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Australian women in politics

Carol Porter, Get Elected, 1997, silkscreen print. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: pi001700.

In 1902 Australia's new Commonwealth Parliament paved the way for a new form of democracy by granting women the vote and the right to be elected on a national basis.

This was a significant victory for Australia's suffragette movement. It succeeded despite strong opposition to the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 , which enshrined these new women's rights in law.

Leading the world in rights and yet, the longest lag time for election

Edith Cowan, MLA

Edith Cowan, MLA. Courtesy of A Vote of Her Own

While New Zealand had granted women the right to vote in 1893, in 1902, Australia granted women the right to vote and also to seek election. This reflected the rights of women to vote and seek election in South Australia and to vote in Western Australia, rights granted in 1895 and 1899 respectively.

Indigenous women were not granted suffrage in federal elections until 1962, although Aboriginal women were granted suffrage in South Australia in 1894.

A leading suffragette, Edith Cowan, was the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament when she won a seat in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921.

The victory was indeed groundbreaking, but the next hurdle proved even more difficult as it took nearly 22 years for a woman to enter federal parliament. Ironically, this 'time lag' was the longest of any Western country.

The first nominations

In 1903, for the first time in the British Empire, Australian women were candidates for election to a national parliament. In all, four women were nominated – three for the Senate and one for the House of Representatives.

Vida Goldstein - an electoral pioneer, 190-.

Unknown photographer, Portrait of Vida Goldstein, 190-, photograph: gelatin silver. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23371660

Vida Goldstein – an electoral pioneer

Vida Goldstein ran for the Senate on three occasions – in 1903, 1910 and 1917. She was also a House of Representatives candidate in 1913 and 1914. However, she was never successful in her bids for election.

Apart from 'breaking the ice' by running as a candidate, she was also a vocal campaigner for issues such as equal pay for equal work, the recognition of a basic wage, the abolition of child labour and equal property rights for spouses.

A true activist, Goldstein saw her nominations for parliament as an opportunity to express her views to a wider audience:

I accepted nomination because I saw what a splendid educational value the campaign would have. I knew I would attract much larger audiences as a candidate than if I were advertised to give a lecture on women's part in the federal elections, or some such subject.

The power of the women's vote – Western Australia

Between 1910 and 1920 the power of the women's vote began to have an increasingly noticeable effect on the law and on society. Divorce laws were made more equitable, King Edward Memorial Hospital was established as a women's hospital, women justices were appointed to the Children's Court, and barmaids and female musicians were granted equal pay with men.

Edith Cowan, 1921–1925 and May Holman, 1925–1939

Edith Cowan – a pioneer for women's and children's rights at the turn of the century – became the first woman to enter any Australian parliament when she was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921.

Edith Cowan was a suffragette and social activist. Despite demeaning stereotyping, Edith Cowan was a forceful parliamentarian. She introduced and saw enacted the Women's Legal Status Act, which enabled women to practice law. This was a major milestone in the achievement of women's rights. The Edith Cowan University in Perth was named after her.

May Holman, MLA

May Holman, MLA. Courtesy of A Vote of Her Own

The next woman elected in Western Australia was May Holman (1893–1939), first elected in 1925 and the first female Labour parliamentarian in the world. May had grown up with a mother who was active in Labor women's organisations and a father who was a Labor member of the Legislative Assembly in 1901–21 and 1923–25. From 1918 she assisted her father at the Timber Workers' Union, spending nine months in the Victorian Arbitration Court. After his death in 1925, May was briefly acting secretary of the union and won pre-selection for his blue-ribbon seat of Forrest, a predominantly timber electorate. The Timber Industries Regulation Act, 1926, was largely her work.

Holman was to occupy the seat of Forrest for the next fourteen years, at a time when Western Australia was at the forefront of the Australian women's movement. At her instigation, in 1938, a royal commission to inquire into sanitation, slum clearance and health and housing regulations in Perth was set up.

Florence Cardell-Oliver, 1936–1956

Florence Cardell-Oliver, MLA

Florence Cardell-Oliver, MLA. Courtesy of A Vote of Her Own

Florence Cardell-Oliver (1876–1965), president of the Western Australian Nationalist Women's Movement, won the State seat of Subiaco in 1936, which she was to hold for 20 years. Cardell-Oliver was especially concerned about the health of children from low income families. Cardell-Oliver was the first woman in Australia to attain full cabinet rank when she became Minister for Health in October 1949. Her efforts created the school milk scheme, which ensured that generations of children received a daily quota of free milk.

'woman's skirts rustle on the sacred benches', 1925 – New South Wales

Millicent Preston-Stanley (NSW, 1925) was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as a Nationalist Party candidate for the Eastern Suburbs electorate. Preston-Stanley was a realist with regard to the immediate impact she would have:

I'm not fool enough to suppose my going into the House is going to make any sweeping alteration. The heavens won't fall because a woman's skirts rustle on the sacred benches, so long the sacrosanct seats of the lords of creation.
E. F. Smith, Millicent Preston-Stanley: A Feminist in Politics, BA (Hons) Thesis, The University of Sydney, 1977
Hon Linda Burney, MLA

Hon Linda Burney, MLA. Courtesy of A Vote of Her Own

Since Preston-Stanley, over eighty women have been elected to Parliament, with nearly forty of them doing so now. Overall, more than 700 women have stood for Parliament in NSW.

Some of them were 'first in their field'. Helen Sham-Ho, (MLC 1988–2003) was the first Chinese-born parliamentarian in Australia. Janice Crosio, who served on the executive of all three levels of government, was the first woman New South Wales Government Cabinet Member. In 2003, Linda Burney became the first Aboriginal person elected to the NSW Parliament when she won the seat of Canterbury.
Putting Skirts on the Sacred Benches

Irene Longman, 1929, Queensland and the long dry until 1966

Women at Queensland's first state election, May 1907

Women inside the gate of the city polling station, voting for the first time in a Queensland state election , May 1907 [suffragette movement in Queensland]. Courtesy of Oxley Library.

Queensland did not enfranchise women until 1905. However, it was the second State to allow the right for women to sit in parliament, in 1915. Irene Longman was the first to stand as a candidate, endorsed by the Country–National Party and the Queensland Women's Electoral League. Longman was responsible for women being admitted to the Queensland police force, something originally proposed by the suffragists in the nineteenth century.

It was not until 1966 that a second woman, Vi Jordan, entered parliament—and she managed to get a women's toilet in the House. Annabelle Rankin was Queensland's first female Federal Member when elected to the Senate in 1947, and the first Queensland woman in the House of Representatives was Elaine Darling in 1980. When Kathy Martin (Sullivan) was elected to the Senate in 1974 she was the only Queensland woman in Federal parliament. Flo Bjelke-Petersen and Margaret Reynolds were both elected to the Senate in the 1980s.

Lady Millicent Peacock, 1933, and Doris Blackburn, 1946 – Victoria

Doris Blackburn

Doris Blackburn. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23193553.

Women in Victoria had to wait until 1908 before they were granted suffrage in Victorian state elections and until 1923 before they were eligible to stand for the Victorian Parliament. Lady Millicent Peacock (1870–1948) became the first female Member of the Parliament of Victoria at a by-election for the Legislative Assembly seat of Allandale, caused by the death of the sitting member, her husband.

It was not until 1946 that Victorian women entered federal parliament. Doris Blackburn (1889–1970) was elected as the independent member for Bourke, her late husband's seat, although she had been campaign secretary for Vida Goldstein in the 1913 federal election. Blackburn was involved in the Free Kindergarten movement and campaigns for better education, playgrounds and creches. In 1957, with Doug Nicholls, she was a co-founder of the Aborigines Advancement League and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement.

Margaret McIntyre, 1948, Tasmania

Margaret Edgeworth McIntyre (1886 - 1948) was a member of the National Council of Women of Tasmania, a commissioner (1940-48) of the Girl Guides' Association and established the G. V. Brooks Community School in 1948 before being appointed O.B.E. that year. In the same year, she stood as an Independent to win the division of Cornwall in the Tasmanian Legislative Council: she was the first woman to be elected to the parliament. 'Less than four months after her parliamentary career began, she was killed when the Australian National Airways Dakota in which she was travelling crashed into a mountain near Quirindi, New South Wales'.

Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele, 1959, South Australia

Although it was the first state to allow women the right to vote and stand for election, South Australia was last to have a female representative. South Australia's first female elected parliamentarians were Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele—elected to both the Upper and Lower Houses in 1959.

Breaking into federal parliament – Dorothy Tangney and Enid Lyons, 1943

Senator Dorothy Tangney, 195-.

Portrait of Senator Dorothy Tangney, 195- Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an23371982.

In August 1943, 22 years after Cowan was elected, Australia finally elected women to Australia's federal parliament when Dorothy Tangney became Senator for Western Australia and Enid Lyons was elected to the House of Representatives.

Tangney, a 31-year-old school teacher, went on to become a veteran of the parliament, representing Western Australia for 25 years until 1968. Senator Dorothy Tangney was WA's representative at the 1958 National Conference on Equal Pay in Sydney. The decade closed with the establishment of the Combined Equal Pay Committee of Western Australia.

Enid Lyons

Enid Lyons. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Lyons was also a teacher and the widow of former Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. She had previously stood, along with her mother Eliza Burnell, for the ALP in the 1925 Tasmanian election, when she was defeated by only 60 votes. In the 1943 Federal election, Lyons' own party, unable to refuse her decision to stand, endorsed two men in the seat as well. Lyons won narrowly to become the first woman elected to the Lower House. She was also the first woman in Federal Cabinet, as vice-president of the Executive Council in 1949.

Lyons worked hard in Parliament for women and children. She believed that men and women should be completely equal. In those days women often stayed at home. If they did go out to work, they earned less. Lyons brought in welfare payments for mothers and equal training allowances for women and men. She was made Dame Enid by the King in 1943 and Dame Enid of Australia in 1980.

Post World War II – first women political leaders, Ministers, Premiers and Prime Minister

Over the past 30 years women have increased their representation in Australia's parliaments. While there has been a great deal of rhetoric from our political parties about the pre-selection of women candidates and issues such as 'quotas', their representation in both federal and state politics is still disproportionately low.

Nevertheless, there have been some notable figures in the state and federal arenas.

Susan Ryan, 1984, Minister for Education

Susan Ryan

Terry Milligan, Susan Ryan. Courtesy of Terry Milligan and the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an20549079.

Dame Margaret Guilfoyle was the first Australian woman to be appointed to a Cabinet portfolio when, in 1976, she became Minister for Social Security in the Fraser Government. She served in the governments of Malcolm Fraser between 1975 and 1983, as minister, successively, for Education, Social Security, and Finance. On 31 December 1979 Margaret Guilfoyle was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (Dames Commander) for her services to public and parliamentary service.

Susan Ryan (1942–) was appointed the first Labor Senator for the Australian Capital Territory, 1975. In the Federal Parliament she was the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the Status of Women 1983–88 and the Minister for Education, 1984–87. She presided over the passage of the federal government's Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunities in Employment) Act 1986.

Janine Haines, 1986, South Australia, Leader of the Australian Democrats

In 1986, Janine Haines became the first woman to lead an Australian political party when she was elected leader of the Australian Democrats. Under her leadership the Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate. She significantly increased Democrat support, with the Senate vote rising to 12.6 per cent in 1990.

Since Haines, the Democrats have had other female parliamentary leaders - Janet Powell, Cheryl Kernot, Meg Lees, Natasha Stott Despoja and Lyn Allison.

Joan Kirner, 1990, Deputy Premier of Victoria

Joan Kirner served as Deputy Premier of Victoria for a year in 1989 before serving as Premier for two years to 1992. Following the Labor Party's defeat in 1992 she became Leader of the Opposition. She resigned from parliament in 1994. She said of her time in the 'top job':

My being premier, whatever people thought of my government, showed that a woman, a feminist, can be premier and win the respect of business, unions and the community.

Carmen Lawrence, 1990, Premier of Western Australia

Hon Carmen Lawrence MLA

Hon Carmen Lawrence MLA. Courtesy of Carmen Lawrence

In a leadership change on 12 February 1990, Dr Carmen Lawrence made history by becoming Premier of Western Australia and Australia's first woman Premier.

Following Labor's narrow defeat at the 1993 State election, Dr Lawrence also became Western Australia's first woman Opposition Leader and held the positions of Shadow Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Employment and Federal Affairs.

Dr Lawrence entered federal politics by winning the federal seat of Fremantle in a by-election on 12 March 1994. She was appointed Minister for Human Services and Health, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women in March 1994.

Amanda Vanstone, 1996, Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs

Senator Amanda Vanstone had a diverse range of portfolios. After the national 1996 election, Senator Vanstone served as the Federal Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, and in October 1997 became the Minister for Justice. Following the 1998 election she was sworn in as the Minister for Justice and Customs. From January 2001 until October 2003 she served as Minister for Family and Community Services, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women.

Anna Bligh, 2007, Premier of Queensland

Hon Anna Bligh MLA

Hon Anna Bligh MLA. Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Anna Bligh (1960 – ) was elected to parliament in 1995 with a Bachelor of Arts and in 1998 became the Minister for Families, Youth and Community Care and Disability Services. She was promoted to deputy premier in 2005 and then in 2007, with Peter Beattie's retirement, Anna became the first female Premier of Queensland. A local newspaper has also managed to trace Anna's family back to Captain Bligh.

Marion Scrymgour, Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory

Hon Marion Scrymgour

Hon Marion Scrymgour. Courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Marion Scrymgour was the first female Aboriginal minister in any government in the history of Australia. Marion was born in Darwin in 1960 and raised on the Tiwi Islands. Marion was the Member for Arafura from 2001 to 2012 and a Minister between 2002 and 2009. She has held the roles of Deputy Chief Minister, Minister for Employment, Education and Training, Minister for Family and Community Services, Minister for Child Protection, Minister for Indigenous Policy, Minister for Arts and Museums and Minister for Women's Policy. In 2009, she resigned from Cabinet and as Deputy Chief Minister, citing health reasons.

Julia Gillard, 2010, Australia's first female Prime Minister

Prome Minister Julia Gillard

Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Image courtesy of Prime Minister of Australia. Copyright Commonwealth of Australia 2011

Julia Gillard was born in Barry, Wales in 1961. Her family migrated to Australia in 1966 and she grew up in Adelaide. Ms Gillard was elected as the Federal representative for Lalor as a member of the Australian Labor Party in 1998 and continues to represent the electorate of Lalor. Following the Australian Labor Party's victory at the 2007 Federal Election, Ms Gillard was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion.

On 24 June 2010 she was sworn in as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia, making her Australia's first female Prime Minister. She was re-sworn in as Prime Minister on 14 September 2010 following the 2010 Federal Election and held the position until 26 June 2013.

Useful links

Early suffragettes and female politicians

Historical references for women in politics

Last updated: 21st September 2011
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.


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