and other public institutions across Australia.12

Enid Lyons
by William Alexander Dargie
Oil on canvas
116 x 90.5 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1.‘Portrait of politician and women’s rights activist, Enid Lyons’, National Archives of Australia. Information in this biography is also taken from D Langmore, ‘Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel (1897–1981)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2012; ‘Joseph Lyons’ partner: Enid Lyons’, National Archives of Australia. Websites accessed 20 August 2021.
2. E Lyons, ‘Governor-General’s Speech: address in reply’, House of Representatives, Debates, 29 September 1943, p. 182.
3. ‘Australia’s Prime Ministers: Joseph Lyons’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 20 August 2021.
4. Langmore, op. cit.
5. Ibid.
6. ‘Eric Reece’, The Companion to Tasmanian History, accessed 23 August 2021.
7. Lyons, op. cit.
8. Langmore, op. cit.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid. See also AW Martin, ‘Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) (1894–1978)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed 20 August 2021.
11. Langmore, op. cit.
12. Information in this biography has been taken from the following: M Keaney, ‘Sir William Dargie CBE’, Portrait 9, September–November 2003, National Portrait Gallery; ‘Sir William Dargie: A Ninetieth Birthday Tribute’, National Portrait Gallery; ‘Captain William Dargie’, Australian War Memorial. ‘Dargie, (Sir) William Alexander’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 366. Websites accessed 25 March 2021.

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