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Labor Women's Network luncheon.

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Kim Beazley - Labor Women's Network Luncheon Wednesday, 09 May 2001

Labor Women's Network Luncheon Kim Beazley - Leader of the Opposition

Address - Victorian Parliament House - 6 May 2001

Check Against Delivery

Thank you for asking me to join you to celebrate the achievements of Labor women at this Labor Women's Network gathering.

I'm very pleased to be able to congratulate you all on reaching a target of more than 100 Labor women MPs in legislatures around this country.

In fact, at last count, we had reached 121. And I see many of you here in the audience today who have worked so hard to give Labor such a proud showing.

Labor now has more than double the number of women in Parliaments across Australia than any other party - we are beating the conservatives on this, as on so many other tests of fairness and equity in this country.

And I want to tell you today that Leonie Short's election in the seat of Ryan means that Labor has met its Affirmative Action target established in 1994 - one year before the deadline. And they said it couldn't be done!

The rule, adopted at the 1994 National Conference, requires 35 per cent of the seats needed to form government to be filled by women by the year 2002. The ALP has preselected women in 27 of the 76 seats required to form a government in the expanded House of Representatives of 150 seats.

With 18 Labor women now in the House of Representatives, two women preselected in seats considered 'safe' by the Australian Electoral Commission, and a further seven women preselected in the seats Labor must win to form Government, the ALP has met this rule well and truly. And what a great bunch of women they are!

While it is good to celebrate this milestone, we should not think this is the end of our efforts.

We have to ask ourselves why there are not more of you in politics at both State and Federal levels, and why it has taken one hundred years to get this far.

Extending voting rights to women was one of the first items on the agenda when Parliament convened in this city one hundred years ago. Our first Labor leader, Chris Watson, told Parliament in this place - this very month, one century ago - that he believed it was time to give women the vote. He said:

I have been of that opinion for years, and it is one of the proposals embodied in the programme of every labour party throughout Australia. ●

When this was achieved through legislation in 1902 there was no other country in the world where women could both stand for the national Parliament and vote in the national elections - and Labor was very proud to champion this cause.

While Australia led the way in opening its national elections to women, it took another 41 years before a woman first took her place in the national Parliament. And it took until the 1980s before women entered the political arena in any significant number at either State or Federal level.

Even today, with women making up more than half our population and electorate, we still have women (of all parties) only making up about a quarter of our national Parliament and about the same percentage of our State legislatures.

We need to think about what can we do to attract more women into these bodies that govern our lives, where their input is so welcome, and so valuable.

I remember when I entered the Parliament in 1980 there were only three Labor women in the House of Representatives, Ros Kelly, Elaine Darling and Joan Child. There were only four of our women in the Senate including, of course, the redoubtable Susan Ryan - who became Labor's first woman Cabinet minister - and did so much to open the party organisation to more women.

Today there are 27 women in our Caucus - I see many of you here today - and they are contributing at all levels of politics. Their influence has been enormously valuable on a range of policies.

I don't want you to think that I subscribe to the view, obviously held by John Howard, that women can contribute only in social and welfare portfolios - although I know they do that job very well.

As you know, on Labor's front bench Jenny Macklin as well as being shadow health ministers is also a key part of my leadership team, providing valuable political advice. We have Cheryl Kernot in Employment, Carmen Lawrence in the key area of Industry, Innovation and Technology, and Kate Lundy covering Information Technology. We have Sue Mackay in the vital area of Regional Services and Jacinta Collins assisting at a senior level on IR and other employment issues.

While women are contributing at all levels, I do think the advent of women into senior positions has led to many issues that might once have been treated as marginal, receiving well overdue attention.

Work and family issues are much more crucial to our party platform now than in the past, as are childcare and family welfare matters. We can attribute much of this to women's influence in party forums.

And we should never forget how important Joan Kirner was, followed by Carmen Lawrence, as the first women Premiers in this country, in overcoming any lingering prejudice about women in leadership roles.

Although Labor women outnumber conservative women in Federal politics now, we should acknowledge that the Labor Party was slow to see the benefits of getting more women into politics.

It was hard for women from the labouring classes to get a decent education. Poorer families could afford little, if any, domestic help so housework and the heavy demands of childbirth and child rearing kept women at home.

Whilst middle and upper class women developed valuable networks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through temperance, religious and social welfare committees, Labor women had to fight their way through the very masculine politics of the union and broader labour movement.

When you consider the difficult domestic conditions of the pre World War 2 period, it is not surprising that no women entered the Federal Parliament from either the Labor or conservative side until the 1940s.

In most families every piece of clothing had to be hand washed, every meal cooked from scratch, often on open stoves, without refrigeration. There were no antibiotics to treat sick children, chronic illnesses were much more widespread, many more children died in early life and many more women in childbirth. These conditions were worse for Labor women, of course, since in general they were poorer.

Some remarkable Labor women did make it. We think of Victorian State Parliament's Fanny Brownbill who devoted her ten years as representative for Geelong trying to help poor families, and the elderly, with food and housing. Her first speech in 1938 was an impassioned plea to lift the ban on perambulators on suburban trains. She said:

If we were to allow the railway ban on perambulators to pass unchallenged, we should be doing an injustice to large numbers of mothers. Let us not forget that the children of today will be the citizens of tomorrow and, shall I say the powerhouse of the future.


One suspects that today Ms Brownbill would be a strong supporter of Labor's Work and Family policies!

Another of our early heroines was the formidable NSW State MP Lillian Fowler, an expert at machine politics in one of the toughest Labor branches of all. Before entering State parliament Lillian was elected Australia's first ever woman mayor in the inner-city area of Newtown. In State Parliament she pressured Labor Premier Jack Lang to bring in a widows' pension and child endowment. Named by political enemies as a skilful branch-stacker, she kept a tight grip on the Labor Leagues in her area.

But today I'd like to pay special tribute to May Holman and Dorothy Tangney - two remarkable Labor women from my home state of Western Australia who overcame impossible odds to break into politics -May into the State Parliament, and Dorothy into the Federal Senate.

It is not surprising that both were childless- the barriers to mothers entering politics were very high indeed. (In saying that I acknowledge the exception of Dame Enid Lyons, widow of 1930s Prime Minister Joe Lyons, and mother of 12, who was the bane of Bob Menzies existence in the United Australia Party.)

May Holman was the second woman ever elected to an Australian Parliament (after another Western Australian, the Nationalist MP, Edith Cowan). May succeeded her father in the safe Labor seat of Forrest in the WA Parliament on his death in 1924.

May was the eldest of a large family, educated in a convent. A confident singer and musician, she often worked as a pianist in cinemas, and took concert parties around the WA timber camps. She learned shorthand and typing and began work in the Perth Trades Hall in 1911. She worked with her father in the

Timber Workers' Union, and also spent nine months working in the Victorian Arbitration Court.

Deserted by her husband, she took over the role as breadwinner for her mother and younger siblings on her father's death. She won six successive elections for Forrest, after working hard to improve conditions in timber settlements. She was also tireless in her efforts to encourage women to enter public life, and wanted equal pay for equal work. She was an advocate of free milk for schoolkids and of raising the school leaving age to sixteen. She died in 1939 in a car accident, and it would be well over forty years before a woman won another safe Labor seat in WA.

Dorothy Tangney is another inspirational figure - the first Labor woman in Federal Parliament when she took her Senate seat in John Curtin's wartime Government of 1943.

The daughter of an engine driver, she was one of nine children raised in poverty after her father was seriously injured. Dorothy put herself through secondary school on a State scholarship, then through University while teaching in schools.

She taught in the heart of the Fremantle slums where she witnessed appalling malnutrition, disease and unemployment. After seven years of unsuccessful attempts at State and Federal elections - she finally secured what was thought to be an unwinnable fourth spot on the Senate ticket in 1943. An unexpected landslide to Labor in that year brought her to Canberra. She went onto win the number one position on the Labor ticket in four subsequent elections.

She had to borrow the money to get to across to Canberra to make her first speech. Hers was a new and interesting voice in the Senate. In her first speech she said:

I pay tribute to the women in industry who, for the first time, have been called upon to take their places in fields hitherto the prerogatives of men, especially those engaged in the engineering industry who have turned night into day, and have pursued a way of life completely foreign to anything they had known before. I have seen them at work in munitions factories. I have seen them going on shifts at midnight with the same heroism as has marked the wonderful exploits of our men on the battlefields.


Throughout her years in the Senate she tried to improve social conditions, and was particularly interested in housing, education and a national health scheme. She said that those who had struggled through the Depression should not be made to live 'like rabbits' in filthy tenements without good health care or decent schools. Through her work on the Joint Committee on Social Security set up by the wartime Curtin Government she was able to achieve increased child endowment, hospital and medical benefits, especially for people with TB.

She often spoken on defence issues, such as the proposed naval base at Cockburn Sound in Western Australia, and was particularly interested in taxation and financial reform, contributing to almost every Budget brought before the Parliament during her 25 years in the Senate. Dorothy never married. Her two widowed sisters gave her tremendous support in her electoral duties.

In her last speech in 1967, she spoke of her dissatisfaction on the progress that had been made towards assistance to Aboriginal people, child endowment and age and widow's pensions. She used to always say, "We won the war, but now we have to win the peace."

I wanted to give you a pen picture of May Holman and Dorothy Tangney because they are not well known outside their home State. Their stories give you an insight into what special characteristics were

needed to succeed, before the social revolution of the 1960s and 70s gave women what they needed to start to break down traditional barriers in politics.

May Holman and Dorothy Tangney carried the standard high during the lean years; their excellence kept the doors open for those who came later.

During all of the last one hundred years women contributed mightily to Labor, but in largely invisible positions - the administrative drudgery, the endless cups of tea, the fundraisers, the pamphleteering and the morale-boosting.

In honouring those who rose to prominence through immense efforts, I know that no-one in this room would ever forget what so many nameless women gave over the years to the Labor cause.

Let us honour all of them today - the pioneers, the standard-bearers, and the foot soldiers. And let us celebrate the many successful women here before us today - I would particularly like to acknowledge Joan Child -first Labor woman into the House of Representatives, and first woman Speaker of that House.

We should never forget those who held up the lantern to pave the way for today's success stories. We should never forget the difficulties they faced and the courage they showed in pioneering women's representation.

And let us never rest on our laurels until we have really tackled all the barriers to women's advancement in our party.

We will not give up until we see you in your rightful place at all levels of Australian political life.

Thank you. Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.

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