Australians Elect First Women to Parliament Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Two women were elected to the Australian parliament—the senate and the house of representatives—in 1943, marking the first time women held national legislative seats in Australia.

Summary of Event

Forty-one years after Australia’s Commonwealth Franchise Act Commonwealth Franchise Act, Australian (1902) (1902) gave all women the right to vote in elections for the two houses of the new Commonwealth Parliament, the house of representatives and the senate, two women—Dorothy Tangney and Enid Muriel Lyons—were elected to Parliament. [kw]Australians Elect First Women to Parliament (Sept., 1943) [kw]Women to Parliament, Australians Elect First (Sept., 1943) [kw]Parliament, Australians Elect First Women to (Sept., 1943) Women;politicians Parliament, women in (Australia) Women;politicians Parliament, women in (Australia) [g]Australia;Sept., 1943: Australians Elect First Women to Parliament[00900] [c]Government and politics;Sept., 1943: Australians Elect First Women to Parliament[00900] [c]Women’s issues;Sept., 1943: Australians Elect First Women to Parliament[00900] Tangney, Dorothy Lyons, Enid Muriel Curtin, John Lyons, Joseph Aloysius Menzies, Robert Gordon

Tangney, representing Western Australia, gathered enough votes to fill a vacancy in the Australian senate. At age thirty-two, she was the first woman to gain endorsement for the senate from the Australian Labor Party Labor Party, Australian (ALP), and she remained a senator for twenty-five years until her political defeat in 1967. Lyons had been a teacher and was the wife of former prime minister Joseph Aloysius Lyons, who had died two years before she was elected. She was endorsed by the Liberal Party Liberal Party, Australian and was elected to represent Darwin, Tasmania, in the Australian house of representatives. She was impelled to enter politics in part because of her husband’s career; Joseph Lyons had been leader of the United Australia Party United Australia Party (UAP). Enid Lyons bitterly resented her husband’s successor, Robert Gordon Menzies, whom she believed had betrayed her husband by resigning from the cabinet in protest over what he saw as inaction on the part of the government shortly before Joseph Lyons’s death.

The 1943 elections were marked by political chaos that reflected the country’s turbulent situation. The Pacific theater of World War II had broken out in December of 1941, and in 1942, Singapore had fallen to Japanese troops, leading many Australians to fear that Australia would be the next target for Japanese invasion. The elections would represent a major shift in power from the UAP, primarily right-wing, to the ALP, a social-democratic party. The ALP, Australia’s oldest political party, was founded by the trade union movement and represents the urban working class.

At the time, the ALP was under the leadership of John Curtin, who many had accused of using the war as an excuse to socialize the country. Curtin had pushed for conscription for overseas service, which was a reversal of his previous position, and promised a plan for reconstruction after the war that included full employment, assisted immigration, and improvements in social security. Many Australians looked to him to keep the country safe.

World War II had changed Australia, particularly after the Japanese successfully isolated the country. As in many other countries, the war made it necessary for women to work outside the home and take jobs that traditionally had been dominated by or exclusive to men. No major political party, until this time period, had endorsed a female candidate. Women did run for office, but they did so on the tickets of minor parties or as independents.

However, not all social and cultural attitudes regarding gender roles were positive, and change was accompanied by media sarcasm and “putting women in their place.” For example, the media used the term “motherhood politics” to describe some of the policy changes that were affecting Australian society. The media made frequent references to Lyons as the “mother figure” of Australian politics, and Lyons and Tangney were depicted upholding traditional gender roles, pouring tea or cutting cake. At the same time, many believed that women were by nature morally superior to men and thus would “clean up” corrupt government and right injustices.

Lyons was a conservative Roman Catholic from Australia’s most provincial area, which may have been a major factor in making her palatable to, and electable by, Australian voters. Her speeches in Parliament generally championed traditional views on the family and other social issues, such as maternity care, child endowment, and education, but “women’s issues” were important to her as well. She had been one of the founders of the Victorian section of St. Joan’s International Alliance St. Joan’s International Alliance[Saint Joans International Alliance] , a feminist Catholic organization dedicated to securing political, social, and economic equality between men and women and furthering the civic work of Catholic women. Her political platform during the campaign included a belief in the rights of women, family issues, maternity care, raising the pension given to widows, and the elimination of discrimination in employment.

By contrast, Tangney was considerably more committed to an agenda of social reform. Like Lyons, she had been a teacher, but she espoused more progressive views in her campaign. She worked to extend federal powers over social services and to institute Commonwealth assistance in education and the development of Australian National University. Lyons’s inaugural speech marked the first time a woman had addressed the house of representatives. She said of the event, “You can imagine how I felt, going there making my first speech. My lips were stiff when I started. I could hardly enunciate a word but I felt the kindness of all these men sitting there wishing me well.”

Significance

Despite the historic elections of Lyons and Tangney, women in the Australian government continued to be few and far between. The government would remain male dominated until 1983, with the election of trade union leader Robert Hawke Hawke, Robert , of the Labor Party, as prime minister.

Tangney, one of the longest-serving women of the Australian parliament, served until June, 1968. During her tenure, she served on committees such as the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, the Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Social Security. In 1968, she became the first Western-Australian-born woman to be appointed a dame commander of the British Empire. In 1974, the Tangney federal electoral division in Western Australia was named in her honor. In 1999, a street in Canberra, formerly known as Administration Place, was changed to Dorothy Tangney Place.

Lyons did not serve as long as did Tangney, but in her time she was responsible for the extension of child endowment in 1950 and the raising of the allowance paid to women who had returned from military service. She was appointed dame grand cross of the Order of the British Empire in 1957 for her public service and dame of the Order of Australia in 1980. After her retirement in 1950 because of illness, she worked as a newspaper columnist, chaired the Jubilee Women’s Convention in 1951, was a member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and published two autobiographical books: So We Take Comfort So We Take Comfort (Lyons) (1965) and Among the Carrion Crows Among the Carrion Crows (Lyons) (1972). In 1973, Tangney and Lyons appeared together on a 45-cent Australian stamp. Women;politicians Parliament, women in (Australia)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fabian, Suzanne, and Morag Loh. Left-wing Ladies: The Union of Australian Women in Victoria, 1950-1998. Flemington, Vic.: Hyland House, 2000. A history of women’s participation in liberal, left-wing politics in Victoria, Australia, in the second half of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Irving, Helen. To Constitute a Nation: A Cultural History of Australia’s Constitution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A thorough examination of the creation and development of Australia’s constitution. Also discusses women’s and minority issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A comprehensive overview and history of the Australian Federation, which preceded the founding in 1901 of the Commonwealth of Australia and its bicameral representative government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyons, Joe. Political Love Story: Joe and Enid Lyons. Sydney, N.S.W.: Rainbow, 1988. Written by Enid Lyons’ son, this book discusses, primarily, the time period before Enid’s husband’s death. It does, however, include several chapters about her later career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oldfield, Audrey. Woman Suffrage in Australia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. An overview of the history of suffrage movements in Australia, comparing their struggle with that of suffragists in England and the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sawer, Marian, and Gianni Zappala, eds. Speaking for the People: Representation in Australian Politics. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001. Examines the history of representative government in Australia, with a special focus on representing minority and indigenous populations and women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woollacott, Angela. To Try Her Fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Discusses the migration of Australian women to London and their impact on the British Empire, including the English suffrage movement.

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