Two great dames, 70 years of gradual change

From the July 2012 edition of Agriculture Today. Beyond the kitchen table. Column by Sonia Muir, Rural Women’s Network

Portrait of Senator Dorothy Tangney, 195- Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia:42 nla.pic-an23371982.

At the age of only 32, Dame Dorothy Tangney DBE (1911 – 1985) was our first female federal parliamentarian and the first woman to be elected to the Australian Senate.

Dorothy held office from 1943 for the Australian Labor party,  representing Western Australia until she retired in 1968.

At the same election the better known Tasmanian, Enid Lyons became the Member of the House of Representatives (United Australia Party). 

Dame Enid had a much higher profile, having been married to a former Prime Minister, but Dame Dorothy was sworn in six minutes earlier.

Dorothy came from humble beginnings before winning a college scholarship which lead to a teaching career.

The hardship and poor health of her family as well as the plight of her students built an understanding of the importance of strong health and welfare policies.

Dorothy supported the establishment of the Australian National University in Canberra and advocated support for deserted wives and war widows, along with promoting child endowment, better housing, social services, free education, medical benefits, Aboriginal rights and equal pay and opportunities for women.

She featured on the 45 cent  stamp in 1973 and has a Canberra street and a WA electoral division named in her honour.

In 1968, Dorothy Tangney became the first Western Australian born woman to be appointed  Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the Australian Parliament.

Australia was the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote and the right to stand for Parliament when in 1902 the federal Parliament passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act.

The Australian suffragists lobbied vigorously to secure the passage of this act, despite a common view that giving women the vote would lower their status and give married men a double vote!

Rigid perceptions of women’s roles broke down with the social changes created by the Second World War.

Women replaced absent men and this helped to open doors for women to enter politics.

Many rural women rose to the challenges of the time by keeping farms going and demonstrating they could hold their own and were ready to step outside the kitchen into the paddocks and beyond.

That was 70 years ago.

Now there are still only 17 elected women heads of state and government in the world in 2012 according to the United Nations, up from eight in 2005.

The number of women ministers has increased from 14.2 per cent in 2005 to 16.7pc today.

Dorothy and Enid might reckon we still have a long way to go.

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About nswrwn

NSW Rural Women’s Network is a government program working in innovative ways to promote leadership and action on rural women’s issues. The RWN team is dedicated to connecting and exchanging information with women and stakeholders in rural, regional and remote communities.
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