For International Women’s Day 2023, Australia’s first two female federal politicians have been immortalised in bronze outside Old Parliament House.
Dame Enid Lyons from Tasmania was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in the federal cabinet, while Dame Dorothy Tangney was the first woman elected to the Senate, representing Western Australia. Both took office in 1943.
The life-size statues, created by Melbourne-based sculptor Lis Johnson, were inspired by an iconic photograph of the pair as they walked through the doors for their first day of Parliament in September 1943.
Minister for Territories Kristy McBain, the first woman elected to the seat of Eden-Monaro, unveiled the statues this morning (8 March) to a crowd of about 200 people, including other female politicians from the Federal and ACT governments, friends, family members and journalists.
“It’s incredibly special that we are at a point in time, in 2023, when we’re finally unveiling the first female statues,” she said.
“These women … paved the way for so many of us. They have shown us that standing up for issues isn’t just about standing up for women’s issues. I think far too often as females we’re asked to champion women’s issues … we are here to champion social justice, peace and equality. These two women really made a significant difference to those issues.”
Both women wore the title of ‘Dame’ as they received Order of the British Empire medals. Dame Enid was also awarded the Order of Australia for her service to the country.
Dame Dorothy was born in Perth in 1907, where the hardships of growing up in a working-class family set her up as a staunch advocate for increased social services funding and improved educational opportunities.
Working as a school teacher, she campaigned for and won a Western Australian Senate seat in Labor’s landslide victory in 1943.
She quickly gained a reputation for her debating skills and speeches. Perhaps also her rash vows – she had promised her students a day off if she was successful and, sure enough, a conversation with the Department of Education later, she stayed true to her word.
In 1946, she campaigned to establish the Australian National University (ANU). She continued to serve in politics until 1968. She died in 1985, leaving many inspired by her sheer determination.
Family member Maxine Miur described her as “passionate about many things”.
“At one time, she was serving on 23 parliamentary committees and chairing 13 of them,” she said during her speech at today’s ceremony.
“When you see the size of her, she was little but big in so many ways. She was a very dedicated and talented woman who was extremely successful at a time when females were not encouraged to have high aspirations. She was a celebrated champion of the underdog.”
As for Dame Enid, many might know her as the wife of Joseph Lyons, Prime Minister of Australia from 1932 until his death in 1939. Born in Tasmania in 1897 and raised as a strong Christian, she married Joseph while working as a school teacher. Together they raised 11 children, a 12th dying in infancy.
Four years after her husband’s death, she won the Tasmanian seat of Darwin (now Braddon) in 1943 and remained its member until ill health forced her to retire in 1951. But she wasn’t done. She served as a commissioner to the precursor to the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission.
She died in 1981, the most highly decorated woman in Australia.
The Lyons family was represented at today’s unveiling ceremony by Libby Lyons, who began her speech by reading from Dame Enid’s own reflection on entering Parliament.
“It was not until 1943 that Dorothy Tangney in the Senate and I in the Lower House broke the barriers of custom and prejudice and entered the sacred precincts,” she wrote.
“Neither of us believed we could reform man and all his works in the course of a few parliamentary sessions. Nor indeed had we any wish to do so … But we were firm believers in the rightness of women’s claim to an active share in government and were determined to acquit ourselves.”
The sculpture was commissioned by the Morrison government, with work headed up by the National Capital Authority (NCA) at a cost of $800,000. This included hours of liaising with family members and the sculptor to capture the essence of the two women.
Sculptor Lis Johnson says it might have taken a while, but now is the right time to “put the spotlight on the two dames as high-achieving women who did a lot of important work to improve education and public health”.
“I think it is befitting that the sculptures of Dame Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons will be unveiled at a time when there are now many women making a mark in Parliament.”
The sculpture of Dame Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons can be found near the entrance to the Rose Gardens at Old Parliament House.