Dame Enid Lyons and Dame Dorothy Tangney were the first women in Australia to be elected to parliament.
In 1894, South Australia became the first governed region in the world to allow equal political rights, allowing women to vote and stand for parliament. Following this, in 1902 the new, post-Federation Australia granted women the right to vote and run for parliament with the Commonwealth Franchise Act. Unfortunately, the Act did not include Indigenous women, with Australia’s First Nations people not gaining political rights until 1962.
Despite these progressive legislations, it would be 40 years between the first attempt by a woman to run for parliament in 1903, and the swearing in of the first woman elected to parliament in 1943. This period of time – from the first campaign attempts to the swearing in of a woman in parliament – remains one of the longest in the world. Alongside this, Australia’s major political parties did not endorse any female candidates until the 1940s.
Dame Enid Lyons
Enid Lyons’s husband was former Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. Despite her political affiliations, she was an incredibly popular MP – winning a seat in the House of Representatives twice with an increasing majority between 1943 and 1951. Lyons was a member for the United Australia Party until it dissolved in 1945, and was later a member for the Liberal Party of Australia.
Lyons used her political platform to champion women’s rights, endorsing the need for community housing, child endowments, maternity services, family benefits, and the free distribution of essential medicines. Lyons was also the first female Cabinet member, and was Vice President of the Executive Council from 1949 to 1951. She retired from politics in 1951, but remained active in public life – authoring memoirs and columns, and even holding a range of positions, including commissioner of the ABC.
Dame Dorothy Tangney
Dorothy Tangney is one of the longest-serving women in Australian Parliament, only having her 25-year tenure broken in 2001. The Western Australian native and former teacher was an active member of the Claremont branch of the Australian Labor Party, before unsuccessfully running for the seat of Nedlands twice. Alongside this, Tangney was also unsuccessful in her first attempt at running for the Senate, and was only elected after filling in a casual Senate vacancy.
In her tenure, Tangney was both widely respected by the public and in parliament, known for her commitment to social reform. The MP supported equal pay, endowments for abandoned women and war widows, universal education and free tertiary education, and medical and disability pensions.
Tangney lost her seat in 1968. She became the first woman born in Western Australia to be appointed as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
The impact of Lyons and Tangney remains today. Since then, Julia Gillard was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2010, and today, women account for 39 per cent of the Australian parliament. Alongside this, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s Cabinet boasts a record number of female ministers. Of course, there is still a long journey ahead to ensuring that Australia’s political landscape reflects the diversity of our country – but, nonetheless, it’s a start.
Pictured: Dame Enid Lyons and Dame Dorothy Tangney in Canberra, 1943.