Enid Lyons, MHR 1943-51
‘everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart’
When Dorothy Tangney and Enid Lyons (R) entered Parliament House in Canberra on 24 September 1943, they also stepped into history, as the first women in the Australian parliament.
At the federal elections on 21 August, Dorothy Tangney had won a Senate seat for the Australian Labor Party, and Enid Lyons won the seat of Darwin in the House of Representatives for the United Australia Party. Enid Lyons was not only well-known in her electorate, but as prominent a public figure as her husband, Joseph Lyons, Tasmania’s premier 1923-28 and Australia’s prime minister from 1932 until his death in April 1939.
Enid Lyons was a gifted public speaker; her maiden speech in the Parliament was described as ‘eloquent and richly written’. She acknowledged the historic moment:
‘this is the first occasion on which a woman has addressed this house. For that reason, it's an occasion which for every woman in the Commonwealth marks in some degree a turning point in history.’
Salting her speech with domestic metaphor, she announced her intention to represent the interests of women, as well as of her electorate, comparing herself to a ‘new broom’, with a great deal to learn from the other occupants of the broom ‘cupboard’.
The entry of the first woman member into the House of Representatives, and at 46 among the youngest, was a curiosity described by the oldest member, former prime minister WM Hughes, as like ‘a bird of paradise among the carrion crows’.
Enid Lyons emphasised that women members in the House of Representatives would add the weight of reality to debate, for ‘Every subject from high finance to international relations, from social security to the winning of the war, touches very closely the home and the family.’ She concluded ‘I hope that I shall never forget that everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart.’
In her eight years in the House of Representatives Enid Lyons could hardly forget the close connections between public and personal life.
When she entered parliament, she was the widowed mother of a family aged from 10 to 27 years. Her speeches in parliament generally expressed traditional views on families and social welfare issues. Having given birth to twelve children, she had an unassailable platform on these topics. Referring to population policy for instance, she said her knowledge came not from reading with ‘her feet up on the mantelpiece’ but ‘from being knee deep in shawls and feeding bottles’.
Enid Lyons was firmly committed to the principle of women’s right to share equally in democratic government and the implications of this, like eliminating discrimination in employment and education and improving social services. In 1946 she persuaded her Party colleagues, including a reluctant RG Menzies, to adopt the policy for child endowment implemented after they defeated the Labor Government of Ben Chifley in 1949.
From 1946 to 1949 there was a second woman in the House of Representatives, Doris Blackburn, Independent Labor Member for the seat of Bourke in Victoria. Enid Lyons performed sterling service for the Liberal Opposition in ensuring issues mobilising postwar women’s organisations, such as married women’s right to retain their own nationality and citizenship, were brought into the parliamentary party room and into the Chamber.
When RG Menzies’ new Liberal Party won government in coalition with the Country Party in 1949, Enid Lyons achieved another historical milestone as vice-president of the Executive Council, making her the first woman in Cabinet. As she said however, the post was ‘toothless’ as she had no ministerial portfolio.
Enid Lyons had helped the Liberal Party to victory in the 1949 election in severe ill health. She recovered and spent two more years in parliament, but when her health problems returned she resigned from the parliament in 1951 without completing her term.
Politics before Parliament
Enid Lyons’ mother, Eliza Burnell, was active in Tasmanian Labor groups and was one of the first women appointed Justice of the Peace in Tasmania. On a visit to the Tasmanian parliament in 1913, she introduced her then 15-year-old daughter to the Minister for Education, Joseph Lyons. After she married Joseph Lyons in 1915 Enid Lyons was closely involved with him in Labor politics in Tasmania.
After women won the right to stand for election to the State parliament in 1922, Enid Lyons and her mother both stood at the 1925 election, when Jospeh Lyons was premier of Tasmania, and she the mother of seven children. Enid Lyons’ campaign was exceptional, her speeches were down to earth, using colourful metaphors of ordinary lives which appealed to her audiences and gained their admiration, a strategy she used throughout her public life.
Eliza Burnell and Joseph Lyons were major influences, encouraging her to persist in her attempt to be both mother and parliamentarian.
When Joseph Lyons left the Labor Party and formed the United Australia Party, becoming Prime Minister in 1932, Enid Lyons proved an active and popular prime ministerial wife both at The Lodge in Canberra, and in Joseph Lyons' electorate of Wilmot in Tasmania. She travelled with him, to London in 1935 for the silver jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary, and in 1937 for the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, when her own work was recognised with the Imperial Honour of Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire.
As the young wife of a premier and then a prime minister, Enid Lyons added experience of political life to her charm, energy, and determination. She also honed her talent as a public speaker. She became so adept at magnetising audiences with her vivacity, endearing herself with homely metaphors, or delighting them with sparkling repartee that even accomplished political orators like Robert Menzies preferred not to share an audience with her.
After Joseph Lyons’ death in office in 1939 she withdrew from public life until, at her daughter’s persuasion, she decided to stand for the seat of Darwin at the 1943 federal election. Unable to refuse her, the United Australia Party endorsed two men in the seat as well. Enid Lyons won narrowly and three days later was once more in the House of Representatives, this time as a member.
Politics after parliament
Enid Lyons retired from Parliament in 1951, the 50th anniversary of Australian Federation and that year chaired the Jubilee Women’s Convention. She remained active in the Liberal Party, and as a newspaper columnist put forward her views on political issues.
She served on the board of the Australian Broadcasting Commission for eleven years, and published two autobiographical books, So we take comfort (1965) and Among the carrion crows (1972). In 1975 she took part in the International Women’s Year Women and Politics conference in Canberra. In the 1980 New Years Honours she was made a Dame in the Order of Australia.
Before her death in 1981, Enid Lyons made arrangements for her house, Home Hill, to become a public museum managed by the National Trust of Australia.
Enid Muriel Burnell was born in Duck River (now Smithton) in north-western Tasmania on 9 July 1897, the daughter of Eliza and William Burnell, a sawyer. With the support of her mother, she was educated at state schools at Stowport and Burnie and then at Hobart Teachers' College. She was a trainee teacher when she married at 17.
Born: 9 July 1897 at Duck River, Tasmania
Died: 2 September 1981, buried Devonport Lawn Cemetery.
Education: Stowport and Burnie state schools and Hobart Teachers' College
Married: 28 April 1915, to Joseph Aloysius Lyons
Election: 21 August 1943
First sitting day: 24 September 1943
Parliamentary term: MHR 1943-51
Honours: GBE 1937; AD 1980
House of Representatives Debates 29 September 1943, pp.182–86
Henderson, Anne Enid Lyons: Leading Lady to a nation Pluto Press Australia, Melbourne, 2008
Millar, Ann Trust the Women: Women in Federal Parliament Department of the Senate, Canberra, 1993
Sawer, Marian & Marian Simms A Woman’s Place Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993
Sells, Anne ‘Enid Lyons 1897-1981’, in Heather Radi (ed.)200 Australian Women Sydney, redress Press, 1989
Image from Australian War Memorial collection
Themes: Parliamentary Women
This image appears in WHM 2009: Pioneering parliamentary women