The Key to Your House – ep 8 – Women in Parliament

The Key to Your House – ep 8 – Women in Parliament


It was there,
in the Perth town centre, that the struggles, the arguments
and the debates took place to give women the vote
in Western Australia. Behind the Perth Town Hall,
the original Legislative Assembly met from 1890 until 1904, when the Parliament moved here
to its present site. The arguments against
women’s suffrage today sound quaint, condescending
and almost comical. However, in the 1890s, those arguments were deeply held
and forcefully put. The Premier, Sir John Forrest, believed Western Australia
should wait until Britain, or “the mother country,” as he put it,
acted first. However, when New Zealand and South
Australia granted women the vote in 1893 and 1895, Sir John’s argument
lost much of its force. One Member of Parliament in 1898 argued that women
should not be allowed to vote because they could not join
the Armed Forces and protect Australia, therefore they could not take part in
determining the government of Australia. – (Man) Behind social order
there is physical force. And because of her very nature, she is not able to take her place
in the support and maintenance of law, woman is excluded from making the law. – What about Joan of Arc?
– Ah, but what about Lucrezia Borgia, Helen of Troy and Cleopatra? What about Jezebel? – All of those women were famous
for leading men astray, it was said. And the argument was to make sure
that women continued to take no role in political decision-making.
That was for men only. For women to be allowed to actually
become a Member of Parliament was far beyond the thinking
of many Members of Parliament and also many members of the public,
male and female. Here is a quote from Hansard, the record of Western Australian
parliamentary proceedings, again from 1898. – (Man) There is widespread apprehension that to bring women into politics might lower their social position, diminish men’s deference for them, harden and roughen them,
and, as it is expressed, brush the bloom off the flowers. – I’m sitting in the chair
of the Speaker of the Parliament of Western Australia in the present Legislative Assembly,
or Lower House. This building was opened in 1904
and since then there have been 96 female Members of Parliament
in Western Australia and 27 female Ministers. This Parliament was built
from the money that flowed in during the gold rush of the 1890s. It was also the gold rush
to Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie that helped shape the decision
to give women the vote. Western Australia was nicknamed
“the Cinderella colony” because it was the slowest growing
of all the Australian colonies. It was a colony on the edge of Australia
at the edge of the world. But with the gold rush
came money and people. The population went from 39,000 in 1890 to nearly 200,000 in 1900. And most were men. And most supported
the newly-formed Australian Labor Party, the rival to Forrest’s Conservatives. As Premier, Sir John Forrest
was very reluctant to grant women the vote
in Western Australia, but he eventually became persuaded
to support the vote for women to counter the strong male Labor vote in the Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie
Goldfields. So the granting of the vote to women
in Western Australia could be called a pragmatic
political ploy by John Forrest, not a move for gender equity, a phrase probably unknown at the time. But nevertheless, all women
in Western Australia over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote in 1899. All non-Aboriginal women, that is. Aboriginal women and men
did not gain that right until 1962. Now the struggle for women
to become Members of Parliament began. This is a memorial dedicated
to Edith Cowan, elected in 1921 as the first woman in Western Australia,
indeed Australia, to be elected as a Member of Parliament. So, it took 22 years from the granting
of the right for women to vote in 1899 until the first woman
was elected to Parliament in 1921. Edith Cowan’s personal story
is a remarkable story in itself. When Edith was seven years old,
her mother died in childbirth. Her father later remarried, but he was
a deeply troubled and violent man. He murdered his second wife,
and was tried, found guilty and hanged at the old Perth Jail
in Northbridge. Edith married at 18,
had five children of her own, and helped raise
her brothers and sisters. At the age of 60, she was elected as the first female Member of Parliament
in Australia, and one of the first in the world. When a new Member of Parliament gives their inaugural or maiden speech
to Parliament, by convention,
that Member should not be interrupted with interjections from other Members
or public up in the gallery. This was not the case
for Mrs Edith Cowan. – Member for West Perth, I invite you as the first woman
elected to this Parliament, and indeed the first woman elected
to any parliament in Australia, to deliver the address in reply
to His Excellency, the Governor, and to deliver, of course,
your maiden speech, on this, 28th of July 1921. The Member for West Perth. – Thank you, Mr Speaker. I move that the following address be presented to His Excellency in reply to the speech
he has been pleased to deliver to us. May it please Your Excellency. We, the members
of the Legislative Assembly of the Parliament
of the State of Western Australia, in Parliament assembled, beg to express our loyalty
to our most gracious sovereign and to thank Your Excellency for the speech you have been pleased
to deliver to Parliament. I have much pleasure
in submitting this motion. I stand here today
in the unique position of being the first woman
in an Australian parliament. – (Man) God help us! – (Speaker) No more of that, please. Continue, Member.
– Thank you, Mr Speaker. I know that many people think perhaps
it was not the wisest thing to do to send a woman into Parliament. I believe that men need a reminder
sometimes from women beside them that will make them realise
all that can be done for the race and for the home. I have been sent here more from that standpoint
than any other. You, Mr Speaker, are aware that
everybody said when the elections began that there were three old women
putting up for parliament. I am the only old woman who got in. But then I am the only genuinely old one
of the lot. – (Man) It’s a pity that pretty woman
in Claremont didn’t get in! – I am sorry she didn’t get in, too. – Don’t encourage them, Member. – Yes, Mr Speaker. I only desire to say that I am ready to
help Honourable Members to these ends. That is all I came here for. And it is also my desire
to seek the help of Honourable Members, because that will be most necessary if women’s opinion is to have any effect
on this Parliament. – (Man) Who’s cooking
your husband’s dinner tonight? – I will have you removed
if I hear any more from you. – (Man) Why aren’t you at home
with your children? – Remove that person. – The term “stranger in the house” is used to describe someone who does not
have the permission or right to be on the floor of the House
during a sitting. Edith Cowan must have felt that
that term applied to her as the only female Member
during her time in Parliament. Cartoonists always depicted Edith Cowan
in an apron or with a duster or broom, indicating, perhaps, that housework
is the proper role for a woman, and not as a lawmaker in Parliament. One of the tributes to her
after her death, aged 70, in 1932, said that she had “the mind of a man.” I wonder what she would’ve thought
of that tribute. On the ballot paper
from the election in 1921, her name was written
as “Mrs James Cowan.” Such was the convention of the time. Even though Mrs Cowan
was a Member for only one term, she was followed in 1925 by May Holman, who became the second female Member
of Parliament in Western Australia and the first woman
to represent the Australian Labor Party in any parliament of Australia. And the first woman in Australia
and the British Empire to serve more than ten years
as a Member of Parliament. Early other significant women
to become Members of Parliament in Western Australia
were Florence Cardell-Oliver, who in 1949 became
the first female in Australia to serve as a Minister, and then later,
Carmen Lawrence and Carol Martin. Carmen Lawrence became the first woman
in Australia to become Premier. And Carol Martin
was the first Aboriginal female to be elected to any parliament. Three major firsts
for Western Australia. Carol Martin was a Member for Kimberley
from 2001 to 2013. – When I was born,
Aboriginal people weren’t citizens. I was ten when we became citizens. I can actually remember in 1967
being in Beaufort Park when the Communists were there,
the police were there, and all of these Aboriginal people
and their supporters. And the police just came through
and mowed everybody down. And I was only ten. And we were pushed, we were actually… We were boosted up onto the roof
of the toilets in Beaufort Park to keep us out of harm’s way. All the kids were sitting up on the roof
of the toilets. The other thing, of course, is I was
a ward of the state when I was 12. I was removed from my family.
But I was too old. I knew my way around Perth
and I was quite happy to hitchhike home. That’s where I came from. Racism was terrible.
Being a black woman, for some people, was a real affront
if that’s your representative. My kids were on the other end
of death threats on our home phone. Things like that. Terrible stuff. – Carmen Lawrence’s rise in politics
was meteoric. She was elected as Member for Subiaco
in 1986, and by 1990, she was Premier, the first woman in Australia
to hold that position. This is where she sat. – I’ve taken a lot of time
to have a look at the depiction of women in politics. And typically, women are characterised
by their relationships with family, whether they’re parents or not, whether they have children or
grandchildren, their domestic skills. I mean, at the time,
I had a PhD in psychology. That depiction, unfortunately,
hasn’t changed very much. Women aren’t regarded, I think,
any longer as exceptional. My mum used to say, you know,
“You stick out like a sore thumb,” when you’re one of a kind. So they don’t really have
quite that problem to deal with, but the space is still
a largely male space. The way it’s, you know, constructed,
and the rules and procedures and so on. In my time in politics,
there are people who love to hate you, because of your party,
or what you stand for, or what they believe you’ve done
or not done. But mostly they were constrained
by the media. So that if they rang up
the talkback radio, they had to give their name and address
before they were allowed on the air. If they wrote a letter
to the newspapers, there would be checks made
that they were real people. And there were constraints
about politeness. You didn’t… Some of the talkback radio
was pretty willing, but by and large, you know,
it was constrained within conventions of politeness. That’s not true online. And I’ve seen
some really terrible things go down against journalists and young women,
young men, too, for that matter. But women seem to be
a particular target. And there’s inevitably a sense,
I think, in which they say, “Oh, maybe there’s something
to this stuff.” – Wendy Duncan retired
from her seat in Kalgoorlie at the Western Australian
state election in March 2017. Her perspective on the role and treatment of women in Parliament
is interesting. – Women in Parliament
work incredibly hard. The problem is that they then sit back
and expect their leaders to give them higher office
as a result of their hard work, instead of making it clear
that that’s what they want. And I learnt that lesson in relation to the Joint Standing Committee on
Aboriginal Constitutional Recognition, something that
I was really interested in, and the Nationals played a strong role
in getting that committee established. But there was an assumption that
another one of my Nationals colleagues would go on that committee. And I decided to make my views known
that I would like to be on it. And I got the role. And I thought,
“Whoa! I should’ve done that sooner.” I think another challenge
for women in Parliament is that they get struck down by ageism
sooner than men do. And it came to my recognition when I was working
with Professor Lenore Layman. She’s a well-known West Australian
history and politics professor. We were working together on the history
of the National Party on its centenary. And in sort of a general chat,
she said to me, “Wendy, don’t let your hair go grey
while you’re a Member of Parliament.” And I laughed. I thought she was joking. But as it turned out,
she’s actually right. And you see examples
where female Members of Parliament suffer, I think, from ageism, you know, lose their roles
earlier than they should have, like Robyn McSweeney and Helen Morton
were Ministers and were sort of pushed aside
by younger female Members. And it seems that women really
have to keep their hair coloured and their high heels on
and their figure trim, while men are allowed to sort of go grey
and get a bit paunchy and still hold down the job. – Western Australia is no longer
the Cinderella state. And Perth, its capital city, is
a thriving, rapidly-growing metropolis. With only 11 percent
of Australia’s population, it has provided the first
female member of Parliament, the first female Premier, the first
female Aboriginal Member of Parliament, the first female Minister, and the first woman to represent
the Australian Labor Party. After the 2017 state election, there were 29 female
Members of Parliament, a record in Western Australia. A lot has changed,
not just for women in Parliament, but for all West Australians, since
women were granted the vote in 1899. However, if you listen to the views
of Carmen Lawrence, Carol Martin and Wendy Duncan, how much has really changed?

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