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Focus question 2: What can we learn from people who have worked in parliament?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Chifley and Menzies ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: A day in the life of a recent prime minister ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: Achievements and personal qualities, skills and knowledge ESL Activity 3
Activity 4: Job description for a prime minister ESL Activity 4
Activity 5: Women’s fight to enter parliament ESL Activity 5
Activity 6: Leaders of today and yesterday ESL Activity 6
Activity 7: Women in parliament today ESL Activity 7
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  

Introduction

In this part of the unit you will learn about four Australians who stood for election to parliament.

Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies became prime ministers. Edith Cowan was the first woman elected to a parliament in Australia. Vida Goldstein was never elected herself but was a pioneer in the fight for women to have the right to vote and stand for parliament.
Stories of Democracy
Video

The Stories of Democracy CD ROM ‘people’ section contains information about many Australians and people from other countries who were politically active inside parliaments. The interactive will also introduce you to some Australians who worked in parliament such as Henry Parkes and Enid Lyons. The Discovering Democracy Secondary Video includes interviews with Kate Lundy, Senator for the Australian Capital Territory and Michael Ronaldson, Member of Parliament for Ballarat.

Activity 1: Chifley and Menzies

1a Read the biographies of Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies at the end of Focus question 2. Copy a larger version of the framework below into your workbook and make notes as you read.

1b Write a few paragraphs comparing the lives of Chifley and Menzies. Concentrate on:

  • the differences in their political beliefs
  • the groups they represented
  • their achievements.

A framework for comparing the lives of Chifley and Menzies

 
Chifley
Menzies
Education and training    
Political beliefs    
Political party    
Which group did he claim to represent?    
What else was going on in Australia at the time?    
What else was going on in the world at the time?    
Major achievements    
Other important things    

Activity 2: A day in the life of a recent prime minister

2a Look at the diary extract of a day in the life of Bill White, an Australian prime minister. Of course, Bill is not a real person, but his diary shows you the typical working day of a prime minister in the last 20 years. Definitions of the italicised words are at the end of the diary extract. Add words you are not familiar with to your personal glossary.

A day in the life of an Australian prime minister

Bill White is 55 years old and is Prime Minister of Australia. He has a wife and three children. Before he entered politics he was a lawyer. This is a page from his diary on a typical day when Parliament was sitting.

7.00 am Meeting with advisers over breakfast

Met with Sarah and Con about day’s news:

  • the health system
  • a threatened national strike by the truck-drivers’ union
  • next week’s visit of the Prime Minister of Singapore.

Con gave me the names of important people to talk to at today’s business lunch.
 

7.45 am Meeting with lobby group

Clothing factory owners came to see me from my electorate. They are worried that they will not be able to move their products if there is a truck-drivers’ strike. They can’t afford to pay the truck-drivers any more money.

I let them have their say and said I hoped that there would be no strike. Asked Sarah to fix a meeting for them with the Minister for Industrial Relations.
 

8.15 am Radio interview

I was interviewed about the truck-drivers’ dispute. Said the Government did not want a strike and that the dispute should be settled by negotiation.

They thought they would surprise me with a question about hospital waiting lists. But I was ready and said the reports are probably exaggerated but I would ask my Minister for Health to investigate anyway. Said that these problems would be worse if the Opposition was in government.
 

9.15 am Door-stop interview at Parliament House

When I arrived, media reporters and cameras waiting at entrance. Repeated what I had said in the radio interview.
 

9.45 am Meeting with the Head of Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Met with the Head of the Department and talked about a report that recommends that we buy new submarines for the navy. He had letters for me to sign.
 

11.00 am Party meeting

I had called a meeting of all the members of my political party who are in the Parliament. Explained what the Government is doing about the truck-drivers’ dispute. Questions asked. One member criticised the way we are handling the dispute. By the time they left, the members knew how they could answer any questions.

We also arranged for a member to ask me a question in question time so that I could say how well the Government is dealing with the truck-drivers’ dispute.
 

12.30 pm Lunch with business people

Attended a lunch organised by business people who export to Singapore. They want my Government to help arrange business contacts through the Prime Minister of Singapore when he visits Australia. Made a short speech, saying that my Government values its links with Singapore and wants to see increased exports.
 

2.00 pm Question time

In question time, a member of my party asked me the Dorothy Dixer we had arranged at the Party meeting. This gave me the chance to talk about what the Government is doing about the truck-drivers’ dispute. Then the Leader of the Opposition asked whether it is really all the Government’s fault that there is a dispute because we should have seen it coming and done something about it earlier. I replied by repeating that we were handling the dispute well and saying that, in any case, we were doing much better than the Opposition would have done. I got a laugh on both sides when I said that the Leader of the Opposition couldn’t fix a strike in a match factory.
 

3.30 pm Meeting with Minister for Industrial Relations

Met with my Minister for Industrial Relations to get advice about any developments in the truck-drivers’ dispute and to discuss what might happen next.
 

4.30 pm Media conference

Media reporters were invited to come to Parliament House for a media conference. Minister for Industrial Relations made a short speech about the truck-drivers’ dispute, saying again that the Government hoped it would be settled by negotiation. I said the Government was not going to be influenced by one side or the other in the dispute.
 

7.00 pm Watched TV news and current affairs program

I watched these programs to see what was being reported about the truck-drivers’ dispute and other government business. Afterwards, I rang my senior ministers and advisers to discuss the TV reports.
 

8.30 pm Dinner with family
 
9.45 pm Read reports and documents

After dinner, read reports and papers. One report was about the new submarines. Others were about proposals for the next budget and about the taxation system.
 

Definitions

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is the section of the public service that assists the Prime Minister and prepares material for Cabinet (the senior ministers in the government).

At question time in parliament members can ask questions of government ministers. When questions are from opposition members, ministers do not know the questions in advance.

A Dorothy Dixer is a prearranged question which enables someone to answer in a way that makes their performance look good.

2b What kind of person must Bill be? What must he be good at? What must he know about? Look through the following words and phrases and think about which could describe him.

works well with other people
patient
good at running meetings
friendly
confident
hard-working
persuasive
clever
happy
good with his family
good in an argument
truthful
a good leader
well-organised
stubborn
good at doing interviews
good at making decisions
dependable
can read quickly
talkative
knows about the education system
adaptable
humble
looks good on TV
quick-thinking
works well under pressure
has definite attitudes
knows about international affairs  
creative
knows how to deal with unions
determined
stable
arrogant
thinks logically
cooperative
good in debates
knows how laws are made
knows about countries in Asia
good-tempered
knows about the economy
devious
focused
easy-going
a good cook
good at sport
well-educated
tolerant
commanding
sympathetic
impulsive
cunning
fair
likeable
ambitious
knows about the health system
a good person to work for
generous
a good listener
deals well with business people
knows how to use public transport

2c Copy a larger version of the table below into your workbook and work with a partner to sort the words and phrases above into the columns. Add more words or phrases of your own if you can.

Your teacher will help you organise a class discussion about your work. Be prepared to explain why you placed the words and phrases in the way you did.

What is Bill White like?

Definitely ...
Probably ...
Probably not ...
Definitely not ...
Not sure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Activity 3: Achievements and personal qualities, skills and knowledge

List three of Menzies’ life experiences and three of Chifley’s and say how these would have helped them in their job as prime minister. Consider the personal qualities, skills and knowledge that these experiences might have helped them to develop.

Activity 4: Job description for a prime minister

Use your work about Bill White, Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies to help you write a job description for an Australian prime minister. Write a paragraph under each of the following headings:

Activity 5: Women’s fight to enter parliament

5a Copy the grid below into your workbook and read the biographies of Vida Goldstein and Edith Cowan at the end of Focus question 2. As you are reading, make notes about what each of them was fighting for and the strategies they used.

Vida Goldstein was fighting for ...
1
2
3
4
5
Edith Cowan was fighting for ...
1
2
3
4
5
The strategies she used were ...
1
2
3
4
5
The strategies she used were ...
1
2
3
4
5

5b Compare your notes with a partner and discuss any differences. Come to an agreement about the four most important things each woman was fighting for and list them.

5c Refer to your list and the statistics in the following table. Your teacher will help you organise a class discussion using the following questions:

  • How many of the things Goldstein and Cowan were fighting for could be called ‘women’s issues’?
  • How successful were they in achieving their aims?
  • Why do you think it took so long for women to be elected to parliaments?
  • What other strategies could have been used to increase the number of women in parliaments?

Women’s political rights in Australia

  SA WA NSW Tas Qld Vic The Commonwealth Parliament
The right to vote 1894 1899 1902 1903 1905 1908 1902
The right to stand for parliament 1894 1920 1918 1921 1918 1923 1902
First woman elected 1959 1921 1925 1948 1929 1933 1943

Note: In some States and the Commonwealth Aboriginal women were not allowed to vote until much later.

Activity 6: Leaders of today and yesterday

Parliament at Work6a Use the Parliament@Work website, the Internet or other sources to find out about the current leaders of the Liberal Party of Australia and Australian Labor Party.

The Australian Labor Party

The Liberal Party of Australia

The Prime Minister

The Leader of the Opposition

The Internet sites of both parties contain information about party policies. You could assume these policies are the political beliefs of the leaders.

Copy a table similar to the framework you used in Activity 1 into your workbook and use it to summarise your information.

6b Write a few paragraphs comparing:

  • the Liberal Party leader with Robert Menzies
  • the Australian Labor Party leader with Ben Chifley.

Activity 7: Women in parliament today

Parliament7a Working in groups of three or four, use the Parliament@Work website or other sources to find out how many women there are in each of the following:

  • the parliament in your State or Territory
  • the Commonwealth House of Representatives
  • the Commonwealth Senate.

7b Discuss whether it matters that there are a lot more men than women in Australian parliaments. Think about the following questions in your small group:

  • Which of the issues that Goldstein and Cowan were fighting for are still important to women today?
  • What other issues are important to women today?
  • Vida Goldstein said that ‘all the men in Parliament cannot represent one woman as adequately as one woman can represent all women’. Do you agree?

7c Have one group member report to the whole class about your discussions. If possible, invite a woman politician to visit your school and talk about these issues.

Assessment task

Work in groups of five to prepare questions and answers for a television interview program. One person is the interviewer and the other four take the roles of Chifley, Menzies, Goldstein and Cowan.

Some of your questions should be about what happened in the past, for example:

Some other questions should be about what is happening today, for example:

(You could choose to write some questions about the political activities on the poster you made at the beginning of this unit.)

Perform your television interview for the rest of the class, using a video if one is available.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

Biographies of four Australians who stood for parliament

Definitions for words in italics are given at the end of the relevant section.

Ben Chifley 1885-1951

Some major achievements
  • Prime Minister and Treasurer, 1945-49
  • Federal Treasurer, 1941-45
  • Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Power Act 1949

Memorials and monuments
  • Chifley Square, Sydney
  • Chifley Library, Australian National University
  • Chifley Cottage, Bathurst, New South Wales

Ben Chifley

Ben Chifley, the train driver who became prime minister

Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Background and experience

Ben Chifley was born in Bathurst, New South Wales. When he was five years old, he went to stay with his grandfather on a farm about 20 kilometres away. Grandfather Chifley thought that his favourite grandson would not get much attention if he stayed at home while his parents were caring for a new baby.

In the end, Ben stayed for nine years, and was his widowed grandfather’s companion. They lived in a simple bush hut and Ben learned to milk the cows and bag potatoes. He attended a ‘part-time’ school, which had a teacher for only two days a week.

When Ben was 13, his grandfather died and Ben went back to his family. He started going to a Catholic high school but left after about two years because his limited schooling made it hard for him to keep up with the other students. By the time he was 17 he was working for the New South Wales Railways and by the time he was 24 he was driving huge train engines.

Although Chifley went to night school for 15 years, he always regretted that he had not had a chance to study more. He once told his nephew that ‘I’d rather have had Mr Menzies’ education than a million pounds’. (See biography of Robert Menzies which follows.)

In 1917, railway workers in Sydney went on strike to protest about their working conditions. Ben Chifley and other workers at Bathurst joined the strike out of loyalty to their mates, even though their own working conditions were different. The strikers were sacked. When Chifley finally got his job back it was as a cleaner and not as an engine driver. This experience helped Chifley decide to stand for parliament for the Australian Labor Party.

Political life and times

Chifley lived through the economic depression of the 1930s, when many people suffered great hardship. Afterwards, he always wanted to improve people’s standards of living.

He was federal Member of Parliament for Macquarie, New South Wales, from 1928 to 1929 and again from 1940 to 1951. He was federal treasurer from 1941 to 1949.

When he became prime minister at the end of World War II in 1945, Chifley worked to get Australia back on its feet by introducing mass immigration, the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme and other large projects. His government increased Australia’s wealth by expanding industry - for example, he promoted the development of the Holden, the first car designed and made in Australia.

At the same time, many people in the labour movement were suspicious of big business and believed that the government should own important businesses. Chifley brought Qantas under government control but his attempt to nationalise private banks was unpopular and the High Court said that the Constitution did not allow him to do it.

During the War, the Commonwealth Government had the power to control things like prices and rents. Chifley believed it should continue to have these powers after the War. For instance, he believed that the use of petrol in private cars should continue to be rationed. But after the shortages of meat, houses and petrol during the War, many people were tired of doing without these items.

Prime Minister Chifley lived simply. He had a cottage in Bathurst, and in Canberra he chose to live in a small hotel room rather than at the Prime Minister’s Lodge. But most other Australians saw that businesses were making good profits, and they wanted better homes, cars and other consumer goods.

Beliefs and aims
I try to think of the labour movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the labour movement would not be worth fighting for. If the movement can make someone more comfortable, give to some father or mother a greater feeling of security for their children, a feeling that if a depression comes there will be work, that the government is striving its hardest to do its best, then the labour movement will be completely justified.

From Chifley’s 1949 speech ‘For the betterment of mankind’ in Chifley, JB 1952, Things Worth Fighting For, MUP, Carlton, Vic, p 65.
Reproduced with permission of MUP and the Australian Labor Party.

Challenges and responses

One of the greatest challenges for Chifley was in 1949 when a coal miners’ strike began in New South Wales, and spread quickly to all States. The miners demanded increased wages, long service leave and a 35-hour working week, but the mine owners thought these claims were unrealistic.

The situation was complicated by the increasing influence of the Communist Party of Australia, which wanted workers to own and control industry. Coal shortages (which reduced power supplies) and a cold winter meant that industry was not working properly and many people were suffering.

Chifley was in a difficult position. He supported the union movement and the workers’ claims for better wages and conditions. But, at the same time, he could not afford to allow people to suffer because of coal shortages. In the end, he decided to break the strike by ordering that trade union money could not be used to support striking workers, and by sending soldiers to do the miners’ work.

Many workers felt betrayed. They thought that the Labor Party should support workers and their trade unions, not act to break a strike.

Sir Robert Menzies 1894-1978

Some major achievements
  • Prime Minister, 1939-41 and 1949-66
  • Founder of the Liberal Party of Australia, 1944
  • Knighted, 1963
  • Expanded access to secondary education and built new universities

Memorials or monuments
  • The Menzies School of Health Research, Northern Territory
  • Menzies Building, Monash University
  • Menzies Monument, Jeparit

Robert Menzies

The Right Honourable Robert Menzies PM broadcasting to the nation the news of the outbreak of war, 1939

Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Background and experience

Robert (Bob) Menzies’ family lived in the small country town of Jeparit, Victoria, where Bob went to the local state primary school. He was a good student.

At that time, most people did not have a secondary school education and there were no state secondary schools in Victoria. There were private secondary schools but the Menzies family could not afford to pay their fees. The only way Bob could continue with his education was to win a scholarship to a private secondary school.

He sat for a scholarship examination in 1907 and was the top student in the whole of Victoria. His scholarship allowed him to go to private schools in Ballarat and then Melbourne. Later he won another scholarship to the University of Melbourne, where he studied law.

Menzies grew up hearing plenty of talk about politics. His father and uncle were Members of Parliament in Victoria and his grandfather had been a leader of a miners’ union. When he was at school in Ballarat, Menzies used to read The Worker with his grandfather and argue about trade union issues.

In 1916 Menzies graduated from university with first-class honours and soon became a successful lawyer and public speaker.

Political life and times

Menzies was elected to the Victorian Parliament in 1928 and by 1934 was acting premier. He was then elected to the House of Representatives in the Commonwealth Parliament, representing the Melbourne electorate of Kooyong.

In 1939, he became prime minister, only a few months before the start of World War II. When Great Britain declared war on Germany, he made a famous announcement, saying that, ‘as a result, Australia is also at war’. In 1941, he was forced to resign as prime minister because his party would no longer support him.

Menzies became prime minister again in 1949, and remained prime minister until he retired in 1966. This is the longest period any person has been prime minister of Australia and is known as ‘the Menzies era’. It was a time of growth in Australia. There was economic development, low unemployment and increasing levels of home ownership. There was also a large immigration program.

Until the Menzies era, few students completed year 12 or went to university but Menzies helped change this. His governments built more universities and provided Commonwealth scholarships so that successful students could continue their studies. Libraries and science laboratories were provided for secondary schools.

Menzies also made the national capital, Canberra, more important. Until his time, the Commonwealth public service had been based in Melbourne but Menzies transferred it to Canberra. He was also responsible for the building of the National Library and the landscaping of the city.

The Menzies era coincided with the Cold War, when many people in Australia feared a war between the United States of America and communist countries. Australia saw the United States as a powerful friend and Menzies sent Australian soldiers to fight with Americans against communist forces in Korea and Vietnam. Menzies was also a loyal supporter of Great Britain and the monarchy.

Beliefs and aims

... the middle class ... salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on ... represent the backbone of this country ... The case for the middle class is the case for a dynamic democracy as against a stagnant one ... Individual enterprise must drive us forward ...

Menzies, RG 1942, The Forgotten People (pamphlet), HarperCollins Publishers.

The best people in this community are not those who ‘leave it to the other fellow’, but those who by thrift and self-sacrifice establish homes and bring up families and add to the national pool of savings and hope some day to sit ‘under their own vine and fig-tree’, owing nothing to anybody ... The real freedoms are to worship, to think, to speak, to choose ... to seek reward. These are the real freedoms, for these are of the essence of the nature of man ...’

Quoted in Menzies, RG 1967, Afternoon Light: Some Memories of Men and Events, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, p 296.
Reproduced courtesy of Reed Educational and Professional Publishing (Heinemann Education), Melbourne.

Challenges and responses

Menzies’ greatest challenge was to make a political comeback after being forced to resign as prime minister in 1941.

Some people criticised him because he had not served in the armed forces during World War I or because he had not been loyal to the people who made him prime minister in 1939. To overcome these attacks and make his political comeback, he needed great determination and skill. He created a new political party, the Liberal Party, which appealed to middle-class voters and recognised the importance of women’s interests and skills.

Menzies believed that people could get ahead in society through individual initiative and hard work. He thought that communists were the greatest danger to Australia because they believed that the government should own property, industry and wealth.

By 1949 communism was spreading in some Asian countries (such as China and Korea) and communist workers were gaining control of some Australian trade unions. In 1950 Menzies’ government banned the Communist Party of Australia, but the High Court overruled the ban. Menzies then held a referendum to try to ban the Communist Party but the Australian people voted against such a ban.

But Menzies knew that people were frightened of communism and he was able to use this fear to persuade people to vote for his government. He said that the Australian Labor Party was too closely connected to the Communist Party. Then, just before the 1954 election, it was announced that a group of Russian (communist) spies had been found in Australia and Menzies claimed that they were a danger to Australia. This became known as the ‘Petrov Affair’ and Menzies was able to use it to harm the Australian Labor Party. Even today, people argue about whether the Petrov Affair really was a threat to Australia.

Russian guards drag the wife of Russian diplomat Vladimir Petrov

Russian guards drag the wife of Russian diplomat Vladimir Petrov to a plane at Sydney airport to take her back to Russia. The publication of this photo by the Australian media helped Menzies win the 1954 federal election.

The Fairfax Photo Library.

Vida Goldstein 1869-1949

Some major achievements
  • Leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Victoria for more than 20 years
  • First woman to nominate for election to the Commonwealth Parliament
  • Founder and editor of two successful women’s newspapers, The Australian Woman’s Sphere (1900-05) and The Woman Voter (1909-19)
  • Campaigner for children’s courts and better treatment of young offenders
  • Peace activist

Memorials or monuments
  • Goldstein, federal electorate

Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein, Australian delegate to the International Women Suffrage Conference in the United States in 1902

Painting by Phyl Waterhouse 1917-89. Courtesy National Library of Australia and Ms June Davies.

Background and experience

Vida Goldstein was born into a well-off family in Portland, Victoria. She went to a private secondary school in Melbourne and her university entrance examination results in 1886 were excellent. She was also good at tennis, billiards and horse riding.

Goldstein decided not to go to university or join in the busy social life of her wealthy friends. She became a teacher. In her spare time, she also wanted to help her mother, who was working to help people who lived in Melbourne’s slum areas. Goldstein visited rat-infested, unsewered homes and met people who wanted to change these conditions. She studied theories about the causes of poverty and unemployment, and solutions to these problems.

Goldstein thought that it could make a difference if women were allowed to vote and be elected to parliament. Her first political action was to go door-knocking to collect signatures on a petition for woman’s suffrage. The suffragists obtained 33,000 signatures on the largest petition that had ever been presented to the Victorian Parliament.

She also tried to persuade Members of Parliament to consider women’s points of view on issues affecting women and children. In 1899 Goldstein became the leader and full-time paid organiser of the woman’s suffrage movement in Victoria.

The Woman Voter

The Woman Voter supported Vida Goldstein’s Senate campaign in 1910.

Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Political life and times

Goldstein spent her life trying to gain equal rights for women. She set up and supported a number of women’s organisations and campaigned for women to be able to vote and to sit in parliament in other countries as well as in Australia. She believed that governments need women’s ideas, especially in dealing with poverty, unemployment and women’s and children’s issues.

In her time, Goldstein was a powerful public speaker and her best known political slogan was that ‘all the men in Parliament cannot represent one woman as adequately as one woman can represent all women’ (1909). She stood as an independent candidate for the Commonwealth Parliament five times between 1903 and 1917 but was not elected, although she did have a lot of support from voters.

Beliefs and aims
I am a human being, and I believe nothing is outside my sphere.

Slogan on the masthead of The Australian Woman’s Sphere, 1900.

I would urge the women of Victoria not to leave one stone unturned in an attempt to carry woman suffrage into law this year ... for over four years I have attempted the almost impossible task of engineering the woman movement in Victoria, keeping it in close touch with the movement in other countries, and of running a paper to help the cause everywhere ...

It may be that I am never to have a place in that august body [the Senate]; if so, I am quite content to be a pioneer, to blaze the track for other women. That I have made the pathway easier for them is my rich reward.

Goldstein, V 1905 and 1910, quoted in Bomford, Janette M 1993, That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein, MUP, Melbourne, pp 78 & 99.
Reproduced courtesy of Janette Bomford.

Challenges and responses

A hundred years ago, some people already believed that women should be represented in parliament. Most people, however, believed that a woman’s place was in the home.

As women began to campaign for equal rights, some newspapers, cartoonists and male politicians made fun of them (see the cartoon that follows). This did not stop Goldstein - she continued the campaign for nearly 30 years.

There was opposition to Goldstein for other reasons as well, such as her support for the suffragettes in England. Some suffragettes went on hunger strikes, set fire to buildings and even committed suicide to draw attention to the suffrage movement. Many people thought this kind of action was too strong. Also, Goldstein was a pacifist during World War I when many people thought it was a person’s duty to support the War.

As a result, opposition to her political campaigns grew stronger but Goldstein refused to join any political party. This also harmed her chances of getting enough votes to be elected. She believed that politicians should work more cooperatively and that issues such as equal pay for equal work should concern all Members of Parliament, no matter what their party.

Edith Cowan 1861-1932

Some major achievements
  • One of Western Australia’s first women magistrates in the Children’s Court, 1915-32
  • Australia’s first woman parliamentarian, 1921-24
  • Introduced the Women’s Legal Status Bill which removed the ban on women practising law and other professions (Western Australia), 1923

Memorials or monuments
  • Edith Cowan University, Western Australia
  • Cowan, federal electorate

Edith Cowan

Edith Cowan, social worker and Member of Parliament
Courtesy Edith Cowan University.

Background and experience

When Edith Brown was seven years old her mother died. Edith was then sent from her home near Geraldton, Western Australia, to a girls’ boarding school in Perth. She had to cope with another tragedy when her father was found guilty of the murder of his second wife and executed.

At 18 years of age, Edith married James Cowan, who became a magistrate in Perth. Through her husband’s work, she saw how families suffered when their men were sent to gaol. Later she became an active member of organisations that tried to improve conditions for women and children. Edith had five children of her own.

When she became a magistrate of the Perth Children’s Court herself, Edith was able to work hard to protect the rights of children. She held the position of magistrate for 18 years.

Edith Cowan

From Leason’s cartoon ‘The New "House" Wife’, Bulletin, 31/3/1921.
Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Political life and times

Western Australian women won the right to vote in 1899 but were not able to stand for parliament until 1920. Edith Cowan campaigned for both these reforms.

In 1921 she stood as a Nationalist candidate for the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia because she thought not enough was being done about the rights of children and women. In the election, Cowan defeated an experienced male politician by 46 votes. She was the first woman elected to an Australian parliament.

In her first speech in parliament, Cowan talked about what could be done to help children, women, wage earners and pensioners. She had some immediate success. When she complained that mothers taking prams on suburban trains had to pay a ‘pram fare’, the Minister for Railways replied that he would withdraw the charge at once.

Cowan wanted the government to make changes in education, health and immigration policy. But, as a backbencher and the only woman in parliament, she did not have the power to make many of the changes she wanted.

Her greatest achievement was to open up the legal profession to women. In 1923, she introduced a Bill to parliament to allow women lawyers to represent people in court, which they had not been allowed to do. Her Bill was passed by the parliament. It also allowed women for the first time to work in other professions. In a way, this legislation paved the way for modern equal opportunity legislation.

Cowan’s campaigns for re-election in 1924 and 1927 were unsuccessful.

Beliefs and aims
I stand here today in the unique position of being the first woman in an Australian Parliament. I know many people think perhaps that it was not the wisest thing to do to send a woman into Parliament, and perhaps I should remind Hon [honourable] members that one of the reasons why women and men also considered it advisable to do so, was because it was felt that men need a reminder sometimes from women beside them that will make them realise all that can be done for the race and for the home. I have been sent here more from that standpoint than from any other ... The views of both sides are more than ever needed in Parliament today. If men and women can work for the State side by side and represent all the different sections of the community, and if the male members of the house would be satisfied to allow women to help them and would accept their suggestions when they are offered, I cannot doubt that we should do very much better work in the community than was ever done before.

From Cowan, E, Debut speech in the House of Assembly (WA) 21/7/1921, Hansard, pp 15-19.

Challenges and responses

Australia fought on the side of Great Britain in the World War I (1914-18) and over 330,000 Australian men and women went overseas. Most of them were soldiers or nurses and almost two-thirds were wounded or killed.

Cowan did not support the War and did not see it as a solution to international problems. But as the War went on she saw that there were practical things to be done for the ordinary people involved.

Western Australia was the first port of call in Australia for hospital ships coming back from the War and Cowan helped organise a welcoming committee for the people on the ships. She also established a Soldiers’ Institute to provide soldiers with meals, rest and recreation. Cowan worked with the Red Cross and supported the idea that people who had returned from the War should be offered jobs before other people.

After the War, Cowan supported the League of Nations, which was set up in 1919 to promote world peace and cooperation. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of her work during the War.

ESL activities

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