Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP on the legacy left by Edith Cowan, the first woman to be elected to Parliament

15 March, 2021


I thank the member for Cowan for the opportunity to reflect on the life of a truly remarkable parliamentarian, Edith Cowan. I also thank the member for Curtin and the member for Reid for their heartfelt words. By doing so, we all share the story of another trailblazing Australian woman who challenged the establishment, challenged her colleagues and challenged accepted practices. When sharing her story, we do so in the passionate hope that others will be inspired and follow in her footsteps. Right now there is a lot of frustration and a great deal of disappointment, anger and disempowerment. To those of you feeling frustrated and demanding change, many gathering outside this building as I speak, I encourage you to take heart, take courage and take inspiration from the life of Edith Cowan.

As others have mentioned already this morning, Edith Cowan was the first woman to be elected to any Australian parliament, winning election to the legislative assembly of Western Australia on 12 March 1921. At the time, voting was not compulsory, but, interestingly, in her electorate of West Perth more women than men turned out to vote, delivering her a slim victory of just 46 votes—an epic example that every vote counts.

If anyone hasn't read her maiden speech, please do so. I encourage you to, because it's clear from the outset that her intention was to bring a female perspective to decision-making. Her speech covered a broad range of topics, focusing on welfare, health and social justice. Here are some excerpts that, for obvious reasons, warm my heart. She demonstrated an independent spirit from that very first speech:

I was sent here to uphold law and order and constitutional government, and it will be my desire to assist in carrying out these objects in a proper and satisfactory manner; while in the discharge of my duties here I shall be responsible only to my own constituents … There are too many here to-day who are possessed of the old party spirit which seems ever to exist, but I cannot see why we should drag party into things that concern the whole of the State.

It was definitely her continued and sustained reference to the need for both genders to be represented in the parliament that dominated her speech. She saw a future where men and women worked collaboratively for the betterment of all. Here are some more prophetic words from the woman herself, words that ring true even today in 2021:

The views of both sides are more than ever needed in Parliament to-day. If men and women can work for the State side by side and represent all the different sections of the community, and if the male members of the House would be satisfied to allow women to help them and would accept their suggestions when they are offered, I cannot doubt that we should do very much better work in the community than was ever done before.

Unfortunately, the torch that was lit by Edith Cowan and passed to generations of women that followed, from many sides of politics, seems to have dimmed in recent years. The behaviour and attitudes on show over a century ago still ripple through our political discourse. Edith and the many women supporting her would have hoped that 100 years on the ambition of young Australian women would be to follow in their footsteps, to lift that torch and carry it forward. But, unfortunately, the opposite seems true. In a recent survey of 2,000 young Australian women aged 18 to 25, zero per cent expressed an interest in politics as a career. I was shocked, and I will work hard to change that. Looking at the events of the last month or so, I have to say: who could blame them? But I want young women in Warringah, and indeed across Australia, to aspire to work here, for politics to be a safe, welcoming and admirable career path.

We simply need more women in this place. In this 46th Parliament, there are 45 women in the House of Representatives, just under 30 per cent. In the Senate, the numbers are better, amounting to nearly 50 per cent. The reality is that Australia is still the fifth-worst in the OECD for inequality and political participation, above only Lithuania, Japan, Israel and Hungary. I therefore commend groups like Women for Election Australia, who aim to inspire and equip women to run for office and sustain them once elected. I wish them all the best in their endeavours to inspire and equip 2,000 women to run for political office in 2022. If Edith Cowan could do it 100 years ago and make substantial change, imagine the possibilities now. Enough is enough. Don't wait for the change. Be the change. Make your voice heard. Make your vote count.