Enid Lyons

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The Honourable
Dame Enid Lyons
Enid and Joseph Lyons in the 1930s
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Darwin
In office
21 August 1943 – 19 March 1951
Preceded by George Bell
Succeeded by Aubrey Luck
Personal details
Born Enid Muriel Burnell
(1897-07-09)9 July 1897
Smithton, Tasmania
Died 2 September 1981(1981-09-02) (aged 84)
Nationality Australian
Political party UAP (1943–44)
Liberal (1944–51)
Spouse(s) Joseph Lyons
Children 12
Occupation Teacher
Religion Roman Catholicism

Dame Enid Muriel Lyons, AD GBE (9 July 1897 – 2 September 1981) was an Australian politician and the first woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives as well as the first woman appointed to the federal Cabinet. Prior to these achievements, she was best known as the wife of the Premier of Tasmania and later Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Lyons.


Lyons was born Enid Muriel Burnell in Smithton, Tasmania, and educated at the Teacher's Training College, Hobart and later became a school teacher. In 1915, when she was 17 she married Joseph Lyons, then a young Labor politician aged 35. They had twelve children, one of whom died in infancy.[1][2]

She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in the Coronation Honours of 1936.[3][4] Joseph died in 1939, aged 59, the first Australian Prime Minister to die in office, and Dame Enid returned to Tasmania. She bitterly resented Joseph Lyons's successor as leader of the UAP, Robert Menzies, who had, she believed, betrayed her husband by resigning from the Cabinet, shortly before Joseph's death.

Enid Lyons
The Lyons family in the 1930s on the lawns of The Lodge.

At the 1943 election Dame Enid Lyons narrowly won the Division of Darwin in north-western Tasmania for the UAP, becoming the first woman in the House of Representatives. Her Labor opponent, who received more primary votes than she did, was the future Tasmanian Premier Eric Reece. At the same election, Dorothy Tangney (later Dame Dorothy) was elected as a Labor Senator for Western Australia, the nation's first woman Senator.[5] In 1945 the UAP became the Liberal Party of Australia.

On 23 August 1944 Enid Lyons was one of four speakers in a debate on population which became the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 'largest controversy during the war years' [6] Lyons devoted a chapter to this Australian Broadcasting Corporation debate in her 1972 autobiography, calling it 'one of the most disturbing experiences I was to know as a Member of Parliament'. Her fellow debaters were Norman Haire, Jessie Street and the economist Colin Clark (economist).

Enid Lyons came from an interesting political background. Her mother, Eliza Burnell (born Tagget) was an activist in Labor and community groups in Tasmania. She was one of the first women appointed as a Justice of the Peace in Tasmania. Eliza Burnell apparently introduced her daughter to Joseph Lyons, then a rising Tasmanian Labor politician and they married 2 years later. Enid had been brought up a Methodist but became a Roman Catholic before marrying the Catholic Joseph Lyons. From early on Catholics and Methodists had been powerful joint forces in the Australian labour movement, though with some competition between the two. By the time she was elected to Parliament in her own right, there was very little left of her Labor ties. Her speeches in Parliament generally espoused traditional views on the family and other social issues.

In 1949 the Liberals came to power under Menzies' leadership. The frosty personal relations between Menzies and Dame Enid thawed very slightly when Menzies gave her the role of Vice-President of the Executive Council. This was a largely honorary post which gave her a seat in Cabinet but no departmental duties. Nevertheless her health declined under the strain of regular travel between Canberra and Tasmania, and she retired from parliament prior to the 1951 election.

In retirement, Dame Enid's health recovered. She was a newspaper columnist (1951–54), a commissioner of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1951–62), and remained active in public life promoting family and women's issues. She published three volumes of memoirs, which embarrassed the Liberal Party by reviving her complaints about Menzies' 1939 behaviour towards her husband.

She was nevertheless made a Dame of the Order of Australia (AD) on Australia Day 1980,[7] the second woman to receive this honour. She was the only Australian woman to receive damehoods in different orders. The following year she died, and was accorded a state funeral in Devonport, before being buried next to her husband at the Mersey Vale Lawn Cemetery.

An informal political faction of the Liberal/National opposition parties called the Lyons Forum was formed in 1992. The group's name alluded to Lyons' maiden speech to the House of Representatives. The faction was considered to be defunct in 2004.[8]


  1. ^ Hart, P. R. (1986). "Lyons, Joseph Aloysius (1879–1939)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  2. ^ "Joseph Lyons, before". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Archived from the original on 2007-08-30. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  3. ^ "Joseph Lyons, Enid Lyons". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Archived from the original on 2007-08-30. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  4. ^ "Lyons, Enid Muriel, The Order of the British Empire – Dame Grand Cross – Civil". It's an Honour. Government of Australia. Retrieved 2008-01-22.  Note: site says granted in 1957
  5. ^ National Film and Sound Archive: Recording of Dame Enid Lyon's maiden speech in Parliament on australianscreen online
  6. ^ Diana Wyndham. (2012) "'Norman Haire and the Study of Sex'".  Foreword by the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG. (Sydney: "Sydney University Press". ), p. 343 quoting Alan Thomas (1980) Broadcast and be Damned: the ABC's First Two Decades. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press), p. 110
  7. ^ "Lyons, Enid Muriel, Dame of the Order of Australia". It's an Honour. Government of Australia. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  8. ^ Grattan, Michelle (13 November 2004). "A quiet man's revolution". The Age (Melbourne). p. 5. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Enid Lyons, So We Take Comfort (1965)
  • Enid Lyons, The Old Haggis (1969)
  • Enid Lyons, Among the Carrion Crows (1972)
  • Anne Henderson, Dame Enid Lyons: Leading Lady to a Nation (2008)
  • Kate White, Political Love Story: Joe and Enid Lyons (1987)

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
William Scully
Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
George Bell
Member for Darwin
Succeeded by
Aubrey Luck