In one of his many colourful metaphors, Prime Minister Billy Hughes once described Australia’s first female Federal parliamentarian as “like a nightingale amongst the carrion crows”.
It is now three-quarters of a century since Enid Lyons rose to deliver her maiden speech to a rapt House of Representatives, a milestone celebrated by the Menzies Research Centre last month at Old Parliament House. With a woman’s voice heard in parliamentary proceedings for the first time on 29 September 1943, the freshly minted Tasmanian MP made an instant impression on her parliamentary colleagues, including the Labor Prime Minister John Curtin. According to the Hobart Mercury, the maiden speech was described by seasoned parliamentarians as one of the most notable since Federation.
As Dame Enid sat down, members crossed the chamber to congratulate her. The Melbourne Herald declared that: “Dame Enid Lyons’ first speech in the House of Representatives is voted at Canberra today to have been the most able and eloquent delivered by any new member since Canberra became the seat of government”. The Herald went on to say “she is pointing the way to a revival of the almost forgotten art of oratory in parliamentary debate.”
Speaking with great clarity, she touched on Australia’s future role and international relations, the winning of the war, the influence of the home on the nation, the birth rate, housing and pension schemes for all, the reintegration of returned service personnel into the workforce and the need for a spiritual revival. Evidently impressed by her parliamentary debut, The Age remarked “Dame Enid Lyons gave brilliant evidence of her qualifications for membership of the Parliament. The speech was impressive for its humour, its humanity and its grasp of national matters.”
Bringing a warm understanding of human nature to politics, Lyons told the House “the problems of government were not problems of blue books, not problems of statistics, but problems of human values and human hearts and human feelings.”
Attracting bipartisan recognition, Prime Minister Curtin rose to tell parliament “this is a great landmark in the development of Australian citizenship”. He observed “It had remained for the seventeenth Parliament of the Commonwealth before a woman had been elected as the representative of the people. Now a woman sat in that House not because she was a woman but because the people of Darwin, Tasmania, thought she was the best person to represent them”. In a timely lesson for today, Curtin, like Menzies, affirmed that female MPs should be validated on the basis of their talent and leadership qualities rather than simply their gender.
Enid Muriel Burnell, the future Dame Enid Lyons, was born in the modest Tasmanian timber settlement of Leesville on 9 July 1897. Whilst pursuing a career in teaching, she met and eventually married Joseph Aloysius Lyons in April 1915 with whom she would bear twelve children. As Anne Henderson observed in her excellent biography, Enid Lyons: Leading Lady to a Nation, their marriage of thirty-four years proved to be a “true political match”. Ever supportive of her husband, Enid Lyons is remembered for her powerful influence as a close confidant to Joe Lyons, seeing him rise from a Tasmanian state cabinet minister to premier in 1923, and eventually, prime minister of Australia from 1932 to 1939.
As “First Lady” to Prime Minister Lyons, Enid became one of the most recognised prime minister’s spouses to occupy the Lodge, writing newspaper articles, making radio broadcasts, and giving open-air speeches. Indeed, so compelling was her public speaking that “her ability to move an audience was extraordinary”. Gifted with the common touch, her homely style resonated with middle Australia as she addressed the pressing issues of the day. At the same time as exuding a classic family image, Australia’s first couple typified a contemporary partnership where “the husband allowed his wife her independence”.
Rightly characterised by Henderson as “Australia’s first modern political woman”, Lyons is revered for her trailblazing contribution to Australian politics in her own right as both the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. At the 1943 Federal Election, she won the Tasmanian seat of Darwin to enter the House of Representatives as its first female member. As a member of the United Australia Party and then the succeeding Liberal Party, she served in Parliament for eight years before her retirement from politics in 1951. During her parliamentary term, Lyons was elevated to Vice-President of the Executive Council in the Menzies government from 1949 to 1951, becoming the nation’s first female in Federal cabinet.
Throughout her distinguished career in Australian public life, Enid Lyons stood as a woman of strong character and principle. Her commitment to advancing the status of women was unwavering. As early as 1932, she had encouraged women to stand for parliament when she addressed an opening session of the Australian Women’s National League. Seeing no tension between honouring the family and elevating women, as exemplified in her own personal and public life, she affirmed family life to be key to a moral society while women of all backgrounds had a natural right to equality. Like Menzies, she espoused a Liberal creed of ordered liberty, individual initiative, enterprise and service to the community that drew on Australia’s early pioneering spirit.
Returning to Dame Enid’s maiden speech seventy-five years ago, it was not simply impressive for its eloquence or even its significance as the first House of Representatives speech delivered by a woman, but memorable for its prescience. Her pronouncements on fertility, social security and housing foreshadowed the agenda of Australia’s most enduring government to date. From Menzies’ introduction of contributory-based social welfare to the expansion of home-ownership and the creation of a climate for Australia’s birth rate to rise, Dame Enid Lyons helped to provide the inspiration for Australia’s post-war flourishing.
David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre
Illustration: National Archives of Australia.
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