Photos of the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, meeting the United States Vice-President, Dick Cheney, at the White House said it all. Back home, the cabinet ministers Nicola Roxon, Jenny Macklin and Penny Wong echoed that message as they faced opponents in the former cabinet minister and deputy Opposition leader Julie Bishop and the former cabinet minister Senator Helen Coonan.

Female representation at the head of government is now an accepted norm, with 2008 a big step forward for women in Australian political life.

How different for their pioneering sisters. Those women who entered the political fray at a time of blanket male dominance of parliaments in a nation that had led the way when South Australia gave women the vote in 1894. Nation and states had followed. But it was not until 1921 that, in Western Australia, Edith Cowan found herself elected the first woman to hold a seat in any Australian legislature, only to lose in 1924.

Since then, and slowly, dates and names of female legislators have dotted the political timeline leading to our now increasingly gender-balanced parliaments. Today, little girls can readily plan a career in politics at their leisure.

But the bare data of women’s entry into politics can never capture the challenges and superhuman strength of any female individual who might take on the status quo. As Gillard contemplates the landscape that made her aspiration possible, the story of Enid Lyons, the first woman to gain a seat in the House of Representatives and the first woman in cabinet, stands out.

Lyons learnt her political skills on the road with an ambitious but sensitively aware much older husband, Joe Lyons. Married in April 1915 aged 17, Enid spent her honeymoon at a premiers’ conference, dining with the nation’s leaders, people old enough to be her parents. In the years that followed, and when Joe became Labor premier of Tasmania in 1923, Enid would accompany him to Labor conferences where she often argued opposing cases to her husband, addressed political rallies standing in for Joe, did his electoral paperwork as an unpaid minder and bore him children.

By 1925, Tasmania had passed Labor’s bill allowing women to stand for Parliament. Labor now needed women candidates to broaden its voter base and capitalise on the reform. At the 1925 state election, Enid and her mother Eliza stood as candidates; Enid almost won. As she campaigned, her live-in help, Ada, managed the seven Lyons children with a day nurse.

The children, meanwhile, came down with measles, chickenpox, whooping cough and mumps. Enid would return from evening meetings very late, send Ada to bed and the nurse home, and relax in front of the fire in her dressing gown, soaking up the adrenalin. She revelled in the excitement of public life, however hard her private world might be as a result.

From early in her marriage, Enid had help in the home – her mother and sisters in northern Tasmania – as she gave birth or accompanied Joe. Later there was a paid daily help while her sister-in-law, Mavis Lyons, over years stepped in as surrogate mother if needed.

Joe would take his wife on further political roller-coasters, leaving the Scullin Labor government in 1931, joining the conservatives and becoming prime minister in 1932. Enid remains unique among first wives for her involvement as a prominent public speaker and for her personal following. When Joe died suddenly in office in April 1939, Enid was left a widow with 11 children. It seemed that her public life had come to an end. But she resurfaced in 1943, her children either grown or in boarding schools, “throwing her cap over the windmill” as her mother would have said, and standing for the seat of Darwin in northern Tasmania. At the time, the United Australia Party (later the Liberal Party) had chosen two male candidates to contest this conservative seat on the retirement of the sitting member.

Politics was more fluid then. Lyons found herself standing not only against three candidates from Labor ranks and a communist but two men from her own party.

The 1943 election was a landslide for John Curtin’s Labor. After preferences were distributed in Darwin, however, Lyons was declared to have won, beating her main ALP rival, Eric Reece, by 816 votes.
Against the tide, Lyons became the first woman in the House of Representatives, taking her seat at the same time as Labor’s Dorothy Tangney became the first woman senator.

After Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party sweep into government in 1949, Lyons was appointed to cabinet, making history again as the first woman to join the ranks of the ultimate gentlemen’s club – the inner sanctum of government.

No quotas or targets helped Enid Lyons, just the thrill of public life and the heights it could take her. A thrill the Deputy Prime Minister would well recognise.

Article published in The Sydney Morning Herald