120 Years of Women in Federal Politics

Joshua Black and Michelle Staff reflect on the gains made and the distance still to go when it comes to gender and diversity in Australian politics.

For the past couple of months, commentators have described the 2022 federal election as a “watershed moment” for women in Australian politics. That may be so, but its roots can be found in a longer history of women as voters and candidates.

Postcard promoting Vida Goldstein for the Senate Election, 1910. Image courtesy Museums Victoria.

Today’s successful women independents are reviving a non-party tradition established from the 1890s by suffragists including Vida Goldstein in Melbourne and Rose Scott in Sydney. In 1902, the federal enfranchisement of (white) women brought a new political force into play: “the woman voter.” Given that established parties were at best apathetic and at worst hostile to women’s concerns, some envisioned this as a chance to act along gender rather than party lines. Scott, for example, famously taught women how to be independent voters through her Women’s Political Educational League.

This non-party legacy was reinforced over the following decades as activists (including the interwar feminist Bessie Rischbieth, the Women for Canberra agitators of the 1940s, and the influential Women’s Electoral Lobby of the 1970s) mobilised women to create change. As Michelle Arrow explained in her recent book, The Seventies: The personal, the political, and the making of modern Australia (2019), the women’s movement “did not always map neatly onto a male-dominated politics of left and right”.

At each juncture, women have worked to see their own represented in Australian parliaments. Progress has been slow, but with 20 new women joining the House of Representatives, the future looks promising.

In 1903, Goldstein became the first woman in the British Empire to stand for parliament. Although unsuccessful, she ran a further four times as an independent. Her belief in the need for women to represent themselves has finally been achieved with the success of Zoe Daniel, who has proudly claimed the legacy of her electorate’s namesake.

Not all women have eschewed party politics. Decades of activism inside the Labor Party led in 1994 to affirmative action quotas, setting a target for preselecting women in 35 per cent (and later 50 per cent) of all winnable seats – a move that has challenged the party’s masculinist culture. Meanwhile, the Liberals decided that they would support and train women candidates, but the notion of “merit” and an antipathy toward “quota girls” prevailed. The party has been beset by scandals in recent years that have now forced its leadership to reconsider quotas.

Yet it wasn’t always this way. The conservative Australian Women’s National League was a driving force in Menzies’ new Liberal Party in 1945. Journalists claimed that Liberal candidates would fail in Victoria “if they neglected to enlist the active support” of the AWNL’s Dame Elizabeth Couchman. But women’s voices have been increasingly marginalised since the 1980s, which is why yesteryear’s Liberal women are foremost among today’s independents. Kate Chaney in Perth and Allegra Spender in Sydney, with their Liberal pedigrees, are emblematic of this historic shift.

Senator Nova Peris with Governor General Quentin Bryce, 2012. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The real “threshold” of this election is the rise of a more diverse cohort of women. Indigenous and migrant women have repeatedly challenged racism and white women’s predominance, using flashpoints such as the 1975 Women and Politics conference in Canberra as their platform.

It wasn’t until 2013 that we saw Nova Peris become the first Indigenous woman Senator; now, Linda Burney has become Minister for Indigenous Australians, another landmark achievement. But as they remind us, history’s wrongs are ongoing, and we still urgently need to reshape political life to meaningfully include First Nations peoples.

Despite the slow increase in migrant representation among major party candidates, some communities have taken the well-established independent road instead. Dai Le’s victory in Fowler reflected a frustration with candidates imposed on migrant communities and arguably an unwillingness to accept a white woman as representative of their interests.

Milestones have been achieved in Australian politics, but true diversity is still a work in progress.

 

Joshua Black is a PhD candidate in the School of History and National Centre of Biography at The Australian National University. His doctoral thesis explores the history of political memoir literature in Australian public culture. He has contributed to various academic journals and public fora, and in 2021 he co-edited a special issue of the Australian Journal of Biography and History with Dr Stephen Wilks.

 

Michelle Staff is a PhD candidate in the School of History at The Australian National University and a member of the Lilith: A Feminist History Journal editorial collective. She is currently investigating the lives of several interwar Australian and British feminists, focusing on their engagement with internationalism. Her research has been published in the Journal of Women’s History, Australian Historical Studies, the Australian Book Review and The Conversation.

 

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