To mark the 75th anniversary of Dame Enid Lyons’s maiden speech in the House of Representatives in September 1943, the Menzies Research Centre produced an anniversary edition of Anne Henderson’s Enid Lyons – Leading Lady to a Nation (Connor Court Publishers) At The Sydney Institute, on Monday 24 September 2018, Anne Henderson, Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute joined John Nethercote, Adjunct Professor at the Australian Catholic University, in a discussion of Enid Lyons, her achievements and the world she belonged to.
ENID LYONS – HER LIFE AND TIMES
At 8 pm on the evening of Wednesday 29 September 1943, 75 years ago next Saturday, a small female figure rose in the House of Representatives to make her first speech there. Enid Lyons, widow of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons and mother of twelve, was about to become a national icon as the first woman to stand and speak in Australia’s house of the people.
Her words struck a number of chords, but her voice would have been familiar to many thousands of Australians. As first lady in the 1930s at the Lodge and in the year following her husband’s death in April 1939, Enid Lyons had often broadcast to the nation at a time when radio was the new electronic device invading Australian homes.
As first lady in the 1930s at the Lodge and in the year following her husband’s death in April 1939, Enid Lyons had often broadcast to the nation at a time when radio was the new electronic device invading Australian homes.
Enid’s unpretentious yet deftly modulated voice had long been added to by a dramatic quality learned from amateur stage performances in her teens and her mother Eliza’s enforced elocution lessons. Well before her rise in public life, Joe Lyons had recognised that his wife’s presence on a political platform was one of his most cherished assets. He would call her forward on the campaign trail to add a few words to pull in the votes, especially from women.
On their two trips abroad, both to Europe and the United Kingdom and one to the United States and Canada, Enid captured attention in the press with her speechmaking, even being paid twenty guineas herself to write a half page article in the Daily Mail – headed “A Prime Minister’s Wife on The Joys of a Large Family”. Keith Murdoch published her reports of their travels in his Australian newspapers. She became a curiosity – Lady Astor just had to have her visit.
Michael Collins Persse, a fellow Australian who dined with Enid at Lord and Lady Gowrie’s London home, described her accurately as “intelligent rather than intellectual, good at conversation, affable and motherly”. Such was the Lyons phenomenon with the media, Joe Lyons made the cover of Time on 8 July 1935 to coincide with their arrival in New York and later Washington. They spent a night with the King and Queen at Windsor Castle and another with Franklin D Roosevelt at the White House.
Such was the Lyons phenomenon with the media, Joe Lyons made the cover of Time on 8 July 1935 to coincide with their arrival in New York and later Washington.
At the state election of 1925, when Joe Lyons was Labor’s Tasmanian premier, Enid had stood as a Labor candidate in the electorate of Denison to draw votes away from an independent female candidate. Assumed to have no chance of winning, she came within a handful of votes to capturing a seat in Tasmania’s House of Assembly. Her thespian qualities and warm personality, along with her ability to communicate ideas – something Joe had taught her early in his mentoring – drew much personal support.
Elected as the United Australia Party Member for Darwin in northern Tasmania in August 1943, Enid Lyons was no stranger to Canberra. Her election that year broke records not only for her win as the first woman to gain a seat in the House of Representatives. Enid had also won Darwin for the UAP opposition, against all odds – the 1943 election result was a huge landslide for the Curtin Labor government.
Her election that year broke records not only for her win as the first woman to gain a seat in the House of Representatives. Enid had also won Darwin for the UAP opposition, against all odds.
Sheila Lacey (nee Lyons), Enid’s eldest daughter, in an interview for The Mercury in March 1990 described family life for the Lyons tribe as politics “breakfast, dinner and tea for us before we were old enough to know anything”. This is a reflection of the life Enid Lyons accepted on marrying Joe Lyons in April 1915 when she was still only seventeen and Joe eighteen years her senior, as well as being Tasmanian Treasurer, Minister for Railways and Minister for Education.
The romance between Joe and Enid had blossomed after Enid’s mother, a member of the Labor Party and friend of Joe Lyons, had introduced her daughters to her parliamentary associates on a visit to Hobart while the girls were studying at teachers’ college there. Enid was just fifteen. Joe and Enid began corresponding and occasionally meeting at Parliament House in the evening, after which Joe would accompany the girls home. They became engaged on 1 October 1914.
The union of Joe Lyons and Enid Burnell, its timing, its success and its many contexts, says as much about Australia as the characters of Joe and Enid. It was an era laced with sectarian divisions between Catholic and Protestant, tensions that would only increase during the war years about to begin. The Burnells were Methodist and the Lyons Catholic. Joe Lyons saw no reason for Enid to give up her religion to marry him, but Eliza Burnell believed it was important for a couple to hold the same faith for the good of their marriage.
The union of Joe Lyons and Enid Burnell, its timing, its success and its many contexts, says as much about Australia as the characters of Joe and Enid.
Father Tom O’Donnell, Catholic priest at Stanley and a good friend of Joe, agreed to give Enid instruction for a Catholic conversion at his presbytery just a couple of months before their marriage. The conversion had its own uniqueness. O’Donnell, who did not impress Enid, was called away. At the presbytery, Eliza urged her daughter to read the Catholic texts. In the end, it was Methodist Eliza who converted Enid to the Catholic faith.
On the eve of Enid and Eliza’s departure for O’Donnell’s presbytery, the Burnell family’s Methodist preacher had pleaded with Enid not to give up the “faith of your father”. Enid also recorded that her grandmother had “disowned” her mother for allowing her to marry a Catholic. And she had had no pre-wedding parties due to the similar disapproval of her Methodist girlfriends.
In spite of such a beginning, Joe and Enid Lyons and their large Catholic family would become central to Australians of all backgrounds during the harsh years of the Great Depression. It took no spin doctors to fashion Joe and Enid into salt-of-the earth family folk. They caught the popular imagination and were a comforting and unifying symbol for many who sought solace in those years. Enid became something of a mother to the nation with Joe writing to her at one point, “you don’t know what a place you have in the hearts of the people of Australia, nor how interestedly and sympathetically the women are looking toward you just now”.
It took no spin doctors to fashion Joe and Enid into salt-of-the earth family folk.
On Good Friday, 7 April 1939, Enid Lyons sat by Joe’s bedside at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and watched him die. Her youngest child Janice was just five and not yet at school. At a time of no superannuation for MPs, there would be a bitter debate in parliament over what, if any, allowance this former first lady to the nation should be given. Years later, Enid would watch with growing emotion debate in a parliamentary vote on John Curtin’s widow Elsie’s allowance, behind which Enid would throw her support. Her own allowance broke new ground and was not so easily won.
Enid Lyons had faced years of family upheaval and at times acute distress. Joe’s death, however, almost crippled her. And, yet, within a few years, Enid Lyons had picked up the pieces of her life and taken up the challenge to stand for parliament when the sitting member for Darwin retired. Standing against a string of candidates for the seat – including two others from her own United Australia Party (forerunner of the Liberal Party of Australia) – after a week of counting preferences, eight times, Enid Lyons was declared the winner.
Standing against a string of candidates for the seat – including two others from her own United Australia Party (forerunner of the Liberal Party of Australia) – after a week of counting preferences, eight times, Enid Lyons was declared the winner.
As an accomplished public speaker, Enid Lyons believed that a winning speech should make its audience laugh within the first five minutes. Her maiden speech was no disappointment. After commencing with serious reflection on the historic nature of the moment, Enid moved seamlessly into elaborate metaphor comparing herself to a new broom in a cupboard of somewhat alarmed old brooms but assuring her male colleagues that she had “very sound views on brooms, and sweeping” and that “this particular new broom knows that she has a very great deal to learn from the occupants of, I dare not say, this particular cupboard”.
Thus, her well-modulated words rung out in the chamber, moving between great public issues of the day from war and peace, jobs and life for returned service men, progress after the war, issues from population growth to social service, all interlaced with her personal and female experience as a wife and mother. This softly edged voice was immediately recognised as vastly different in perspective and approach from other speeches so often given in this national forum. Here was a woman’s touch, not intimidated by the masculine world she had entered and not afraid to speak openly of her homely life and the opportunities that experience opened for political insight.
Here was a woman’s touch, not intimidated by the masculine world she had entered and not afraid to speak openly of her homely life and the opportunities that experience opened for political insight.
She spoke of the need for public housing, and for population growth, which she said she had pondered on “not with my feet upon the mantle-piece, but knee deep in shawls and feeding bottles”. She spoke up for a child endowment system rather than a basic wage calculated around a man, his wife and his three children – “how many thousands of men in this country have no children at all” while others had “families of six and seven and eight”. She added, “Let the man’s wages be a direct charge on industry, but the children should be a charge on the whole community.”
Without mentioning her late husband by name, Enid paid homage to him as being revered for his focus in government on the “problems of human values and human hearts and human feelings”. And, in conclusion, she nailed her colours to a higher authority saying, “the duty of every government, whether in this country or any other, is to see that no man, because of the condition of his life, shall ever need lose his vision of the city of God”.
Little wonder that Robert Menzies once commented that Enid Lyons could move listeners to tears over the condition of a railway track. And in spite of her reflection in her maiden speech that as a woman in parliament she would work shoulder to shoulder with male colleagues “not as a woman but as a citizen”, the acclaim her speech received, both privately and in the press, signified her presence as a burst of light on a stale corner of the polis. No surprise that aging former prime minister Billy Hughes called her a bird of paradise among the carrion crows.
Little wonder that Robert Menzies once commented that Enid Lyons could move listeners to tears over the condition of a railway track.
It was Enid Lyons’ burden in her later years that she was all too often regarded as the energy and mind behind her husband Joe’s success in politics. This is a misguided view given that his own efforts long before they met showed an ambitious political mind in Joe Lyons himself. In fact, a lot of Enid Lyons’ achievements in public life she owed to her husband’s initiative and his mentoring in their early married life. He pushed her on to the stage when she herself admitted her nerves were against it. His confidence in her drove her on as much as hers in him took them both to the heights.
Looking back on her life’s meanderings, Enid reflected in an interview with Ruth Brown in November 1969 that, “My story has run on so many different lines. Nothing would surprise me now.” And so much of that life was Enid accepting and taking up rather than seeking challenges. It was what her mother Eliza called throwing one’s cap over a windmill. The challenges came, and Enid vaulted them – one by one. Babies came, one after the other, none planned; house moves came as Joe rose in state politics and then in federal politics – she juggled and kept pace.
Enid reflected in an interview with Ruth Brown in November 1969 that, “My story has run on so many different lines. Nothing would surprise me now.”
Years of train journeys and ferry crossings of Bass Strait took their toll. Enid was often near nervous collapse, at other times suffered depression. She was hospitalised on a number of occasions apart from her babies’ births. Her mother Eliza, sister-in-law Mavis Lyons and (later) her older children were a constant support at the home base. But, in all of it, Enid and Joe lived by a fundamental belief in divine providence so that facing their difficulties was part of their life as Christians.
Then Joe was gone, and Enid needed to earn her living as well as keep occupied. After a few quieter years at her beloved Home Hill in Devonport, making gardens and decorating rooms, she let her daughter Enid convince her to stand for parliament. Another chapter of her life opened. At the election of April 1951, Enid stepped aside after a bout of ill health.
Amid our current debate over the lack of female Liberal Party MPs, it is worth looking back at the Enid Lyons story. In spite of her mother’s involvement in the early Labor Party, Enid’s life in politics only began as Joe Lyons’ wife. As a married couple, they attended party conferences and practised arguing propositions from opposing sides. The family lived and breathed politics while Joe was alive and rose to political pinnacles. In all this, Enid was given a pathway to parliament when she took her chances in 1943.
In spite of her mother’s involvement in the early Labor Party, Enid’s life in politics only began as Joe Lyons’ wife.
Today, there are numerous pathways for women on the Labor side of politics – through the unions and professional organisations. Not so many, however, for women on the non-Labor side of politics. And this is the challenge for the Liberal and National parties for the future. Moreover, the push for more women to be part of the political process must be led by men as much as women.
This is the challenge for the Liberal and National parties for the future. Moreover, the push for more women to be part of the political process must be led by men as much as women.
In retirement, Enid wrote three books and, for some years, wrote two syndicated newspaper columns a week. All the while keeping the wolf from the door while building a public profile as a wise and entertaining personality. Enid had a number of broadcasting contracts. She served for almost a decade on the board of the ABC. She even took up an offer to write an agony aunt page for the Woman’s Day and Home magazine. The offers came to her and she followed their lead.
Till the end she could move an audience with her words. Senator Jocelyn Newman recalled that she asked Dame Enid Lyons to open an event for International Women’s Day in 1976 – Enid was then aged 78. “She spoke for quite a while, standing” said Newman, “and she was old … she could take you from one minute of laughing with her and the next minute to having a few tears. So, I looked around, wondering how it was going in a mixed group, and the men were weeping too.”
She could take you from one minute of laughing with her and the next minute to having a few tears