Event, Politics, Women's History

Women, Politics, Parliaments – Bringing about Democracy


Women and politics was high on the agenda at UN CSW 57, with attention being paid to politics in its broad and narrower sense. ‘Gender Sensitive Parliaments’ , discussing and debating the way to chage the culture of parliaments to ensure their responsiveness ‘to the needs and interests of both men and women in their structures, operations, methods and work’ was one topic holding enthralled all attending that side event. Another CSW 57 side event, also run by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU),  covered the way in which parliaments around the world have taken steps to ensure representation, or greater representation, of women as members, as cabinet members, as speaker, as whips, and in other posts of parliamentary authority.

Aotearoa/New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the vote, acceding in 1893 to women’s demands for the introduction of real democracy, where ‘democracy’ had, in the past, referred to government by men alone. South Australia was the first state-entity in the world to grant women not only the vote, but the right to stand for Parliament. In 1894 the South Australian Parliament had before it a Bill to extend the vote to women and one member, seeking to disrupt the process and impede passage of the Bill, introduced an amendment whereby the vote would be complemented by the right to stand. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the democratic cause, the Bill passed – with both rights included.


In 1902 Australia became the first country in the world to extend the vote to women, along with the right to stand for Parliament. In 1903, three women stood in the Australian election. Although none succeeded, Vida Goldstein – the first woman to register to stand for the Senate, gained a goodly swathe of votes. She stood three more times over the years, up to 1920, despite not gaining a seat.


Just as men do not accept that the right to vote is sufficient – Parliamentary representation must be possible for all men, or at least all men are entitled to seek parliamentary places – neither do women accept that the vote is enough. Democracy means that women and men must have the right to vote for women or men as members of Parliament. Democracy means that women and men must have the right to stand for Parliament.

In the 1970s, the Australian Women’s Movement raised the slogan: ‘A Woman’s Place is in the House – and in the Senate’. This encapsulated the demand for democratic representation: women should be able to take their place in the lower house, the House of Representatives, and in the upper house, the Senate. The demand extended, too, to the state and territory legislatures when they came into being in the Northern Territory and the ACT (Australian Capital Territory – Canberra).

Although women were elected to state Parliaments, beginning with Edith Cowan in Western Australia in 1921, the numbers were few. Women were elected to the federal Parliament for the first time in 1942 – Dorothy Tangney going into the Senate, and Enid Lyons into the House of Representatives. In the 1970s for the first time three women sat in the House of Representatives – Joan Child from Victoria, Ros Kelly from the ACT, and Jeanette McHugh from New South Wales, being elected in 1983. Although Joan Child had been elected earlier and other women had sat in the federal Parliament from other states at other times, Jeanette McHugh was the first NSW woman ever to be elected to that Parliament.


Why so few, and why has it taken so long for women to be elected? Australia has for the first time a woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, yet this came about not by chance but through the Australian Labor Party’s adoption on affirmative action in the parliamentary sphere. In the late 1980s, the ACT led the way, adopting a 50% standard in local legisature elections. There, the voting system enabled this to be introduced relatively simply: with two seats, Canberra and Fraser, and a ‘list’ system, the proposal was that lists should be constructed on a ‘woman, man, woman, man’ basis down the list. Women gained first place on the ballot because that is the way the party voted, so that there was no need to promote women artificially over men on the lists. Yet the principle was established.


It was more difficult in the states and NT, and federally, for Tasmania (with the Hare Clark system) alone operates under a system similar to that in the ACT. All other jurisdictions operate on the basis of ‘one seat, one member’. In the 1980s, however, ALP women organised to ensure passage through the ALP National Conference of a resolution committing to a quota of 30% women preselected for all state and federal elections. Joan Kirner, first woman Premier of Victoria, was a leading figure in this struggle. She and others established Emily’s List (Early Money is Like Yeast – it helps women rise) to provide funds for women candidates who adhere to feminist principles, in particular the right to abortion.

The UN CSW 57 side event looking at getting women into parliament covered a number of ways in which parliaments and legislatures have sought to effect this change. The British Labour Party runs ‘women’s lists’ – where women only are entitled to stand for selection – and not only in unwinnable seats. Women’s lists must be run in winnable and safe seats, too. Burkina Faso adopted a policy of granting public fund bonuses to  political parties succeeding in having women elected under their banner.  Other countries have set aside a certain  number of parliamentary seats for women, some have introduced quotas – which must be met by having women stand and win seats representing general constituencies, some have simply called ‘quotas’ ‘targets’ – on the basis that ‘targets’ are more palatable than ‘quotas’ which is taken to imply the use of coercion or at least a firm hand. ‘Targets’ as seen as ‘softer’, something to be aimed for rather than (necessarily) achieved.

It may be significant that it is generally ‘newer’ democracies that have taken the most significant steps to ensure women’s  parliamentary membership. Whether they have set down rules in constitutions or statutes, or simply articulated policies, many African countries, in particular, are leading the way to ensure that parliaments are not populated by men alone. In this, they are following rapidly in the steps of Scandinavian countries, with Rwanda having topped the list in having more women than men in the parliament and cabinet. Beginning with a quota requiring no fewer than 30% of women in parliamentary seats, at the first election under that regime, women held 44 of the 80 seats.


In the 1980s, Senator Susan Ryan of the Australian Parliament commissioned research into voters’ views of women and men parliamentarians. The outcome was salutary. A majority said they preferred female to male politicians, as they believed the former to be ‘more trustworthy’ and ‘honest’. Voters were more prepared to put their and their country’s future into the hands of women. Clearly, political parties which do not recognise the importance of promoting women into parliament and thence into positions of authority and power at all parliamentary levels, are missing a sigificant feature of politics today.

Promoting women into safe and winnable seats will bring to the parties so doing, the opportunity of taking power and governing the country. On the basis of Senator Ryan’s research, they will also be ensuring that the country’s governance will be all the more positive, productive and progressive.

Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) March 2013

Jocelynne Scutt’s book, Taking a Stand – Women in Politics and Society, was published in 1996 as one of the ten volumes, so far, in the ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives’ series.  In the volume, women speak of their involvement in politics, whether standing for parliament, campaigning for women’s rights, engaged in the struggle to end violence against women, or as members and officials active in the trade union movement.

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