‘The sacrosanct seats of the lords of creation’: Preston-Stanley on the prospects for women MPs

Tony Smith

26 August 2005 marks the 80th anniversary of one of the most remarkable speeches made in a parliament noted for strong oratory. In 1925, in the ‘bear pit’ of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in Sydney’s Macquarie Street, Millicent Preston-Stanley gave the first speech made by a female Member of Parliament (MP) in this state and only the second in any Australian parliament. Anyone reading this speech in Hansard must be surprised by its modernity and power, and by its neglect.

The 27th Parliament

Women were seen predominantly as adornment or support for men.

The ceremonial opening of the 27th NSW Parliament was held on 12 August, 1925. At the election Labor won 46 of the 90 lower house seats to take power from the Nationalists (Hogan 2001, p. 317). The next day, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that rain fell all morning but that ‘shortly before midday … a burst of sunshine’ cheered the patient crowd. The Daily Telegraph noted that the Governor arrived ‘in accordance with time-honoured custom. There was no curtailment of the gay trappings of the past’. This was perhaps a hint at Labor’s less royalist attitudes, and strangely predictive of Premier Jack Lang’s dismissal by the Governor in 1932.

While the decade is popularly called the ‘roaring twenties’, 1925 was just seven years after the end of the ‘Great War’ and governments faced ‘high unemployment and widespread poverty’ (Hogan 2001, p. 270), conditions that possibly inclined people to appreciate free public pageants. Other news in August included the return of Roald Amundsen’s flying party from the South Pole, fears about a coal strike, trouble with ‘Bolsheviks’ in China, and Jack Hobbes equalling W.G. Grace’s century scoring record in English cricket.

The Telegraph described the crowd attending the opening with ‘ladies predominating’. The Herald reported in somewhat contradictory fashion that:

the frocking of the women … did not contribute to the pageantry … for it was drab and colourless. Owing to the rain almost everyone was clad in waterproofs, and, as there was no opportunity or place to discard these unbecoming garments, visitors were forced either to keep them on or carry them.

Elsewhere, however, the Herald reported that the dresses of ‘the wives of ministers and members … added just the necessary colour touch to the scene’.

Clearly, women were seen predominantly as adornment or support for men. The pictures in the Herald showed that women were interested spectators rather than participants. Two juxtaposed photographs show the military reception for the Governor and ‘A Group of Interested Spectators’ on the verandah. The subjects were exclusively male (participants) and female (onlookers), emphasising the traditional sexual division of labour into the public and private spheres respectively.

Sydney women may well have taken a keener interest in this opening than in any ceremony over the seven decades since the beginning of responsible government in New South Wales in the 1850s. For the first time, a woman walked into Parliament House on equal status with men. Millicent Preston-Stanley had been elected to the seat of Eastern Suburbs for the Nationalist Party Opposition. She was only the second woman elected to an Australian parliament, after Edith Cowan in Western Australia in 1920.

The Daily Telegraph said that:

Miss Preston-Stanley … looked very charming, and as all our women readers will want to know what she was wearing, it may be stated at once that she was in black, or navy blue, or some dark material, with trimmings, the whole set off by a chic black hat trimmed with gold trellis work. Miss Stanley made no speech yesterday. She did not even ask a question, though everybody else had plenty to ask. She just sat there silently all through the piece. Her time will come.

Preston-Stanley’s first speech marks an important point in gender politics.

The assumption about female interest in clothing is interesting. Female MPs at century’s end still complained about observers being pre-occupied with their appearance. The reference to Preston-Stanley as a ‘lady’ might be frowned upon today but would have been accepted as polite terminology in 1925. The comment about her silence is fair enough because most new members are well-advised to ‘listen and learn’ before rushing in (Smith, T. 2003). Besides, the prediction about her ‘time’ coming was correct, because when she did speak, Preston-Stanley made quite an impression.

The Herald observed that ‘after the opening ceremony, the crowd dispersed – some to tea in the large dining hall, and those who could not get in went with members to their private rooms for tea’. Preston-Stanley ‘received a continuous stream of visitors’. The Herald listed a dozen guests, all women. Interestingly, she received them in her ‘room at Richmond Cottage’. The Cottage, no longer at the site, was situated behind Parliament proper near the tennis courts—unsurprisingly, the first woman member was not readily accommodated within the main precincts of parliament.

The speech

Preston-Stanley’s historic first speech came on 26 August. The Herald reported on 27 August that:

Miss Stanley proceeded to illumine the House with a few little shafts of humour. “For many years”, she said, “I have in this House looked down upon honourable members from above. And I have wondered how so many old women have managed to get here – not only to get here, but to stay here”.

The Herald continued:

The House figuratively rocked with laughter. Miss Stanley hastened to explain herself. “I am referring”, she said amidst further laughter, “not to the physical age of the old gentlemen in question, but to their mental age, and to that obvious vacuity of mind which characterises the old gentlemen to whom I have referred”. Members obviously could not afford to manifest any deep sense of injury because of a woman’s banter. They laughed instead.

The speech marks an important point in gender politics. The 27th Parliament was midway between the introduction of responsible government in the 1850s and the 53rd Parliament elected in March 2003. Until 1925 (for 70 years, or half of its life) all the parliament’s members were males. Preston-Stanley (Hansard Assembly, 26 August 1925, p. 369) remarked:

We have been told that Parliament is not a fit place for women. I am not prepared to say that it is so. But if it is so, then it is the most serious indictment that can be made against men, for has not Parliament up till today been an institution of their own making?

Seven decades was a fair time for a masculine ethos to be entrenched.

The Herald enthused about Preston-Stanley’s oratorical gifts, clarity, eloquence and authority. It hailed the address as well reasoned, temperate and concise and said that Preston-Stanley was ‘amply armed to deal with that ever-present irritant, the interjector’. During her campaign, when one interjector called her a ‘battle-axe’, she retorted that such a weapon was pretty useful if ‘kept sharp and bright’ (Radi 1990, p. 285). The Herald also called her tongue a stiletto ripping into Labor’s policy and said that ‘Labor writhed, it squirmed under the lash of it’.

Seven decades was a fair time for a masculine ethos to be entrenched. When Preston-Stanley speculated that men had made Parliament a place unfit for women, the Herald reported that ‘Members were silent under the soft impeachment’. Had she entered the Assembly in 1995 rather than 1925, as perhaps the 25th female rather than the first, she would not have been able to refer to an exclusive male domain, but it is debatable whether the parliament’s masculine gender environment had changed greatly in the intervening years. The Herald concluded its report of her speech with the comment that ‘it will probably become incomprehensible with the passage of a few years, why we ever considered it wrong for women to vote or to enter parliament’. Preston-Stanley was, however, realistic about her potential effectiveness and wrote in Punch:

I’m not fool enough to suppose my going into the House is going to make any sweeping alteration. The heavens won’t fall because a woman’s skirts rustle on the sacred benches, so long the sacrosanct seats of the lords of creation (cited in Smith, E.F. 1977).

It is debatable whether the Herald or Preston-Stanley made the more accurate assessment.

All too comprehensible?

Preston-Stanley’s experience raises important questions about gender representation. Why does her first speech seem so relevant 80 years later? Is every female MP forced to approach her role as though she had no female predecessors? Do some aspects of parliamentary life still make it less suitable for women than for men?

Preston-Stanley’s speech strongly defended the rights of women to be taken seriously as parliamentarians. Eight decades later a woman entering parliament might have similar concerns, both about her potential effectiveness as a parliamentarian and as a woman MP per se. It is difficult to locate Preston-Stanley’s arrival as the beginning of a process of incremental change to parliament’s culture. Certainly, perusal of the first speeches of her female successors suggests that they have not seen her speech as an opportunity to create a common tradition among female MPs to challenge male dominance. While male dominance is difficult to quantify and there could be many reasons for its survival, one possible explanation is that women’s common interests have been overwhelmed by partisan considerations (Smith, T. 2003).

Historically, a large proportion of women MPs have been from the Labor Party.

Historically, a large proportion of women MPs have been from the Labor Party. For example, nine of the fifteen women in the Legislative Assembly in 1995 were Labor women. Given that non-Labor women sometimes emphasise their individuality rather than their sex, wanting to be treated as MPs rather than ‘female MPs per se’, the attitude of Labor women to their predecessors takes on greater significance. Conventionally, first speeches are heard in silence and the new MP reciprocates by avoiding controversy and not causing offence, but Preston-Stanley criticised Labor for its socialist policies and called Adela Pankhurst Walsh a ‘demagogistic philosopheress’ for inflaming a waterfront dispute. So the lack of reference to Preston-Stanley in the first speeches of Labor women MPs might be understandable.

Examination of first speeches reveals that MPs recognise their constituencies and parties rather than gender representation. An extreme example is the first speech of the Member for Lakemba in 1995. In eighteen minutes, he mentioned his electorate 57 times and the Labor Party 36 times. Mentions of issues are common, especially among Members of the NSW upper house, the Legislative Council. One MLC mentioned health 82 times, nurses 31 times and women twelve times (Smith, T. 1999). Hansard shows only a few instances of female MPs acknowledging a common bipartisan tradition, and these are mostly Members of the Council rather than the Assembly. When farewelling Labor’s Ann Symonds in 1998, Liberal Patricia Forsythe said that she had been inspired personally by Symonds, Liberal Beryl Evans and Labor’s Judith Walker (Hansard Council 29 April 1998, p. 4079).

It could be that the masculine tradition has been less persistent in the upper house. The Council has fewer Members than the Assembly (in 2005, the ratio was 42 to 93), is less rowdy, has a large crossbench (about one quarter) to moderate the conflict between government and opposition, and is considered a career cul-de-sac. It usually has a higher proportion of female members as well. These factors could explain why female members of the upper house more readily acknowledge the work of female colleagues across the chamber. By contrast, the NSW lower house has on one wall a war memorial plaque flanked by a rifle and sabre. Female MPs have complained about the air conditioning being set at a comfortable level for trousered legs, about the sitting hours, and about overly formal procedures that waste time. If they do not seem to complain about the loudness of proceedings and the aggression, bullying and abusiveness, it might be that their complaints are simply ignored, or that they avoid complaining because they fear being stereotyped.


In the 1920s, parliamentary participation was still not ‘normal’ for women.

During her one term in Parliament (1925–27) Preston-Stanley introduced the ‘Guardianship of Infants Bill’ after adopting the case of a mother in a custody dispute. The Bill lapsed after one reading. When the electoral system was changed, Preston-Stanley lost her seat in 1927. While some male MPs make ‘comebacks’, most women MPs serve just once. She was not deterred from her campaigns, however, and turned to extra-parliamentary avenues. In 1932, her play ‘Whose Child?’ was performed publicly and at interval, the Justice Minister promised to legislate (Smith, E. F. 1977). Few male MPs claim to achieve all of their aims while in Parliament, but in returning to the female tradition of extra-parliamentary activism Preston-Stanley might have taken a course that has been forced on females historically. In the nineteenth century women were legally excluded from parliament because of their sex. In the 1920s, parliamentary participation was still not ‘normal’ for women. By 2005, the situation for female MPs has become more complex, but a parliamentary career still presents them with special difficulties.

In her memoir, former Liberal Leader Kerry Chikarovski described politics as ‘a world that continues to be dominated by men’. She says that the question to be asked is not so much how far women have come, but ‘more precisely, how far we have not come’. Noting the importance of women MPs encouraging others to follow them, Chikarovski rated the performance thus far as ‘patchy’ (Chikarovski & Garcia 2004, p. 219). The process of evaluating the impact of female MPs in and on parliament would be long, complex and controversial. Sometimes outsiders have expectations that women will behave in certain ways once elected, but only the MPs themselves fully appreciate the pressures they are under. However, to the extent that a masculine culture has inhibited participation by female MPs, their reluctance or inability to establish a common tradition could be a factor. Preston-Stanley’s speech created a unique opportunity, but her successors have not exploited her experience to maximum effect. Female MPs in Australian parliaments still experience difficulties on a scale sufficient to suggest that the male ‘heavens’ have not fallen.


Chikarovski, K. & Garcia, L. 2004, Chika, Lothian, South Melbourne.

Hogan, M. 2001, ‘1925’, in The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales, vol. 1, 1901–1927, eds M. Hogan and D. Clune, Parliament of NSW and The University of Sydney.

Radi, H. 1990, ‘Preston Stanley, Millicent Fanny (1883–1955)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.12, 1891–1939, ed. J. Ritchie, Melbourne University Press.

Smith, E. F. 1977, Millicent Preston Stanley: A Feminist in Politics, BA (Hons) Thesis, The University of Sydney.

Smith, T. 1999, Death of the ‘maiden’ in Macquarie Street? Paper, Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, The University of Sydney, September (vol 3, refereed papers).

Smith, T. 2003, Gender in the Fifty-first New South Wales Parliament, PhD Thesis, The University of Sydney.

Tony Smith is a regular contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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