In 1921, the first woman was elected to Australian parliament. Her name was Edith Cowan and she was an advocate of women and children’s rights. Elected to serve as a member of parliament for Western Australia, she helped to pave the way for women in Australian politics. However, almost 100 years later, the macho character of political leadership remains unchanged; the field is still largely dominated by men.
January figures show that women made up just 33.2 percent of members of Commonwealth Parliament, with Australia ranking 48th out of 193 countries for representation of women in the lower house, falling behind New Zealand (15th) and the UK (39th) but beating out China (73rd) and the United States (equal 78th).
Despite these figures, there are some brilliant women politicians giving us plenty of reason to hope for a better tomorrow. Females can’t model what they don’t see, so it’s important we lift up incredible Australian women in politics to give Aussie girls a chance to aspire and know the heights they too can achieve.
So here are a few remarkable female politicians in the land down under you should know about:
A member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and serving as a Senator for South Australia, Penelope Ying-Yen Wong known to most Aussies as Penny Wong, is the first Asian born member of an Australian Cabinet (she was born in Malaysia to an Australian mother and Malaysian Chinese father) and is the first female openly-LGBTI federal parliamentarian.
Ranked as the most trusted Australian politician in Ogilvy PR’s recent “Believability Index” with a score of 53 percent, and it’s easy to see why. Wong, who studied law and arts and graduated from the University of Adelaide with honours, is a straight-talking, softly-spoken, self-deprecating and intelligent politician who typifies modern Australia. For her work in promoting collaborative leadership, tolerance and inclusiveness, she was named the 2018 McKinnon Political Leader of the Year, a non-partisan independent award recognising outstanding Australian political leadership.
If the ALP win the May 18 federal election, Senator Penny Wong will become Australia’s new foreign affairs minister and the leader of the government in the Senate.
“You can choose not to be interested in politics, but you can’t choose to be unaffected by it.”Penny Wong
At the age of 25, Australian Greens member Sarah Hanson-Young became the youngest woman ever to be elected to federal parliament (she took office at age 26). Serving as Senator for South Australia since 2008, her portfolios include Education, Finance and Trade, Water, Arts and Youth.
Throughout her political career, the progressive Senator has been the target of abuse and hate speech. Last year, during a parliamentary debate on women’s safety, a male parliamentarian told her to “stop shagging men” and told her to “f*ck off” when she confronted him (she is currently suing him for defamation). That same year, a 56-year-old senior constable with the NSW Police contacted her office and made rape threats targeting her daughter (the officer claimed he was drunk, escaped a jail sentence and was fined $5,500 and given a federal equivalent of a two-year good behaviour bond).
On social media, the abuse has also been relentless, all of which has prompted the young politician to write her first book En Garde, examining the verbal abuse hurled at female parliamentarians. She hopes to inspire a national discussion about sexism in politics.
“Some people still have a problem with a relatively young woman having an opinion and standing up. I make no apology for that. Rather than debating me on my policies or tackling my arguments, often, and very quickly, it turns to personal and gendered attacks. I’m a cow, a b**ch, I’m fat, I either dress too dowdy or like a sl*t — I can never get that one right.” – Sarah Hanson-Young said in a news.com.au interview
Upon her election as federal member for Barton in 2016, Linda Burney, a member of the Wiradjuri nation, became the first Aboriginal MP to be elected to the House of Representatives and was the first Aboriginal person to be elected to the NSW Parliament. With a commitment to Indigenous issues that spans more than three decades, she addressed the parliament, delivering these words in her native language: “The Aboriginal part of my story is important, it is the core of who I am. But I will not be stereotyped and I will not be pigeon-holed.”
An ALP member, Burney has held senior positions in the non-government sector as well as serving on a number of boards including Australian national broadcaster SBS and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board. She currently serves as the Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services and for Preventing Family Violence.
Dr Mehreen Faruqi emigrated from Pakistan in 1992 and completed her doctorate at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). In 2013, and after a 25-year career as a civil and environmental engineer working for local government and consulting firms and as an academic for UNSW, Australian Greens member Dr Mehreen Faruqi became the first Muslim woman to become a member of an Australian parliament. In 2018, Faruqi became Australia’s first Muslim senator.
Senator for NSW, the self-described feminist and activist’s portfolios include Housing, Industry, Education, Gun Control, Local Government and Animal Welfare.
The target of racist slurs and sexist messages, Faruqi had this to say in her maiden speech: “The existence of racism, sexism and other discrimination is not new but what has changed is it legitimisation, normalisation and encouragement in the media and in politics.” She continues to fight for a fairer Australia where all people, regardless of “the colour of our skin, our religion, our gender or sexuality, our bank balance or our postcode” have access to opportunities.
Independent candidate Dr Kerryn Phelps made political history by winning the conservative “safe” Liberal Party seat of Wentworth last year, a seat the party held since 1944 and the one vacated by former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who resigned after the Liberal leadership spill. She is also the first woman to hold the Sydney seat of Wentworth in its 117-year history.
An Australian medical practitioner and politician, Dr Kerryn Phelps was the first woman to be elected president of the Australian Medical Association. For her services to health and medicine, she was awarded the 2003 Centenary Medal and appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2011. Phelps is the first LGBTI person ever to be elected president of the Australian Medical Association.
A highly respected doctor serving Wentworth for the last two decades and in tune with the wishes of her electorate, Dr Phelps released an ambitious plan to tackle climate change.
“Climate change has been described as the greatest moral, greatest political, greatest social and greatest public health challenge of our time. The time to take action is now. There can be no excuses for continuing climate change policy paralysis. Look at the symptoms, examine the evidence, turn to the experts.” – Dr Kerryn Phelps said in her Maiden Speech
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Feature image of Labor Senator Penny Wong via Australian Labor Party.