A woman’s place is in the House

As we celebrate the most representative and diverse Australian Parliament to date, it’s worth recalling the women who paved the way.

Of the 20 seats that changed hands in the 2022 Federal Election, a whopping 15 – or 75 per cent – were won by women. So far.  Three seats contested by women are still in doubt.

Women now comprise 37 per cent of the House of Representatives (57 out of 151), compared to 31 per cent in the previous House and across both houses 41 per cent of the total 227 seats.

Joan Kirner, Victoria’s first female premier, would have been delighted.

Joan Kirner died in 2015,  but it’s worth looking back on the history she and her state and federal female colleagues made as trail blazers for a more representative parliament to fully appreciate this new and remarkable achievement.

Interview with Joan Kirner, The Age, May 17 1991, Accent, The Age. Cartoon by CAF (Jane Cafarella)

Change from within

It was Joan Kirner’s firm belief that women must tackle “change from within”, as she told the League of Women Voters way back in 1991.

The League (which still exists), was celebrating the 67th anniversary of the Act that enabled women to stand for parliament, as reported in Accent, the section of The Age which focused on issues affecting women in all spheres of life, (but which no longer exists).

“Women must tackle the broader issues that have traditionally remained in the male domain, such as micro-economic reform, investment, jobs, development, the environment and planning if they are to influence the future,” Mrs Kirner said. “And they must do so within mainstream institutions, such as the parliament.”

Women are not a homogeneous group, any more than men are, but as Kirner noted at the time, “Being in parliament and in government has given women the opportunity to directly influence and formulate policy, so that instead of fighting for our agenda from outside the mainstream, we have been able to fight from within.”

Easier said than done, as she well knew. Standing for election was one thing.  Getting elected and maintaining your seat was another.

In 1991, when Kirner was giving this speech, the number of women in the House was 6.9 per cent – roughly the same as the percentage increase in numbers today – despite almost a century of women’s suffrage.


Up until then, only 16 women had ever been elected to the Australian House of Representatives, and between their terms there were big droughts where there were no women at all in the House.

Until 1978, for example, only four women had ever graced its chambers: Dame Enid Lyons in 1943-1951 (retired), Doris Blackburn, 1946-1949 (defeated), Kay Brownbill (1966-1969 – defeated), Joan Child 1974-1975 (defeated, although she stood successfully in 1980 and became the House Speaker, holding the seat of Henty until her retirement a decade later).  

There were no women in the House from 1951 until 1966, when Kay Brownbill was elected. She was defeated in 1969, when there was another woman drought until Joan Child was elected the only female MP in 1974.

Ten more women were elected in the 80s. But it was the 90s when women began to really make their presence felt.

Labor’s push for change

For Labor women, it was Emily’s List, which supported progressive Labor female candidates, that made the difference.

Emily’s List, which stands for “Early Money is Like Yeast – it makes dough rise”  was established in the USA in 1985 to fund campaigns for pro-choice Democratic women.

Labor community and women’s campaigner Leonie Morgan advocated strongly for a similar organisation to support progressive Australian female candidates.

Joan Kirner became a founding member, along with Kay Setches, (Victorian Labor MLA from 1982 to 1992), and Candy Broad (then head of the Premier’s Office under Joan Kirner, and who later became a Victorian Labor MLC, serving from 1996-2014).

Kirner and Helen Creed, a former social worker and prominent union leader, became co-convenors of the National Committee when Emily’s List Australia was officially launched at Parliament House in Canberra in 1996.

Along with other Labor women, such as Carmen Lawrence and Julia Gillard, Joan Kirner also pushed to enshrine affirmative action in the ALP, and in 1994 the party passed its first rule requiring women to be preselected in 35 per cent of winnable seats in all elections by 2002.

In that historic address to the League of Women Voters back in1991, Kirner cited affirmative action, along with anti-discrimination legislation, better women’s health services, reforms to counter family violence, improved job access, education for women and girls and child care as some of the concrete results of such representation.

Defending their right to the job

But these results came at a personal cost for many female MPs – and notoriously for many female MPs today.

Not only did these early parliamentary pioneers have to defend the interests of their electorates, they often had to defend the legitimacy of their candidacy, and, if elected, their right to the job.

When she was elected Victoria’s first female premier in 1990 to 1992 and the first female premier in Australia, Joan Kirner suffered ridicule, especially at the hands of political cartoonists. Her fashion sense rather than her politics became the chief topic, and her wedding photos were even published – along with her weight at the time.

Her husband Ron, reportedly became so fed up with some of the things that were written about her that he cancelled his subscription to a popular tabloid. Kirner once famously wept with frustration in Cabinet, which, remarkably, was reported without ridicule.

A Peter Nicholson cartoon that was typical in its portrayal of Joan Kirner when she was Premier of Victoria from 1990-1992. Kirner later reflected that she made the mistake of taking to heart the daily cartoons of herself as “a harassed housewife in a polka-dot dress”.

When Senator Janine Haines, another trailblazer, entered Parliament at age 32 in 1978, she faced a barrage of questions about how her young family would cope for the weeks she was in Canberra.

 “Was I going to employ a housekeeper? I said I wasn’t. All three members of my family were able-bodied enough to cope with these housewifely responsibilities”, she said in an interview in Accent in 1992.

Her first day on the job should have been a warning: “The day I walked into the Senate Chamber of the Old Parliament House for the first time in 1978, I was struck with the maleness of the place,” she said.

 “Of the 64 Senators only seven were women. When the 124 all-male members of the House of Representatives joined us for the official opening of Parliament, the place was awash with testosterone.”

Making history

Janine Haines went on to make history as the first Australian woman to lead a political party  when she was elected Leader of the Australian Democrats in 1996, but throughout her career she faced constant attack about the legitimacy of the issues she was raising.

 “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t,” she said in another interview in The Age. “If I raise questions of pornography, child abuse, incest, domestic violence, they say I’m obsessed with sex. If I raise equality of opportunity, difficulties women face, they say I’m a man-hating feminist. If I’m flippant about myself, it’s lack of confidence; if I’m flippant about them, I’m a sarcastic bitch. If I make strong statements, I’m aggressive; if not, I’m weak. If I’m angry, I’m ‘emotional’. ”

In 1990 Haines resigned from the Senate and stood for the seat of Kingston, but failed to win.

By 1992, she was done with politics and wrote a book about her experience –  Suffrage to Sufferance, 100 Years of Women in Politics (Allen and Unwin), which also documented the history of female suffrage in English-speaking colonial countries and the US. She said she wrote the book to illustrate how recent the struggle for the vote had been, and to remind women they still had a lot to do to be heard.

Haines died in 2004, with history recording her as“feisty”, a label that few men who rigorously defend the issues that are important to their electorates are given.

Three years later, in 1995, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, became the youngest woman ever to be elected in Parliament – a record now held by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who entered Parliament in 2007 at just 25.

At the time of Senator Stott Despoja’s election, women comprised just 15.5 per cent of the House of Reps.

A new era 

In words that feel poignant today, in her maiden speech, Senator Stott-Despoja said, “I look forward to the day when I look across this chamber from my seat and see such a diversity of faces –young people, old people, different ages, men and women, and the many cultures that make up our nation, including indigenous cultures – that we no longer have to strive for it. When that time comes, I think we will accept that neither youth nor age, any more than being male or female, black or white, is a virtue in itself, except that it deserves to be represented in a system that claims to be representative.”

Senator Stott Despoja, who served from 1996-2006, became leader of the Australian Democrats, the party’s s longest serving Senator and an outspoken advocate for better representation of women in parliament.

Later, in another interview, she said,  “I do not believe that more women in parliament would make the parliament a nicer place, but it might lead to a change in the male-dominant style of politics that Janine Haines used to call the ‘stag fights’ of the parliament.”

By 2010, Australia had it’s first female Prime Minister – Julia Gillard – but parliament definitely wasn’t a nicer place.

Who can forget Gillard’s impassioned speech in 2012, where she called out Opposition Leader Tony Abbott for his insults in parliament and for standing next to a sign penned by protestors that said “Ditch the witch”, and another which described her as “a man’s bitch”. In the speech, which made headlines around the world, Gillard quoted an interview with Mr Abbott where the interviewer questioned the under representation of women in parliament, to which Mr Abbott had replied, “…is that a bad thing?”

“I will not be lectured at about sexism and misogyny by this man,” Julia Gillard declared.

By the 2019 Federal election, women comprised 29.8 per cent of the House of Representatives,  and not only wasn’t it nicer, it was an unsafe workplace, as the experiences of Brittany Higgins, Rachelle Miller and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young shockingly illustrated.

A new era

The  Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, completed last November, found that one third of employees in Australia’s Federal Parliament had been sexually harassed, a fact that made headlines worldwide – to Australia’s shame.

Among the review’s many recommendations was a 10-year strategy of targets to achieve gender balance among MPs and to promote diversity.

In its summary, it concluded that “Strong leadership will be critical to its success”.

Already,  Prime Minister Anthony Albanese  appears to have taken note – calling out one of his own leading women, Tania Plibersek, this week for her “mistake“ in likening the new Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort. 

Plibersek has since “unreservedly apologised” but the chastisement illustrates the new Prime Minister’s determination to hold everyone accountable.

As history has shown, the 57 women who comprise the current 47th House of Representatives will need courage and solidarity.  To a large degree, their success has been due to the tenacity of the women who preceded them, as well to the groundswell of community support for cultural change that pushed them to victory.

The women who paved the way – many more than have been mentioned here –  didn’t have such support. Nor did they have the backing of a human rights review, or a Prime Minister’s promise to lead with integrity – all of which have given new hope to both MPs and electors.

Back then, life in the Australian Parliament was the wild west and women were armed with nothing but their courage and their wits.

Jane Cafarella is a journalist and playwright and a former reporter, editor and cartoonist for the Accent pages of The Age, which for 30 years gave women from all spheres of life a voice and advocated for their right to equality.