Dorothy Tangney, Senator 1943-68
‘as a citizen of the Commonwealth’
Dorothy Tangney, Australia’s first woman Senator, held a Western Australian seat in the Senate from 1943 until 1968. She remains the longest serving woman member in an Australian Parliament, with a record 25 years and nine months.
Dorothy Tangney’s election to the Senate in 1943 was the culmination of her dogged determination, and perhaps the lucky break of an additional vacancy. Photographed on her first day in the Senate, 24 September 1943, she appears young, which she was, and uncertain, which she was not. Her first speech in the Senate that same day began with a concise declaration of her expectations:
'I realise the great honour which has been done to me in affording me the opportunity to move this Address-in-Reply. I also realise my great honour in being the first woman to be elected to the Senate. But it is not as a woman that I have been elected to this chamber. It is as a citizen of the Commonwealth; and I take my place here with the full privileges and rights of all honorable senators.'
She was a hardworking parliamentarian, serving on many committees involving her wide interests, including from 1943-1946, the Joint Committee on Social Security.
In her long career as a Senator Dorothy Tangney built up a sound reputation as a tireless advocate for health and welfare and a champion of women’s rights. She supported welfare benefits such as child endowment, invalid pensions, and hospital and pharmaceutical benefits.
She also supported the nationalisation of Australian Airlines, the establishment of the Australian National University and, not surprisingly, equal pay for equal work.
From 1949 Labor was in Opposition and for the whole of her time in the Senate, she was the only Labor woman. Her hard work and her performance were consistent: in Opposition she asked many questions on a wide range of topics, and spoke on almost every budget brought before the Parliament.
Between 1962 and 1963 and again between 1965 and 1968 she was temporary chairman of committees, the first woman to preside over either House of Parliament.
Though placed fourth on the 1943 ticket, she was allocated first place for every election from then. She headed the Senate ticket for Western Australia until 1967 and that year, she was dropped to third place and lost her seat.
In her last speech in the Senate she declared dissatisfaction with progress on the issues then of closest concern to her; the improvement of the status and living conditions of Indigenous people; child endowment; and age and widows’ pensions.
Dorothy Tangney also expressed her gratitude for the vital support given by her two sisters, both war widows, and referred to their role in her parliamentary career as her ‘right and left hands’ (Sydney Morning Herald 13 June 1968).
Politics before parliament
While an undergraduate in the 1920s, Dorothy Tangney started a Labor Club at the University and was prominent in the University’s debating club. As a teenaged teacher in Fremantle, she founded the city’s first Young Labor League. Her explanation of her early interest in politics was that ‘as Dad belonged to a Union, I heard a good deal about politics at home’. Her father was a strong influence on her career; she said she achieved what he would have liked to achieve, but for the substantial obligations of a large family.
Her daily experiences in working-class Fremantle during the Depression reinforced her commitment. She found unemployed men and women queueing for food an ‘appalling’ situation.
Dorothy Tangney contested her first election in 1931, at the age of 25 standing for the Nedlands seat in the state parliament. She stood again in 1939, once more without success.
In 1940 she won a place on the Western Australian Labor ticket of candidates for the Senate election that year, but none of Labor's candidates was elected. In any case she had been put out of action by a car accident, providing her with the conversation-stopping line ‘I was plastered in my first campaign for the Senate’.
At the 1943 federal elections she was listed fourth on the ticket, which usually ensured a seat would not be won as only three Senate seats were up for re-election at a time. This time, there was a casual vacancy, and a swing to Labor and all four Labor candidates were successful. At 32 Dorothy Tangney had a seat in the Senate.
Her single-minded determination was accompanied by charm and a keen wit – important attributes in a politician as well as a source of endless stories, like the time a drunk accosted her at a meeting, shouting ‘Don’t you wish you were a man?’ Her audience applauded her quick retort ‘No – don't you?’.
Politics after parliament
Dorothy Tangney was 32 when she entered parliament, and 58 when she left. She continued her very active public life and her contribution to both the Australian Labor Party, and the removal of inequality.
Her sterling services were rewarded in the Queen's Birthday Honours in 1968, when she became the first Western Australian to be appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire.
But she was fondest of a less public accolade. When her father visited Canberra after her portrait was hung in King’s Hall in Parliament House he just sat there looking at it — for so long that the attendant finally brought him some lunch.
Dorothy Tangney died in Perth on 1 June 1985 at the age of 74.
Dorothy Tangney was born on 13 March 1911, one of nine children raised in poor circumstances after their engine-driver father Eugene Tangney was seriously injured. She completed secondary school with the help of a government scholarship and at 15 entered the University of Western Australia under a scheme combining full-time teaching and part-time study.
She started a Labor Club at the University and as a teenaged teacher in Fremantle, founded the city’s first Young Labor League.
As well as earning her own living and helping support her family by teaching, she continued to work within the Labor Party after her graduation.
Born: 13 March 1911
Education: BA, DipEd (University of Western Australia)
Party: Australian Labor Party
Elected: 21 August 1943
Senate terms: 21 August 1943 - 30 June 1968
Honours: DBE 1968
Died: 1 June 1985
Knuckley, Marie, ‘Dame Dorothy bows out of politics’, Sydney Morning Herald 13 June 1968
Millar, Ann Trust the Women: women in the Federal Parliament Canberra, Australian Parliament, 1993
Ross, Roslyn, ‘A woman from the West who made her mark’ The Record (Perth),July 1985, pp. 18-24
Sawer, Marian & Marian Simms A Woman’s Place Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993
Simms, Marian ‘Women in Caucus’ in John Faulkner & Stuart Macintyre (eds) True Believers Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2001, pp.219-34
Senator Tangney, address in reply, Senate Hansard 24 September 1943
Australian War Memorial image
Themes: Parliamentary Women
This image appears in WHM 2009: Pioneering parliamentary women