“In Canberra, women’s organisations from across Australia are celebrating the centenary of the Commonwealth Franchise Act (June 12 1902) which gave most Australian women a vote in federal elections and the right to stand for election. Most indigenous women, however, would wait until 1962 for their right to vote.

Australia was the first country in the world to extend universal suffrage to women. But it took 40 years before the first women were elected federally in 1943 – Dame Enid Lyons (UAP); House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney (Labor); Senate. In the struggle for equal representation, Australian women have often seen their rights fail to materialise in real progress.

Between 1989 and 2002, the number of Australian women MPs rose from 100 to 232. But Australia is yet to have a woman Prime Minister. In John Howard’s government, just one woman, Senator Amanda Vanstone, sits in Cabinet. According to Joan Kirner, former Premier of Victoria and now co-convenor of Emily’s List Australia, “The first century was getting the numbers, the second century is getting a real share of power.”

In the past decade, a number of women federal MPs have been thrust into the limelight as potential leaders – Carmen Lawrence, Bronwyn Bishop, Cheryl Kernot – only to have tripped and stumbled. Their treatment as if to warn other women not to dare if they’re to win. Women MPs like Queensland’s Minister for Education Anna Bligh do better by avoiding personality politics.

In 1998-9, I interviewed more than 120 women MPs in Australia and New Zealand. They were women from all manner of backgrounds who had taken the step to run for parliament and succeeded. A couple in New Zealand – Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark – had made it to the top.

None of these women had found it easy. Once on the parliamentary benches, the battle had only begun. The parliamentary boys’ club can be overwhelming for a woman. For example, just imagine the public reaction to a couple of women MPs trading insults like Tony Abbott and Mark Latham have in the current parliamentary sitting.

Listening to the women’s stories, I found them very like the first working class politicians a century before – new to the game and with a lot to learn.

But parliament is where power begins. Where future prime ministers cut their teeth and show their goods. Moreover, the battle within party ranks is the apprenticeship for political leadership. And it’s a playground women are still learning how to function in.

For all that, much advance has been achieved in the past two decades. The feminist urgency that once accompanied many women’s reform groups has not so much been diluted as reinvented in less ideological but more effective collectives. Women MPs now represent political parties across the spectrum in increasing numbers. They are active in diverse causes.

Political parties also have come to recognise the value of women MPs. That host of Coalition female MPs elected in the 1996 federal election, many from marginal seats, have mostly retained those seats in two tight elections since. In 1998, their success narrowly saved the Howard Government from defeat.

Women hanging on and establishing their credentials has seen new faces among Coalition women, such as Helen Coonan, Kay Patterson, Sharman Stone, Trish Worth and Danna Vale, quietly move into ministerial and parliamentary secretary positions. Senator Helen Coonan, as Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, is the first female MP in a Treasury portfolio.

Political leadership is about experience and savvy, as well as critical mass. It’s not surprising so many of our political leaders are male. Male MPs present a deep pool of candidates for leadership. And yet, in spite of this, women like Margaret Thatcher, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark stand out as women who weathered all storms to attain the position of prime minister in their respective countries. Their success suggests that hard won credibility in both policy and leadership is the key, whatever one’s gender.

Australia’s Jenny Macklin, deputy leader of the federal opposition and Shadow Minister for Education, emulates the style and ambition of a Shipley or Clark. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1996, Macklin became shadow Minister for Health and within two days of taking her seat made her first speech. But she saw the opportunities.

Says Macklin: “I made it my business to speak every day. Whether it was a question, an adjornment debate, whatever, I spoke on any bill.” Macklin rose fast, showing a deft grasp of policy and daring in the parliamentary bear pit. Her elevation to deputy leader after the 2001 federal election came as no surprise.

This century, if women are to get Joan Kirner’s “real share of power”, the message seems to be, follow role models like Anna Bligh, Helen Coonan or Jenny Macklin and leave the personality politics for later.”

Article published in The Courier Mail