Senate debates

Monday, 20 August 2018


Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel, AD, GBE

9:50 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is an honour indeed to reflect this evening in this chamber on one of the most momentous events in the political history of our nation, for 75 years ago, on 21 August 1943, the Tasmanian electorate of Darwin elected to parliament Dame Enid Lyons, and the people of Western Australia elected Mrs Dorothy Tangney to the Senate. I'm certain that other speakers from Dame Dorothy's party are better placed to honour her legacy in greater detail than I am, and so I devote my attention this evening to Dame Enid and the challenges and triumphs that characterise her place in Australia's history.

While Dame Enid is best known as Australia's first female parliamentarian, she certainly was not new to the demands of political life. As the wife of former Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, and a dame in her own right, Enid Lyons undertook gruelling public speaking schedules in order to support her husband both while he was Premier of Tasmania and during his seven years as Australia's prewar Prime Minister. Dame Enid once reflected that the hardest thing she did in her life was to assume the role of the Prime Minister's wife. She would never have anticipated nor wanted her apprenticeship to be so unexpectedly valuable, for her husband died very suddenly in 1939 and left Dame Enid a widow at the tender age of only 41.

As she retreated into grief, World War II was profoundly changing Australian politics and society, particularly in regard to women's abilities, roles and contributions. Before that time, only a handful of women had been elected to Australian state parliaments—indeed, the mere suggestion of female parliamentarians was still considered something of an experiment with an uncertain outcome—but attitudes were changing, and the total number of women employed rose by over a third in the course of the war, between 1939 and 1944. It was also at this time that the Women for Canberra movement emerged, inspired by the Women for Westminster movement in the UK.

In 1943, in the midst of this social change, a vacancy arose in the seat of Darwin, and it was Dame Enid's daughter, in fact that talked her into running. Dame Enid Lyons, local, widow, and mother of—wait for it—12 children, won the seat by 800 votes. On entering parliament, Dame Enid already had both the political toughness and a folksy charm that characterised her very unique style and personal appeal. Her speeches were known for both their humour and their sentimental nature. Sir Robert Menzies said of her speeches, 'She could reduce me to tears about the state of a railway track.'

Dame Enid Lyons is known as being a trailblazer simply for being here, so it's easy to forget to reflect appropriately on her extraordinary achievements while in office, both for her country and specifically for Australian women and children. She passionately lobbied for improvements to maternal health care, increases to the widows' pension, the elimination of employment discrimination and—her hallmark achievement—the extension of child endowment to first children. She also fought to see legislation passed which secured citizenship rights for women after their marriage to foreigners, and raised allowances to servicewomen so that they matched those of returned servicemen.

Her electoral successes were also enviable. In fact, she tripled her primary vote in 1946 and quadrupled it in the 1949 election. In the same year, Prime Minister Robert Menzies promoted her to vice-president of the Executive Council, making her the first woman to hold a cabinet position. She was indeed a force to be reckoned with. It was only ill health, an undiagnosed broken pelvis and a car accident just prior to the 1951 election that caused her retirement. Her insights, her policy legacy, her wit and her wisdom endure, and much of it is timeless. Dame Enid Lyons once reflected that our nation was:

"… a land of promise." We cannot afford to neglect some recognition of our past, even though we gaze into the future.

In a great nation such as ours, which values equality and where women continue to go from strength to strength, people often question why it remains so important to recognise the achievements of women specifically. There are two reasons why I believe it is so important to recognise those who went before us in this place. Firstly, trailblazers such as Dame Enid Lyons defy the misconception that women's presence in the highest offices in our land is a form of tokenism, a convenient genuflection to feminist movements to ensure political appeal. It's quite the contrary. Women like her and those who have come after have demonstrated that they have changed the discourse, changed the direction and set a course for a modern, forward-looking Liberal Party, where all voices are heard and valued.

Women bring to the political fray unique experiences and perspectives but also an empathy, a shared lived experience, a toughness and a resilience that few men can understand, although I cannot in good faith point the finger of inadequacy here only at men. On this Dame Enid sets the bar way too high. I don't think anyone here before or since has given birth to 12 children and subsequently sat in parliament for eight years with a broken pelvis.

This leads me to the second reason why it's so important to recognise and celebrate the women who have blazed the trail. If we acknowledge and accept that the contribution of these women has made our country better, it logically follows that we now have a responsibility—indeed, a patriotic duty—to ensure that that tradition continues. By being vocal about the impressive achievements of women past and present, we send a strong message to society and to the next generation that women have so much to offer and that their contributions are not just valued but needed, and not just in areas of the traditional feminine domain. In my own party, I need only look to the frontbench, where we have women in leading portfolios such as Foreign Affairs, Finance and Revenue, Defence, and Jobs and Innovation. Indeed, the former Prime Minister and founder of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, stated shortly before Enid Lyons's election:

Wherever a woman is willing and able to do some job, however "unwomanly" that job might have seemed to the eye of convention … then there should be no barrier against the woman doing it.

On the contrary, there should be active encouragement and direction.

…   …   …   

There is no equality so ennobling as an equality in service.

So, in a political climate where many voters remain distrustful and removed from their representatives, it falls to the heirs of Dame Enid Lyons to continue to beat the path on the trail that she blazed for the next generation of Liberal women and also to lay paving stones of our own along that journey to a better nation.

In her maiden speech, Dame Enid Lyons said:

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.

These powerful words ring as true now as they did then. So, to the women in this chamber and to the women who aspire to be in this chamber or in the other place, I say we are equal, we are powerful and we serve this nation well. There is so much that we can take from the contribution to public life that Dame Enid made, and it has been a privilege to reflect on that this evening in this place.