The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Madeline Grey: Challenging Women

Posted by Nic Heath on July 10, 2009

Last year we had cause in Victoria to reflect on women’s suffrage, as 2008 marked one hundred years since Victorian women were granted the right to vote in state elections.

It wasn’t until 1923 that Victorian women were eligible to stand for election, and then ten years later Lady Millie Peacock won a by-election to become the first female parliamentarian in Victoria.

Women – not just in Victoria, but also around the country and federally – remained under-represented in parliament right through until the eighties. I didn’t realise just how sparsely represented – during the early sixties there were only 15 women total in all Australian parliaments. Today there are 251.

Melbourne historian Madeline Grey has written a book, Challenging Women: Towards equality in the Parliament of Victoria, that looks at the increased politicisation of women in Victoria, from the foundation of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in 1972 through to 1997.

The first part of the book constitutes a small history of second-wave feminism in Australia, through a political lens. The origins of the WEL, born from the burgeoning second-wave feminist movement, are fascinating, as are the group’s early strategies, campaigns and achievements.

During this time the number of women elected to Australian parliaments increased, with 19 women in Victoria elected in the 1980s and 20 in nineties. Grey (in her introduction) attributes this rise partly to the work of second-wave feminists who from the 1970s sought to put women’s issues on the mainstream political agenda.

The feminisation of politics, granted a chapter in Grey’s book, is an issue that continues to resonate – think the storm in a teacup recently after Sarah Hanson-Young had her toddler ejected from the Senate. And yet it is a nod to how much has changed that she is a Senator and a young mother and was able to have her child with her in Parliament House at all. 

Despite the feminisation of politics, and the inroads made into changing the culture and practice of male-dominated politics in Australia, female parliamentarians are still treated differently. Look at Julia Gillard’s flak from Bill Heffernan regarding her decision not to have children. Likewise, I have heard Maxine McKew address her childlessness numerous times in the media and yet I have no idea if Greg Combet has no children or six.

The epilogue gives a view from 2009, appraising the performance of strategies to increase the representation of women in politics, as well as the reach of cultural and structural change and to what extent party politics constrain the scope of women’s success in parliament. Grey’s book includes lots of material from interviews with women who have served in Victoria’s Parliament, and the personal accounts are bracing.

Madeline Grey will be discussing Challenging Women at a free event at Kew Library next week. 

When: Thursday 16 July at 7.30pm
Where: Phyllis Hore Room, Kew Library, Cnr Cotham Road and Civic Drive, Kew
How to book: 9278 4666 or online

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