As the world marks International Women’s Day on Monday, 8 March, the issue of female representation in parliament remains as important as ever. Australia currently ranks 50th in the world for women’s representation in parliament, down from 15th in 1999. There is clearly a long way to go.
While we grapple with many tough issues on this theme, International Women’s Day is also an occasion to celebrate the achievements of women, including some of the remarkable pioneers who walked the halls of Old Parliament House – now the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) – during a time when female MPs were so rare there were no toilet facilities for them.
One of those little-known parliamentary trailblazers was Senator Agnes Robertson, the Country Party’s first female member of Australian Parliament and its first female senator, now profiled in MoAD’s exhibition, A Country Mile: Journeys of the National Party of Australia.
Agnes Robertson was originally elected as a Liberal Party senator for Western Australia in 1949, and 71 years ago on 8 March she made her first speech in the Senate. She switched allegiance to the Country Party when she discovered the Liberals had refused her preselection for the 1955 election because of her age.
Robertson was elected again, and served until her retirement in 1962 at age 80.
The only girl in a family of seven brothers, Agnes Robertson knew how to stick up for herself. She learnt debating at the dinner table with her father, who enjoyed politics.
At age 29, widowed and with three children and an uncertain income, she started teaching in Perth. She fought for the same pay and pension rights as male breadwinners and rose to be the vice-president of her union.
Beginning her first speech in the Senate on 8 March, 1950, Robertson said her role as a citizen of the Commonwealth meant she was elected to represent both “men and women”. She argued that as a widowed family breadwinner, she had gained “experience of seeing life from a man’s point of view as well as from a woman’s”.
And she paid tribute to “those honourable senators of my sex who have pioneered the way for women in this chamber”.
When that speech was made, only six women had ever been elected to the Australian Parliament.
While Australia was one of the first nations to give full political rights to (non-Indigenous) women, it took 41 years after the Commonwealth Franchise Act in 1902 for the first two female MPs – Enid Lyons from Tasmania and Dorothy Tangney from Western Australia – to walk through the doors of the provisional parliament house.
Robertson’s first speech in the Senate 71 years ago reflected the issues she had been involved with at the community level, such as rights for women, foreign affairs, education and social services, especially for the aged.
Throughout her career, she stayed engaged in these issues and a vast array of others, from peace to wheat marketing and industrial relations. In 1956, she became the first woman appointed to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs.
MoAD’s director, Daryl Karp, says the stories of early game-changers such as Senator Robertson are an important part of Australia’s democratic history.
“Every female parliamentarian has helped – little by little – to break down traditional barriers regarding women and what they are capable of,” she says. “Whatever their political persuasion – left, right or in the middle – they send a message that women belong in parliament.”
MoAD has profiled more trailblazing women who have made history to mark Women in History Month.
Senator Agnes Robertson appears in MoAD’s ‘A Country Mile’ exhibition, which opened in 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of the National Party. The exhibition tells the story of how a minor party came to have a major influence in the shaping of modern Australia.
The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.