OP-ED: Celebrating our Female Political Trailblazers

Thursday 4 March 2021, The Examiner



In my last opinion editorial I spoke about some of the big firsts that Launceston has achieved and how the echoes of these milestones have reverberated through time. Perhaps more significantly, and with International Women’s Day fast approaching it is worth noting the number of firsts in Tasmania that laid the foundations for expansion of the voting franchise as well as paved the way for women, like myself, to have the courage to succeed in political life.

Many readers, I’m sure, are aware of the achievements of Dame Enid Lyons not only as a politician, but as a mother, wife and a stalwart of the community. A mother of 12, Dame Enid, who trained as a schoolteacher, was an unending source of support for her children, as well as her husband, who was to become the first and to date, only, Prime Minister from Tasmania.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, ‘upon his becoming Prime Minister in January 1932, [Joseph Lyons’] first act was to write to [Enid] because whatever honours or distinctions come are ours, not mine’.

Upon Joseph Lyons’ death on April 7 1939, a grief-stricken Enid was convinced by one of their daughters to stand for the Federal House of Representatives, having stood for the Tasmanian seat of Denison in 1925 and missing out by only 60 votes.

In October 1920, women who had served as nurses in WWI became eligible to vote in Legislative Council elections and in 1921, women were granted the right to stand for election – subject to a number of restrictions and requirements however.

In the 1922 Tasmanian election, two women, Alicia O’Shea-Petersen and Edith Waterworth, stood for the seat of Denison, and Annette Youl stood for the seat of Wilmot, now known as Lyons. Although neither Alecia, Edith nor Annette won any seat they stood for, this remains an important milestone for women in politics, and its significance for the women who followed them in standing in subsequent elections cannot be overstated.

Dame Enid certainly must have benefitted from this, and after making the decision to run for the Federal seat of Darwin (now known as Braddon) in 1943 Federal election, won, becoming the first female member of the House of Representatives.

Closer to home, in 1948 Margaret McIntyre was voted in as the first woman in the Tasmanian Parliament as a member of the Legislative Council – winning the seat of Cornwall (now Rosevears). Among many of her community achievements, Margaret served on the Board of the Queen Victoria Hospital and was involved in the establishment of the Brooks Community School in Launceston.

Tragically, only a few months after her election, Margaret travelled to Queensland to attend the National Council of Women of Australia Conference and was killed in a plane crash on her return home. Today, the Legislative Council seat of McIntyre, held by Tania Rattray MLC is named after her. It is fitting to reflect on Margaret’s influence and achievements.

Political life is not for the faint of heart and blazing a trail, such as Margaret did, would have been all the harder. I, and my fellow female colleagues in the Legislative Council today – Leonie Hiscutt, Tania Rattray, Jo Siejka, Jo Palmer, Meg Webb, Ruth Forrest, Sarah Lovell and Jane Howlett – owe a debt of gratitude and take a great deal of inspiration from the women who came before us.

Upon the election of Jo Palmer for Rosevears in 2020, the Legislative Council is now comprised of nine women out of 15 members (60 per cent), the most ever for Tasmania’s upper house. In the Legislative Council’s whole history, only 22 women, including the nine of us, have been elected.

Of course, these achievements also reflect changing attitudes in our communities. None of use, men or women, have been handed our electoral wins. We have all worked hard for the best interests of our communities and in many cases, fought very taxing election campaigns.

The House of Assembly or Lower House has also had its fair share of female Members, with 14 of its 25 members (56 per cent) being female. This is what celebrating the achievements and successes of our political ancestors is all about. Acknowledging the significant contributions that women before us have made to their families, their spouses and to their Tasmanian communities, knowing the for the likes of Dame Enid and Margaret McIntyre, they had to work all the harder to prove and establish themselves as representatives for their constituents and our state.

It has given me much to be thankful for, and we should be very proud we have such significant political firsts in Tasmania.

Independent Launceston Legislative Councillor

Rosemary Armitage MLC

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