First women elected to federal parliament immortalised in bronze

Eighty years after Dame Enid Lyons and Dame Dorothy Tangney strode through the doors of Old Parliament House as the nation’s first federal female politicians, bronze statues immortalising the pair will be unveiled in Canberra.

The lasting tribute is the first step in correcting decades of oversight that resulted in Canberra’s parliamentary triangle featuring more statues of kelpies than Australian women or First Nations people.

The iconic photo of Dame Dorothy Tangney (left) and Dame Enid Lyons entering Parliament House on September 24, 1943. A bronze statue, by sculptor Lis Johnson, replicating this photo will be unveiled in the parliamentary triangle in Canberra on Wednesday.

National Museum of Australia

While their legacy in paving the way for women in federal politics has been under-recognised, their entry into the corridors of power was not lost on those present at the time.

Dame Enid and Dame Dorothy were greeted with cheers of “hear, hear” from male colleagues as they were sworn into the House of Representatives and Senate respectively on the morning of September 23, 1943, while women in the public galleries applauded, reported the next day.

Though the two women hailed from different parties – Dame Enid from the United Australia Party and later the Liberal Party; Dame Dorothy from Labor – and would sit in different houses, they shared common convictions on women’s equality and their rightful place alongside men in the nation’s parliament.

Libby Lyons, Dame Enid’s granddaughter, said the fact that the pair were elected in the same year was extraordinary.

The initial casting phase of the new sculpture of Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons by Lis Johnson.

Dom Northcott, supplied by National Capital Authority

“It showed the sentiment of the time and that people were ready to have females representing them in parliament. We’ve come some way since then, but certainly not far enough and I think both parties would acknowledge that,” she said.

“The family are feeling terribly proud and very excited but there’s a little dismay that having achieved so much 80 years ago, successive governments haven’t seen that as something that’s been worthy enough to acknowledge sooner.”

Regional Development Minister Kristy McBain said the pair’s achievements were made more significant by the fact that female candidates faced overwhelmingly negative coverage in the media at the time.

“They paved the way for hundreds of women with diverse voices and experience to pursue politics,” she said.

Members of the Lyons and Tangney families have travelled to Canberra for the unveiling ceremony on Wednesday, coinciding with International Women’s Day. The cast bronze statues, by Melbourne sculptor Lis Johnson, will be installed on the corner of King George Terrace, opposite Old Parliament House, with the design replicating the iconic photo of the pair entering the building together as elected MPs.

Maxine Muir, Dame Dorothy’s niece, said it was fitting that the women would be honoured together.

“They did work together while they were in parliament even though they weren’t in the same political party. They did actually find that they had very common things that they wanted to work for, which was progressing the cause of women,” Muir said. “It is a momentous occasion in so many ways.”

The sculpture was commissioned by the former Morrison government after and highlighted the absence of statues of women or Indigenous politicians within the ceremonial precinct. A commitment has also been made to commemorate Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous Australian elected to parliament.

The statues will be unveiled on Wednesday.

Rhett Wyman

Several prime ministers have received the bronze treatment, including most recently Liberal leader Sir John Gorton with a statue featuring his loyal kelpie Suzie Q.

Johnson said she had done many statues of men but few of women.

“Hopefully, we will be able to balance that imbalance soon,” she said.

Lyons, born in 1897 in Smithton, Tasmania, was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. She held the since-abolished Tasmanian seat of Darwin for eight years before retiring in 1951. Before her own political career, she was best known as the wife of Joseph Lyons, a former prime minister and Tasmanian premier.

Tangney was born in Perth in 1907 and was the first woman elected to the Senate. She served as a West Australian senator from 1943 to 1968 and was the longest-serving woman in the Senate until being overtaken by Liberal Marise Payne last year.

National Capital Authority chief executive Sally Barnes said it was appalling that women had been underrepresented in public art across Canberra, a phenomenon seen in many other cities.

“Until [Wednesday], there are more statues of dogs in the parliamentary zone,” Barnes said, adding the sculpture of the women beautifully captured the moment frozen in time by the photograph.

“It has this beautiful swirl of women entering parliament in both houses from both parties, and heading in together with handbags and hats on and off to work and looking determined.”

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