Women and government in Australia

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From the turn of the 20th century, women have participated in government in Australia. Following federation, the government of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 allowing most women to both vote and stand at the 1903 election. South Australia and Western Australia granted women the vote before federation, and the states of New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria also passed legislation allowing women to participate in government at the state and local levels following federation. Indigenous Australian women did not achieve suffrage at all levels of government and in all states and territories until 1962.

Although Australia allowed women to stand in elections decades before the outbreak of the Second World War,[1] women were not successful until the 1943 election. The first female Premier was Carmen Lawrence, leading Western Australia for three years until 1993. Lara Giddings was Premier of the state of Tasmania between January 2011 and March 2014 and Katy Gallagher led the Australian Capital Territory from 2011 until she resigned in late 2014 to become a senator for The ACT.

Julia Gillard became Australia's first female Prime Minister on 24 June 2010.

Women's suffrage[edit]

Suffragette Mary Lee.

Women's suffrage groups began to appear in the Australian political landscape in the 1880s. The first, the Victorian Women's Suffrage Society, was formed by Henrietta Dugdale in Victoria in 1884. The organisations involved in the suffrage movement varied across the colonies. A unified body, the Australian Women's Suffrage Society was formed in 1889, the society's aims were to educate women and men about a woman's right to vote and stand for parliament. Key figures in the Australian suffrage movement included, from South Australia Mary Lee and Catherine Helen Spence, in Western Australia Edith Cowan, from New South Wales Maybanke Anderson, Louisa Lawson, Dora Montefiore and Rose Scott, Tasmanians Alicia O'Shea Petersen and Jessie Rooke, Queenslander Emma Miller, and Victorians Annette Bear-Crawford, Henrietta Dugdale, Vida Goldstein, Alice Henry and Annie Lowe.

In 1861 land-owning South Australian women were able to vote in local elections. In 1894, South Australia followed New Zealand in extending the franchise to women voters - but went further than New Zealand and offered women also the right to stand for the colonial Parliament. South Australian women voted for the first time at the 1896 South Australian election. In 1897 Catherine Helen Spence became the first woman political candidate when she ran for election to the National Australasian Convention as one of ten delegates, but came 22nd out of 33 candidates. In 1899 Western Australian women achieved voting rights for colonial elections but not the right to stand for the colonial Parliament. Women from both South Australia and Western Australia voted at the 1901 election.

On 12 June 1902 the Commonwealth Franchise Act came into effect, granting most Australian women the right to vote and stand in Commonwealth elections. Franchise of Indigenous Australians at the federal level was not universal until 1962, and voting by Indigenous Australians was not compulsory until 1984. The first election at which women used both the right to vote and stand for election was the 1903 election, held on 16 December.

Following the inclusion of women in the 1903 election, many Australian women and the Australian government, led by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, used their experience to promote women's suffrage in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. 'Trust the Women Mother, As I Have Done', banner painted by Dora Meeson was carried at the head of the Australian and New Zealand Women Voters' Committee contingent in the Women's Suffrage Coronation March in London on 17 June 1911.

New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria followed the lead of the other states in allowing women to vote, and later to stand for election. Victoria, the last state to grant women's suffrage, had briefly allowed women to vote when the Electoral Act 1863 enfranchised all ratepayers listed on local municipal rolls. Women in Victoria voted in the 1864 general election. The legislative mistake was quickly repaired in 1865, and it took 19 private members' bills from 1889 until Victorian women gained the vote in 1908, and were able to exercise the vote in 1911. Women in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory were, as federal subjects, eligible to vote at the federal level from their establishment. By the time the territories achieved self-government in 1978 and 1989 respectively, they did not need to enact specific legislation to enable the women's vote.

The right to vote in local government elections was granted later in most jurisdictions than it was at the state and federal levels. The right to vote in local elections was also not automatic, as property ownership qualifications limited the eligibility to vote and stand for local elections.

Significantly from 2010 to 2011 the city of Sydney was operating totally under female governance: from Lord Mayor (also State Member of Parliament for Sydney) Clover Moore, State Premier Kristina Keneally, State Governor Marie Bashir, Sydney Federal Member of Parliament Tanya Plibersek, Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard and Governor-General of Australia Quentin Bryce.

The first women elected to Australian parliaments have generally been members of the non-Labor (i.e., conservative) parties. This was the case in every state except for Tasmania, where an independent, Margaret McIntyre, was the first woman elected to parliament. The Labor Party first began to regularly nominate female candidates to parliament in the 1950s, generally only to the upper houses at first.

Since 2015, 12 Indigenous women have been elected to state, territory or commonwealth parliaments, with 5 of whom having been ministers in a government starting with Marion Scrymgour in 2007.

Women in government[edit]

Commonwealth government[edit]

British-born Julia Gillard is the only woman to have served as Australia's Prime Minister.

The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which enabled women to vote at federal elections, also permitted women to stand for election for the federal Parliament. Four women stood for election at the 1903 federal election.[2] They were Mary Moore-Bentley and Nellie Martel from New South Wales, and Vida Goldstein from Victoria, all of whom stood for the Senate, and Selina Anderson who contested the Sydney House of Representatives seat of Dalley. All failed to get major party endorsement and stood as independents, and all were unsuccessful. Goldstein stood for the Senate again in 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1917, all without success.

In most countries, women entered parliament soon after gaining the right to stand. The first women elected to the Commonwealth government were both elected in 1943, 40 years after they were able. The major Australian political parties did not support any female candidates until the Second World War, until this time all female candidates were independent or backed by minor political parties. In 1943 and with major party backing, Dame Enid Lyons was elected to the House of Representatives as the member for the Division of Darwin, which was located in Tasmania, and Dorothy Tangney was elected to the Senate representing Western Australia. In 1949 Enid Lyons became the first female cabinet member, as Minister without Portfolio, to enable her appointment as Vice-President of the Executive Council. In 1966 Senator Dame Annabelle Rankin became the first woman with a federal portfolio when she became Minister for Housing. In 1975 Senator Margaret Guilfoyle was the first female cabinet minister with a portfolio, Education.

In 1983 Ros Kelly was the first woman to give birth while an MP. In 1986 there were two firsts, Joan Child became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives and Janine Haines became the first woman to lead a parliamentary party when she became head of the Australian Democrats. Margaret Reid became the first female President of the Senate in 1996. Nova Peris and Jacqui Lambie were the first two indigenous women to enter federal politics in 2014.

Kathy Sullivan was the first woman to have served in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In December 2014, Bronwyn Bishop eclipsed Kathy Sullivan's earlier record of 27 years to become the longest-serving female Member of the Australian Federal Parliament.[3]

On 24 June 2010, Julia Gillard became the first woman to lead one of the major political parties at the federal level as Leader of the Australian Labor Party, as well as the first female Prime Minister of Australia. However, as it became clear that her minority government was headed for an unprecedented landslide defeat, she was deposed by her own party in June 2013 in favour of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whom she had replaced in a similar coup.

Commonwealth Public Service[edit]

The Commonwealth Public Service Act 1902 stated that every female officer was "deemed to have retired from the Commonwealth service upon her marriage". The very great majority of women were effectively blocked from non-secretarial positions in the Commonwealth Public Service. In 1949 women were allowed into the clerical division of the service but they remained restricted by the marriage rule. In 1966 Australia became the last democratic country to lift the ban on married women in the public service.[citation needed]

State and territory governments[edit]

The first woman elected to a state parliament was Edith Cowan, when she was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921. Millicent Preston-Stanley was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1925, Irene Longman was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Queensland in 1929 and Millie Peacock was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1933. Ironically, South Australia as the first state to allow women to sit in state parliament, was also the last to have a female sitting member when Joyce Steele and Jessie Cooper were elected on the same day in 1959. Both the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly and Northern Territory Legislative Assembly had women in their inaugural Parliaments. Women were not elected to the Upper House of state parliaments until after World War II; no woman was elected to the Victorian Upper House until 1979.

In 1989 Rosemary Follett became the first female head of government in Australia, as Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory. Carmen Lawrence was the first female premier of an Australian state when she took the office of Premier of Western Australia in February 1990. She was followed by the appointment of Joan Kirner as Premier of Victoria, in which position she served from 1990 to 1992, when her party was swept from office by Jeff Kennett's conservatives. Clare Martin was Chief Minister of the Northern Territory from 2001 to 2007. Anna Bligh became Premier of Queensland in 2007 when Peter Beattie retired. In 2009, she became the first woman in Australia to be elected Premier, though she subsequently suffered a landslide loss to Campbell Newman's LNP in 2012. On 4 December 2009, Kristina Keneally replaced Nathan Rees to become the first female Premier of New South Wales. As Carmel Tebbutt retained the role of Deputy Premier, Keneally also led the first executive in Australia to be led by two women.[4] However, Keneally would also go on to suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of Barry O'Farrell in 2011. In 2011 Lara Giddings became the first female Premier of Tasmania, serving until 2014 when she likewise suffered a crushing loss to conservative leader Will Hodgman. This again leaves South Australia as the only state or territory not to have had a female head of government. Marion Scrymgour is to date the highest ranked Indigenous woman in a government in Australia when she was Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory from 2007 until 2009.

Prior to Labor's massive loss in 2012 the Legislative Assembly of Queensland had the highest female parliamentary representation in Australia and the third highest in the world, with 30 out of 89 Members having been women.[5][6] However, the next state election resulted in Annastacia Palaszczuk becoming the first woman to become Premier from opposition. The subsequent government would become the second in Australia to be headed by two women and the first ministry in Australia to have a female majority.[7]

The introduction of women's political rights in Australia
Parliament Right to vote (a) Right to stand First elected to lower house First elected to upper house
Commonwealth 1902 (b) 1902 1943, Enid Lyons (UAP) 1943, Dorothy Tangney (ALP)
South Australia 1894 1894 1959, Joyce Steele (LCL) 1959, Jessie Cooper (LCL)
Western Australia 1899 1920 1921, Edith Cowan (Nationalist) 1954, Ruby Hutchison (ALP)
New South Wales 1902 1918 1925, Millicent Preston-Stanley (Nationalist) 1952, Gertrude Melville (ALP)
Tasmania 1903 1921 1955, Mabel Miller
and Amelia Best (both Liberal)
1948, Margaret McIntyre (independent)
Queensland 1905 1915 1929, Irene Longman (CPNP) n.a.
Victoria 1908 1923 1933, Millie Peacock (UAP) 1979, Gracia Baylor (Liberal)
and Joan Coxsedge (ALP)
(a) The dates for the right to vote at State level refer to equal rights for women and men, but not necessarily universal rights;
(b) Women in SA and WA were able to vote in the 1901 federal election;
(c) Two women, Catherine Green and Ellen Webster, were appointed to the NSW Legislative Council in 1931.

Local government[edit]

The first woman elected to a local government authority in Australia was Grace Benny, who was elected to the Brighton Council in South Australia in 1919. Mary Rogers was elected to Richmond City Council, Victoria in 1920 and Elizabeth Clapham was elected to Western Australia's Cottesloe Town Council. Queensland's first female councillor was Dr Ellen Kent-Hughes, elected to Kingaroy Shire Council in 1925. New South Wales' first female alderman was Lilian Fowler, elected in 1928 to Newtown Municipal Council; she was later to become Australia's first woman mayor. New South Wales also produced Australia's first female Lord Mayor, Alderman Joy Cummings, who was elected to Newcastle City Council in 1974. Dorothy E Edwards, Tasmania's first alderman, was elected to Launceston City Council in 1950.

In 1951 the Australian Local Government Women's Association (ALGWA) was formed. The ALGWA is an association of local government women helping other women to join them.

In 1975 Western Australia and the Northern Territory elected their first women mayors, Councillor Evelyn H. Parker of Subiaco and Dr Ella Stack of Darwin City respectively.

In the 1980s women began to hold the position of Lord Mayor in the capital cities for the first time, including:

Women's participation in local government in Australia
Right to vote (a) Right to stand First elected
South Australia 1861 1914 1919, Grace Benny
Western Australia 1876 1919 1920, Elizabeth Clapham
Victoria 1903 1914 1920, Mary Rogers
Queensland 1879 1920 1925, Ellen Kent-Hughes
City of Brisbane 1924 1924 1949, Petronel White
Rural 1893 1911 1957, Florence Vivien Pendrigh
Hobart City Council 1893 1902 1952, Mabel Miller
Launceston City Council 1894 1945 1950, Dorothy Edwards
New South Wales
Sydney City Council 1900 1918 1965, Joan Mercia Pilone
Municipalities and Shires 1906 1918 1928, Lilian Fowler
(a)The right to vote in local elections was not necessarily universal since there were property ownership restrictions on the right to vote in many local jurisdictions. [8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "AEC.gov.au". AEC.gov.au. 2007-08-09. Retrieved 2011-01-08. 
  2. ^ "Electoral Milestones for Women - Australian Electoral Commission". Aec.gov.au. 2008-12-17. Retrieved 2011-04-19. 
  3. ^ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/hard-work-brings-bishop-a-record/story-fn59niix-1227146499189
  4. ^ Clennell, Andrew (3 December 2009). "Keneally first female NSW Premier". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 3 December 2009. 
  5. ^ Sanderson, Nicole (December 2006). "in the hot seat - Lindy Nelson-Carr" (PDF). profile (CityLife Townsville). Retrieved 2007-07-29. [dead link]
  6. ^ "Women in the Queensland Parliament". Retrieved 2007-07-30. 
  7. ^ "Historic day for women in Queensland". Sunshince Coast Daily. 16 February 2015. Retrieved 27 April 2015. 
  8. ^ Modified from Sawer, 2001

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