Wednesday, 22 August 2018
Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel, AD, GBE
Seventy-five years have passed since Dame Enid Lyons gave her maiden speech in the federal parliament in 1943. She was the first woman ever to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives, and also the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. But these historical snapshots are among many of her achievements. Enid Muriel Lyons was the mother of 12 children, which even today might make thoughts of an additional occupation well-nigh impossible. She has been described as living life at a killing pace. Not only managing all of her family responsibilities, she was also actively involved in her husband's political career.
Long before Enid's election to the House of Representatives she was an articulate and persuasive speaker. Her mother ensured that she took elocution lessons and encouraged her to speak or perform whenever she had an audience. She also took her to the Tasmanian state parliament, where the fresh-faced 15-year-old first met Joseph Aloysius Lyons, Labor member for the state seat of Wilmot. They would eventually marry on 28 April 1915 at Wynyard. Joe was 35 and Enid just 17. After Lyons moved to the federal House of Representatives in 1929 Enid remained closely involved in his career. In 1932 several nationalists revolted and brought down the government. With Enid's encouragement Joseph Lyons was elected leader of a minority Labor government, before the United Australia Party split, becoming Prime Minister until his passing in 1939. His first act as PM was to write to Enid, noting, 'whatever honours or distinctions come are ours, not mine.'
After Joseph passed away, Enid fell into a deep depression, which, by her own admission, was likely caused by inactivity. She then decided to pursue her own political career. In her maiden speech she spoke on social security, a declining birth rate, the need for an extension of child endowment, housing, the family and the importance of looking ahead to postwar policies. She really did have a strong belief in the right of women to take their place in government. I quote from her maiden speech to federal parliament in 1943:
I believe, very sincerely, that any woman entering the public arena must be prepared to work as men work; she must justify herself not as a woman, but as a citizen; she must attack the same problems, and be prepared to shoulder the same burdens. But because I am a woman, and cannot divest myself of those qualities that are inherent in my sex, and because every one of us speaks broadly in the terms of one's own experience, honorable members will have to become accustomed to the application of the homely metaphors of the kitchen rather than those of the operating theatre, the workshop, or the farm. They must also become accustomed to the application to all kinds of measures of the touchstone of their effect upon the home and the family life …
I am delighted that the honorable member for Denison Dr. Gaha should have secured the honour of having introduced to this chamber, in this debate, the subject of population … I, like him, have pondered on this subject—not with my feet upon the mantle-piece, but knee-deep in shawls and feeding bottles … I consider that something more than decentralization is necessary if the population of Australia is to be increased.
The response from politicians, the press and the public was overwhelming. She would note afterwards: 'In that place of endless speaking, no-one had ever made men weep, and I wasn't even trying to do so.' As a politician, Enid was a strong advocate for women, yet not necessarily a feminist, debating robustly on issues including population, immigration, international affairs, agricultural development, finance and energy.
Enid Lyons did not lead an easy life, suffering a host of medical conditions and recurring ill health. Her health was much improved after she retired from politics in 1951 to become a newspaper columnist and to serve as a commissioner of the ABC from 1951 to 1962. Remaining active, Enid published three sets of memoirs and was vocal always in family's and women's issues. She was made a Dame of the Order of Australia on Australia Day in 1980. She passed away the following year, late in 1981.
I encourage the women in our federal and state parliaments, who come to these places with a path much easier than Dame Enid had, to consider the example of Dame Enid and reflect on all the things she achieved. She's known today, but not well known, and I think she should be a lot better known. I really thank my colleague, the Minister for Revenue, Kelly O'Dwyer, for moving this motion and for highlighting the extraordinary life of Dame Enid. I will just quote from the Minister for Revenue's final remarks about Dame Enid:
Tonight we celebrate Enid's achievements and forge our future. Like Enid, we have a duty to our country to carry the lamp that she lit on that spring evening in 1943 and to ensure that many more women will follow in our footsteps to serve and contribute to our nation. Although she was famously described as a 'bird of paradise among carrion crows', I prefer to think of Dame Enid in far more sturdy terms as someone who was smart, energetic and determined, as someone passionate about politics, her husband, about her 12 children, and about our nation. She was seen and heard and she was magnificent.