Just whose place is it?

Mary Crawford, Queensland University of Technology

Deborah Brennan and Louise Chappell “No Fit Place for Women”? Women in New South Wales Politics, 1856–2006, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2006 (320 pp). ISBN 9-78086840-964-1 (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

It seemed extraordinarily timely that the very week Deborah Brennan and Louise Chappell’s collection entitled “No Fit Place For Women”? Women in New South Wales Politics, 1856–2006 arrived on my desk, that Pru Goward, told the Sydney Morning Herald after her first day as the member for Goulburn in the NSW Parliament that she had ‘never worked in any profession as male dominated or as ruthlessly sexist’ as the NSW Parliament (2007). Apparently many male politicians still share the view of their historical counterparts that ‘there is no sphere for women in politics’ (Brennan 2006, p. 24).

More than a century after white women in Australia first achieved the right to vote and to stand for parliament in 1902, the role of women in Australia’s political life continues to be debated. At the national level there has been public discussion in recent months about women’s ability to sit in Parliament based on their attitude to child bearing (Lyons 2007). Senator Heffernan’s comments on Julia Gillard found condemnation in the major newspapers; a guest on Channel 7’s Sunrise programme described them as ‘sexist, ignorant and judgmental’ (Frank 2007). Yet within weeks of Senator Heffernan’s outburst, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, raised the physical appearance of his opponent, Ms Gillard, as a reason for his own inability to sell his government’s policy (Davis 2007). Why, then, are some male politicians unable to accept women as equals in parliament?

Deborah Brennan and Louise Chappell go some way to addressing this vexing question in their new collection. The book offers more than an historical account of the women who have entered the NSW Parliament since the first, Millicent Preston-Stanley, became a member for the National Party in 1925–7 and attacked the attitudes of men who considered that ‘there is no sphere for women in politics’ (Brennan 2006, p. 24). It seems the practices and processes of the parliament remain as masculine as ever. When I won the seat of Forde in southern Queensland in 1987, I was often stopped as I sought to enter the House of Representatives Chamber because I could not possibly be a ‘real’ MP. Other female members cited similar experiences, and the problem does not seem limited to Australia: Nurwal Puwar found that women entering the British House of Commons feel like ‘space invaders’ (2004). My own research suggests that although the increasing number of women entering parliament have brought some changes to some MPs’ behaviour—less drinking, more social interaction between women and men, and less overt sexual language—the changes are marginal and the parliament itself remains a gendered institution.

The role of women in Australia’s political life continues to be debated.

Brennan and Chappell have drawn on the expertise of thirteen highly regarded writers on Australian politics, which provides depth and a diversity of views. The book attempts to explain why the NSW Parliament is still overtly hostile to women, even though the women of New South Wales have been politically active for more than 100 years. This seems even more extraordinary given that the states have had jurisdiction over policy areas deemed as ‘feminine’—maternity provisions, family allowances, child welfare, control over alcohol and the industries in which many women worked—since Federation (Brennan & Chappell 2006, p. 5).


Female suffrage was achieved in New South Wales in the same year as federal voting rights but it was not until 1918 that the Legal Status Act was passed, which allowed women to stand for the oldest of Australia’s parliaments. Millicent Preston-Stanley has been followed by a further 83 woman since 1925. In her own chapter, Deborah Brennan explores the diverse pathways women have found to enter the NSW Parliament. These included family connections, work in political parties, some involvement in local government, and a wide range of employment backgrounds. The nature of work women pursue before entering parliament has changed over the century, becoming much more focused on party political activity. Brennan reviews women’s inaugural speeches and acknowledges that most women MPs are highly conscious of their gender. But from the beginning Millicent Preston-Stanley declared that ‘women’s questions are national questions and national questions are women’s questions’ (p. 24).

Once women entered parliament, the question of who women parliamentarians really represented was raised, especially by those women who had fought for universal suffrage and equal parliamentary representation. Women MPs also struggled with this, particularly those in single member electorates who did not wish to be seen as neglecting half the constituents. In fact, as a former federal MP myself (Forde 1987–1996), Labor women MPs often discussed this question, because our life experiences suggested we should be of assistance to many women’s groups who needed our support, expertise and access to power to help get issues on the agenda—child care, women’s health and education, young women, and domestic violence, to name a few. Brennan’s analysis of women’s first speeches shows that all National Party women and the vast majority of Labor women spoke specifically about women and their needs, and the role women MPs can play in setting the policy agenda both within the parliament and their own political party. However, some female MPs have different concerns, including aboriginality (Linda Burney, Canterbury ALP, 2003–) and people from non-English backgrounds (Franca Arena, Legislative Council ALP/Independent 1981–99). Meanwhile, few Liberal women have raised women’s issues. Brennan’s findings confirm recent research undertaken in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which suggests that it is not the number of women in parliament who will make a difference to social policies which impact more directly on the lives of women and children but the nature of the women MPs and the values they bring to the parliament (Tremblay 2003).

The struggle for suffrage had enabled many women to develop political skills.

Brennan recognises that women’s ability to achieve in parliament is constrained by the nature of the institution itself. The way the work is distributed (men receive the more serious and valuable economic portfolios) and the masculine behaviours of aggression, competition, and assumed privilege so evident in parliament during Question Time do not allow for women to be seen as credible politicians. Informal networks and hidden knowledge of the way the system operates means women are still under-represented at the Cabinet table. As Pru Goward has discovered, the institution remains implacably masculine even when a woman manages to ‘get in’.

Many of the early suffragettes thought there would be no problems with women’s entry into parliament once suffrage was achieved. The struggle for suffrage had enabled many women to develop skills in the areas of public speaking, community activism, and strategies for women to create a place for women in the public sphere and for developing a marked public presence. These women believed that their skills and strategies would enable them to take a role equal to men in the political institutions. Jenny Donovan’s contribution demonstrates the fallacy of this view: one of the major difficulties for women entering any Australian parliament is the process of pre-selection.

Focusing on NSW Labor women, Rebecca Huntley and Janet Ramsey claim that despite difficulties in the male dominated party, and women’s long and slow battle to gain pre-selection for winnable seats, Labor women’s achievements need to be recognised in the broader context of women’s organisations and the industrial wing of the union movement. It is worth remembering that widow’s pensions and child endowment were first enacted in NSW in 1926 because ALP branch members Gertrude Melville and Kate Dwyer put pressure on the Lang Labor government. They used branch structures to marshall women’s votes for these policies within the party and so were able to get male MPs committed to the social policy changes they advocated. Other well known Labor women activists were Edna Ryan, Jessie Street, and Barbara Curthoys, none of whom was successful in entering parliament. Edna Ryan gained pre-selection twice, but found the seat to be unwinnable for the ALP. Barbara Curthoys and Jessie Street put their energies into activism nationally and internationally. Far too many women, myself included, found ALP pre-selection for a woman limited to marginal or unwinnable seats.

Far too many women find ALP pre-selection limited to marginal or unwinnable seats.

The Whitlam government transformed national politics in the 1970s through its social policy changes in relation to marriage, education, women’s rights and so on, but NSW Labor women did not make inroads into the parliament until the 1980s, after changes in Party rules and a focus on gender equity. One of these women was the formidable Janice Crosio with whom I served in the federal parliament. She has the distinction of being the first woman to serve at every level of government in Australia—as Fairfield mayor, State member for Fairfield, and federal member for Prospect. That she achieved this is evidence of political savvy, a desire to act on her broad knowledge of political processes, and her capacity for hard work.

The pre-selection processes of the NSW Liberal and National parties also receive attention in the volume. Don Harwin and Jenny Gardiner reveal that pre-selection also remains a major obstacle to conservative women’s entry into parliament. They argue that the pre-selection problem is exacerbated for aspiring conservative women politicians because their male colleagues are likely to hold traditional ideas about the role of women. Women in both conservative parties have been integral to party organisation but it was not until the 1990s that they entered parliament in any numbers and Kerry Chikarovski emerged as Liberal party leader. Even Chikarovski concedes the need for a male insider, in this case her father, to help make one’s way through the party. Because of embedded conservative values, National Party women have had a much harder struggle to gain representation in parliament. Wendy Machin who represented the National Party in the NSW parliament from 1985–1996, describes how the media treated her differently from her male colleagues. Her account of being constantly trivialised and undermined is a theme that runs through the book: women in parliament continue to be seen first as ‘women’ while the gender of male politicians remains un-named and invisible.

Ariadne Vromen, Anika Gauja, and Rodney Smith maintain that minor parties such as the Australian Democrats and Greens have been much more woman-friendly than the mainstream parties. The profile of the ‘typical’ women representative from a NSW minor party is of a person who has had a long involvement in the community and is 52 years of age on entry to politics. This community background has been fundamental to the success of women such as the Hon. Elizabeth Kirkby (Australian Democrats 1981–1998) and Lee Rhiannon (Greens 1999–) because it gave them a profile as well as helping them to develop knowledge about policy development and implementation. Women have also had some success as Independents in NSW politics; Clover Moore is a clear example here. But despite women’s success as Independents, men still outnumber women among minor party MPs. It seems even in the sphere of independent politics, women’s access to parliamentary representation remains limited and unequal.

To those of us fighting for equal parliamentary representation for women, even more worrying is Sarah Maddison’s call for a new model of activism to overcome tensions between young and old feminists and the lack of contact between them. Maddison explains how two groups of young feminists operate—one in a university environment and the other for young mothers at Campbelltown. She finds that these young women have no connection to older feminists; they see issues such as aboriginality and globalisation as having a more direct impact on their lives. Based on this analysis, Maddison proposes a new paradigm to empower young women and encourage them into the public policy process in a distinctive way. There is no question that many young women are active in their communities and the pursuit of coalitions to develop agendas for change can and must be effective. But focusing on community activism at the expense of traditional representative institutions enables the NSW parliament to continue to remain in its present state—a domain of men able to make policy which affects all our lives. Perhaps an activist coalition can consider how and when change in such institutions could occur and make it possible for a new generation of young feminists to be persuaded and supported into the centre of policy making wherever and whatever it may be. We need many more young women to enter parliament and make it a more inclusive institution.


Young women have no connection to older feminists.

The suffragettes viewed universal suffrage and women’s representation in parliament as a means of having their voices heard and bringing their understandings to public policy. It was a part of the wider struggle for equal rights and freedoms for NSW women. A second theme of the book is explored by a range of authors who investigate how women have been able to make policy while so many of them remained outside the parliament itself. In a fascinating account of the debate and development of the domestic violence policy in the 1980s, Janet Ramsey demonstrates clearly that even without large numbers of women in the parliament, many women’s voices can be heard and policy enacted through women’s persistence and influence outside of the parliament itself. Domestic violence emerged as a political issue in 1973 at a meeting of the Sydney Women’s Liberation Groups and the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL). These groups involved large numbers of woman, many of whom were in violent marriages, and co-ordinated the campaign both inside and outside the parliament. These groups’ perseverance and achievements clearly show that the skills of the early suffragettes have not been lost.

As well as working to facilitate women’s political representation, WEL has been a pivotal advocate for many policy issues affecting women’s daily lives. Recently, the group has been active in campaigns to raise concerns about the impact on women of the WorkChoices industrial relations laws. and in the debate about which organisations should receive funding for pregnancy counselling. WEL is also marshalling support for Senator Natasha Stott Despoja’s private member’s bill on funding for pregnancy counselling.

The practice of women ‘working outside’ to improve women’s involvement in the public realm is taken up by Marian Sawer, Jasmina Baranovich, and Gail Radford. This chapter focuses on the Australian Federation of Voters (AFWV) and WEL, describing the groups’ ‘generations of advocacy’ for women’s political representation. As evidence of the success of these groups, Sawer and colleagues point to the instrumental role they played in fostering the political careers of women as diverse as Susan Ryan (Labor) and Helen Coonan (Liberal), both of whom became Senators. There are many in the Australian Labor Party, myself included, who credit Susan Ryan with developing and implementing a strategy that saw the Sex Discrimination Act enacted in 1984, when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister.

Women in the NSW public service fill less than a quarter of senior positions.

The rise of the ‘femocrat’ has been identified as a uniquely Australian vehicle by which women’s involvement in public policy was embedded in the public sector (Sawer 1990). Hence, in her chapter, Louise Chappell focuses on women’s participation in the public sector in NSW. She notes that the long struggle for women’s voices in policy debates have meant that they now fill 54 per cent of all NSW public sector jobs. However, they fill less than a quarter of the senior positions and earn less than men—surely an analogous position to the women in the NSW parliament. Importantly, Chappell also traces the retreat from women’s policy agenda by the current NSW government including the 2004 downgrading of the Department of Women to the Office of Women. Such changes have seen staff cuts of 50 per cent, budget reductions from $5.7m to $1.7m, and a lack of any clear policy agenda. A particularly disheartening aspect of these changes has been the lack of criticism expressed by women except for Sarah Maddison (who contributes to this book) and Joan Bielski, a long-standing advocate for women in political life. Clearly having more women in parliament has not been helpful in this case, and the days of the ‘femocrats’ are well and truly gone.

Women have also made policy in NSW through Women’s Advisory Committees (WACs) and their role is explored by Sue Goodwin. These committees were established in NSW in 1975 as a way of enabling women who were outside the government and bureaucracy to have input into government policy. Goodwin argues that WACs have created a ‘distinctive space’ for many women in the public policy process. She also suggests that these committees have been an important training ground for female politicians such as Franca Arena, who later became a member of the NSW Legislative Council, and Jeanette McHugh who entered federal parliament. At the same time, as Goodwin points out, there are problems with the Advisory Committee model. WACs are, for example, established at the largesse of the premier of the day and are subordinate to the minister. Their existence also raises questions about whether they work to reinforce the marginalisation of women in the mainstream political process. They appear to give women participation in the policy making process but can mean that women remain on the edge rather than becoming decision makers in control of policy.


“No Fit Place for Women”? both renders visible women’s past political success in New South Wales and highlights how processes of exclusion and discrimination against women politicians continue today. Indeed, despite increases in the representation of women in parliament in recent years, women still represent only a quarter of NSW politicians. The collection, therefore, is an important historical record of the achievements of women politicians, policy makers, and advocacy groups in Australia, and a reminder that gender equity in the Australian body politic remains an elusive goal. The central question remains—when will women be welcomed as ‘real’ MPs whose place at the Cabinet table is unquestioned and about whose appearance or family life no comments will be made? On that day, politics will be a very fit place for women indeed.


Davis, M. 2007, ‘Beauty contest turns ugly’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May, p. 6.

Frank, J. 2007, Sunrise, Channel 7, 3 May [Online], Available: http://cosmos.bcst.yahoo.com/scp_v3/viewer/index.php [2006, Jul 12].

‘Bearpit sexist, says new MP Goward’, 2007, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May, p. 1.

Lyons, J. 2007, ‘Bill and Lachlan’s excellent adventure’, The Bulletin, 3 July, p. 28.

Puwar, N. 2004, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, London, Berg.

Sawer, M. 1990, Sisters in Suits: Women and Public Policy in Australia, Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Tremblay, M. 2003, ‘Women’s representational role in Australia and Canada: The impact of political context’, Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 215–238.

Mary Crawford is currently Lecturer in government-business relations in the School of Management at the Queensland University of Technology. She is working on a PhD on Gender and the Australian Parliament, drawing on her own experiences as the Federal Member for Forde from 1987–1966.