As the first woman to enter any parliament in Australia back in 1921, Edith Cowan is revered for her contribution to the fight for women’s democratic rights. Although she sat in parliament a century ago and passed away in 1932, her face is one that won’t be quickly forgotten. After all, it features on our $50 bank note.
As we approach the centenary of Edith Cowan’s start in politics, In Her Seat is honouring her legacy through interviews with just some of the many women who now sit in parliaments across Australia. Many of the women interviewed for this project have shared stories of wanting to contribute their knowledge and expertise, of wanting to advocate on a specific issue, or fill a gap that was missing.
Bronnie Taylor, Deputy Leader of the NSW Nationals, was an oncology nurse before entering politics. She was one of the inaugural clinical consultants to the McGrath Foundation, and she couldn’t ignore a need in her community for more cancer support for those undergoing treatment.
So Bronnie stood for parliament to make sure that happened. Now she’s an integral member of the NSW government and Minister for Mental Health, Regional Youth and Women.
Anne Aly, now Labor’s Member for Cowan in Western Australia, is a counterterrorism expert who was called on by Barack Obama when he was president to support his efforts in reducing violent extremism. Politicians were talking a lot about terrorism and security, but few had the knowledge or experience to analyse and improve public policy proposals.
So Anne stood for parliament to contribute her knowledge.
Senator Perin Davey, of the NSW Nationals, told me that she thought about who else would stand for a vacancy that arose and then decided she should put her hat in the ring.
Louise Pratt, a Labor Senator for Western Australia and Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing and Employment Services, saw the need for a politician to substantively advance inclusion. She did this in Western Australia and then nationally.
Alyssa Hayden, Western Australia’s Shadow Minister for Small Business & Tourism, wanted to see more people in parliament that weren’t from professional backgrounds. She thought that her experience as a small business owner was largely missing from the floor of parliament.
Edith Cowan entered parliament having assisted in setting up the Children’s Court of Western Australia, where she served as a magistrate, establishing the first maternity hospital in WA and was a founding member of the Karrakatta Club, now the oldest club for women in Australia.
Even by today’s standards, Cowan would not have been considered a young woman entering parliament. She came with experience and gravitas. That thread runs through many women currently in parliaments around the country.
They come with a record of action and getting things done. They are doing the hard work establishing themselves as leaders before politics. They see the gaps and feel they can make a contribution.
The numbers of women in parliaments were low for a long time, but since the 1970s there has been a progressive growth. As Katie Allen told me, there was a 50/50 gender split in new Liberal Party MPs at the last federal election.
But while more women are entering parliament, the gaps in who is represented in parliament are stark. Almost all of these women are white and have had a university education. None have presented with a disability. Many of the women I have interviewed have realised this and know that the women who come after them should represent modern Australia.
Like Cowan, the women in parliament today realise that it makes a difference when women are absent from decision-making.
Their contributions are for now and tomorrow.