On 21 August 1943, Dame Enid Lyons was elected to the House of Representatives. While in this day and age having women in parliament is nothing unusual, when she and Dorothy Tangney entered the white building down the hill, it caused quite a stir. Female toilets had to be designated. The procedure of the opening of the parliament had to be slightly amended—no more ‘gentlemen members and gentlemen senators’ in the Governor-General’s opening.
Dame Enid first came to the public’s attention as the wife of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, and everyone knew that they were a true team. She took to the role of prime ministerial spouse at the time with great enthusiasm, using it as a platform to give speeches, write newspaper articles and generally promote traditional values. When her husband died in 1939, she withdrew from public life for a time. By the time of the 1943 election, she was convinced to run for the UAP for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin. She won and entered the House of Representatives, changing the House forever.
Dame Enid was the first woman to serve in the House and, subsequently, the first woman to serve in cabinet. She was an absolute trailblazer for all of the women who have followed her, including myself. Her maiden speech to the House covered many topics, from the political situation in Europe to the employment situation here in Australia.
But a common theme running through the entire speech was the central position of the family as the foundation stone of society. That is something that permeates in our party to this day. She quoted the late King George in her speech saying, ‘The foundation of a nation’s greatness is in the homes of its people.’ For her, family was everything and provided much stability in her life. She and Joseph had 12 children. They were a great comfort throughout their lives.
She also believed in hard work and the rewards that came from that. She believed that women should earn equal pay with men if they went out and worked. That was quite a radical idea at the time, considering that hers was an era and a time when women stayed at home. Dame Enid was instrumental in bringing in welfare payments for mothers as well as equal training for both men and women. She was a visionary. Dame Enid Lyons was one of the most highly decorated women of her generation. She was awarded the Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
She was a household name across the country. She even wrote a column in The Women’s Weekly and remained a commissioner of the ABC until 1962. As the first female chief whip of the Liberal Party in a sitting government, I’m one of those women who is very proud to follow in her trailblazing footsteps. We do need to keep celebrating the firsts in our party and in this parliament. Certainly Dame Enid has been honoured in many ways, from the naming of Dame Enid Lyons Place here in Canberra, to her being made a Dame of the Order of Australia in 1980. In the event that was held last night to recognise Dame Enid Lyons, we saw so many of her family present. There was a re-enactment of her first speech, which was delivered so well and gave us a great sense of how, not only Dame Enid would have spoken, but of her feelings at the time.
I feel a great sense of pride in being in the same party as Dame Enid. Hers is a legacy that blazed a trail for women across all political persuasions but I’m very proud that the first woman in the House of Representatives was, in fact, a woman, and that it was Dame Enid Lyons. It is an absolute legacy that the women in the Liberal Party are proud to look up to and that we should never forget or stop celebrating. She placed her family and her country, as I said, at the centre of her life and that shone through in her contributions not only in the parliament but in the community during her three terms in this House. Three terms is a fantastic achievement.
It’s absolutely a privilege to rise and speak on the legacy of this great Liberal woman. She paved the way for all women, including the women sitting in this chamber right now, who have followed her into this House. Her legacy is just as relevant today as it was in 1943.