NSW Parliamentary trailblazers: A fit place for women?

Wendy Michaels reflects upon an exhibition currently being hosted by the NSW Parliament on the state’s history of women in politics.

New South Wales – Australia’s ‘Mother Parliament’ – was amongst the trailblazers in universal male suffrage (1858) and female suffrage (1902), but was more tardy in welcoming women into the legislature.

It was not until 1918 that the Women’s Legal Status Act was passed. As Tony Cuneen suggests, opposition to the ‘fair sex’ in the legislature was based on their assumed inability to manage both domestic and public affairs. Former Premier, Sir George Dibbs thought that ‘the bulk of women are incapable of performing the duties of men’; former Premier Thomas Waddell believed the electorate would not accept ‘a lady as their parliamentary representative’.

None of the women candidates in the state’s 1920 and 1922 elections were successful. This suggests some disinclination to vote for women in the electorate, an issue Miles Franklin explores in her 1909 novel, Some Everyday Folk and Dawn. Millicent Preston Stanley, who considered that insufficient numbers of women supported her 1922 candidature, commented that while ‘women are generally willing to honour good and great men, they frequently fail to express their appreciation of the good women of the world’.

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Rose Scott, c. 1880, T. Humphrey and Co. Image via State Library Victoria.

Some early feminists, such as Rose Scott, thought female suffrage would change the character of political life, for the better. According to Judith Allen, Scott believed women would vote ‘as a sex’, but warned women to ‘remain independent of party politics’. Those, such as Mary Booth, who took her advice in the 1920 election, found little support in the electorate for an independent woman candidate.

The established ethos of the parliament that operated on the ‘gendered logic of appropriateness’ with its rampant ‘Bear Pit’ culture was also a disincentive for women to offer themselves as candidates. As Marian Sawer points out, this resulted in the ‘gradual entry of women into parliament’ and, moreover, ‘did little to change the long-established and highly confrontational political culture’. Parliament remained ‘not a fit place for women’.

A Fit Place for Women: NSW Parliament, the current exhibition at NSW Parliament House, is the third in a series of biennial exhibitions highlighting aspects of Parliament’s history and role in the development of the state. It honours a pantheon of parliamentary women trailblazers, highlighting significant ‘firsts’: first woman in the Legislative Assembly (Millicent Preston Stanley 1925), first women in the Legislative Council (Ellen Webster and Catherine Green 1931), first woman Minister (Janice Crosio 1984), first woman President of the Legislative Council (Virginia Chadwick 1998), first Chinese woman Member (Helen Sham-Ho 1988), first indigenous woman Member (Linda Burney 2003), first woman Premier (Kristina Keneally 2009), first woman Speaker in the Legislative Assembly (Shelley Hancock 2011) and first Muslim woman Member (Dr Mehreen Faruqi 2013). Amidst the many others whose images and stories adorn the walls is Gladys Berejiklian, who became the state’s first woman Liberal Premier two weeks after the exhibition opened in January 2017.

The Exhibition commemorates the outstanding achievements of the women who have served, and continue to serve the NSW parliament. It begins in the nineteenth century with the ‘Woman Question’ movement that brought women from their homes into the public arena. The names of key protagonists are there: Louisa Lawson, Rose Scott, Dora Montefiore, Maybanke Wolstenholme, Vida Goldstein, although Catherine Helen Spence, Australia’s first female political candidate, does not rate a mention.

One panel in this section about the NSW suffrage movement bears the ill-advised heading, ‘Suffragettes’, a pejorative label reportedly coined by Daily Mail journalist Charles E Hands in 1906 to refer to the Pankhursts and the militant women of the WSPU. As Anne Summers notes, the term was not used in Australia by the suffragists, many of whom rejected English Suffragette militancy.

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Australian Women’s Suffrage Banner, 1908, Dora Meeson. Image via National Museum of Australia.

Dora Meeson’s stunning Banner, Trust the Women, Mother, As I Have Done, highlights the tardiness of the British Parliament in enfranchising women in comparison to NSW. However, it does not mention how quickly English women, once enfranchised, were elected to the House of Commons, in contrast to NSW. Meeson, an Australian expatriate artist and member of the British Artists’ Suffrage League, carried her banner at the head of the contingent of Australian and New Zealand Suffragists in the Women’s Suffrage Coronation Procession in London in 1911. It was returned as a gift to Australian women in 1988 and, in 2003, reproduced on the Australian one dollar coin.

The first woman to step from the public domain into the NSW parliamentary realm, Millicent Preston Stanley, has pride of place on the first wall. Her portrait by Jerrold Nathan, hung as an Archibald finalist in 1951, dominates the space with her regal pose and commanding gaze. Unfortunately, Mary Edwards’ 1950 Archibald finalist portrait, held by Mitchell Library, is not displayed beside it, as taken together these two portraits illustrate the intriguing complexity of this trailblazing woman.

Preston Stanley’s maiden speech is a highlight of the exhibition, with the visitor able to listen to reproduced excerpts that showcase attitudes to her parliamentary presence. Her post-parliamentary achievement of prompting the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1934 through her political play, Whose Child, is also rightly applauded.

The remaining walls display features of women’s achievements under headings such as, ‘Community Advocates’, ‘Parliamentary Committees’, ‘Executives’, ‘Associations’, ‘Programs and Projects’, and so on. These illustrate the breadth of parliament’s work as well as the range of contributions women made. The final wall provides a timeline ‘Snapshot’ of milestones over the decades, listing all women members of parliament over parliament’s life, giving the impression of an accumulation of trailblazing women.

This is a significant exhibition mounted at an important juncture in our thinking about women and power, and it certainly gives the lie to Dibb’s contention that women were incapable of managing both domestic and public affairs.

Inevitably, there are omissions, absences and lacunae. For instance, while the work of the 1972 organisation, the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) is appropriately lauded, there is no mention of the equally significant precursor, the National Council of Women (NCW) founded in 1896 by trailblazers including Rose Scott. The many unsuccessful women parliamentary candidates are also elided. For each one of the 125 women parliamentarians listed in the timeline ‘Snapshot’, it is known that ‘there have been roughly 9 whose efforts were unrewarded’.

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Millicent Preston Stanley, 1937. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There is little emphasis on ratios of men to women in the Chambers. In 1925, for instance, when Millicent Preston Stanley was elected, there were 89 men and 1 woman. Nearly a century later, the situation has improved, as one would hope. As one Exhibition spotlight shows, in September 2016, the Assembly had 26 women and 67 men and the Council had 10 women and 32 men. Equal gender representation this is not!

But it is not only numbers that count. A decade ago, the newly elected member for Goulburn, Pru Goward commented she had ‘never worked in any profession as male dominated or as ruthlessly sexist’ as the New South Wales Parliament. Has this changed? In recommending the Exhibition to visitors, the Speaker, the Hon Shelley Hancock MP, praises the efforts of the women who forged the path into politics and comments that today’s women ‘continue to overcome the obstacles set along the corridors of power’. The visitor must surely ask: Why are the obstacles still there? Is parliament still not a fit place for women?

The Exhibition title asserts otherwise. It is appropriated from Millicent Preston Stanley’s maiden speech:

We have been told that Parliament is not a fit place for women …But if it is so it is the most serious indictment which can be lodged against men, because Parliament up-to-date is an institution entirely of their own making.

However, the Exhibition’s website massages her message:

We have been told that Parliament is not a fit place for women…if it is so, then it is the most serious indictment that can be made against men, for has not Parliament up till today been an institution of their own making?

Her statement has been turned into a question, a question that does need to be asked. The website appends this comment: ‘An interesting question to ponder on your way to the Parliament.’ It is indeed a question visitors might weigh up as they view this notable exhibition. They might also like to ponder the words of then Premier Barry O’Farrell on appointing Shelley Hancock as Speaker in 2011: ‘No one wants to stop the robust debate that has seen the NSW parliament labelled the `bear pit’.’ If by robust debate he was referring to the ‘bear pit’ culture that Millicent Preston Stanley condemned, I feel compelled to append my own question mark, ‘No-one …?’


A Fit Place for Women: NSW Parliament is at Parliament House, Macquarie Street, Sydney until Friday 28 April. Entry is free, and doors are open from 9:00am-5:00pm Monday to Friday, and from 9:00am-6:00pm on Wednesdays when Parliament is sitting.


Wendy Michaels is a Conjoint Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle. Her recent publications include: ‘Shaking the ‘Bear Pit’ Foundations: The First Feminist in the NSW Parliament‘, A Fit Place for Women exhibition online resources; ‘She-Devil in the House: Millicent Preston Stanley’s Political Mobilisations‘ A Fit Place for Women exhibition online resources; ‘The Final Factor: What Political Action Failed to Do, Lilith A Feminist History Journal; and ‘Child Custody and the Father-right Principle’, Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Wendy is currently writing a political biography of Millicent Preston Stanley, Inventing Millicent: First Female MP in New South Wales, to be published in 2018.

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