Where are the women in Australia’s electorates?

By Mitch Robertson. Tutor in Political History, University of Melbourne

The 2016 election marks the first time in Australian political history that women will comprise more than 30% of candidates for the House of Representatives. While there is still a long way to go to reach parity, there is an even greater disparity in the names of the seats that they will contest.

There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives. Just 15 (10%) are named for women while 92 (61%) are named for men. The remaining seats are named for localities (25%), couples (2%), families (1.4%) or groups (0.6%).

The state and territory figures are equally damning:

  • In New South Wales, the state with the most seats, just three seats are named for women, while 31 are named for men;
  • None of the seats in Tasmania are named after women;
  • None of the four seats in the Territories are named after women;
  • Queensland is the only state where the proportion of seats named for women is higher than 15%.

Naming electoral divisions after people is unique to Australia. Unlike most other aspects of our democracy, it is not inherited from the Westminster system, which names its constituencies by geographic location, or from the United States system, where the seats in the House of Representatives are numbered.

The guidelines published by the Australian Electoral Commission states that the purpose of naming electorates is to honour “deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding service to their country”.

So who are the women we have chosen to commemorate?

Tilly ASTON (VIC)
Promoter of the rights of vision-impaired Australians. First blind Australian to attend university. Founded the Victorian Association of Braille Writers and the Association for the Advancement of the Blind.

Caroline CHISHOLM (VIC)
Advocate for female immigrant welfare. Converted the old army barracks in Sydney into the Female Immigrant Home which helped find jobs and accommodation for over 11,000 women during her seven-year tenure.

Edith COWAN (WA)First woman elected into the Australian Parliament in 1921, in the first election that women were eligible to contest in Western Australia. Also founded the Karrakatta Club, the first women’s club in Australia, which was a key component of the campaign for women’s suffrage. She's also featured on the $50 note.

Louisa DUNKLEY (VIC)
A pivotal figure in the union movement at the turn of the 20th century. Advocated for equal pay for women in the Victorian public service. Was instrumental in passing legislation which contained the first equal pay provisions (for telegraphists and postmistresses) in the Commonwealth public service.

Ruth FAIRFAX (QLD)
Founder of the Country Women’s Association, which has provided support for regional women for nearly a century.

Lilian FOWLER (NSW)
Australia’s first female mayor, serving as Mayor of Newton in New South Wales between 1938 and 1940. She also became the third woman ever elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly.

Dame Mary GILMORE (NSW)
Renowned socialist poet and journalist. She was the first female member of the Australian Workers’ Union and the female editor of its organ The Worker. She was the first person to be awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature.

Vida GOLDSTEIN (VIC)
An early advocate for women’s voting rights who conducted speaking tours of Australia, Europe, and the United States. She was also the first woman in the British Empire to contest a seat in parliament.

Irene LONGMAN (QLD)
The first woman to be elected to the Queensland Legislative Assembly. During her time as a parliamentarian, there was no female toilet in the parliament and women were not allowed in the parliamentary dining room.

Dorothea MACKELLAR (NSW)
Poet and novelist, considered to be the leading female ‘bush poet’. Best known for her poem My Country (“I love a sunburnt country”).

Helen MAYO (SA)
Pioneering doctor and advocate for maternal health. She co-founded the School for Mothers which provided information about infant health and founded the Mareerba Hospital for Infants at a time when the Adelaide Children’s Hospital did not treat those under two. She was also the first female to be elected to a university council in Australia.

Gladys MONCRIEFF (QLD)
Beloved entertainer who was known as “Australia’s Queen of Song”.

Dame Annabelle RANKIN (QLD)
The first female Minister, holding the position of Minister for Housing in the Holt Government. She was also the first woman granted a diplomatic appointment when she was made High Commissioner to New Zealand in 1974.

Dame Dorothy TANGNEY (WA)
The first woman elected to the Australian Senate. Tangney served for 25 years as a Senator for Western Australia and was a strong advocate for education and social services.

Judith WRIGHT (QLD)
Poet and literary critic. Also a passionate environmentalist and advocate for indigenous rights.

Why are so few seats named after women?

Women have often been overlooked in the writing and memorialisation of Australian history, as well as the political process more broadly.

Sixty-one seats, or more than half of the named electorates, are named after politicians or those involved in law—two fields which have long marginalised women.

Only five of the 58 seats named for politicians are named for women. The second largest category are those seats named for explorers, of which there are 20, all named for men.

The Australian Electoral Commission’s is also cautious about changin the names of existing electorates.

One newly named seat is the former Canberra-based division of Fraser, in Canberra, which was renamed in 2016 to Fenner—after a male scientist. Still there are opportunities to name more seats after women. There are 37 seats (25%) which are named for localities and would therefore appear to provide an excellent opportunity to rectify the immense gender imbalance amongst the other seats. It will also avoid the quagmire of renaming the seats already named for people.

However, it’s not that simple. The first complication is the precedence given to naming seats after Prime Ministers, with the eight most recent PMs yet to have seats named in their honour.

The second is the AEC’s preference that “every effort should be made to retain the names of original federation divisions”. Given that 26 of the 37 seats named after localities are original federation divisions, there are only eleven eligible seats that could be renamed under AEC guidelines. These are:

Electorate

State

Adelaide

SA

Berowra

NSW

Calare

NSW

Canberra

ACT

Mallee

VIC

Maribyrnong

VIC

McPherson

QLD

Murray

VIC

Port Adelaide

SA

Sydney

NSW

Warringah

NSW

If the easy task of renaming these eleven seats for women was accomplished, the proportion would still only reach 17%.

Then might be the time for a national discussion about whether keeping the names of original federation divisions is more important than honouring the achievements of more great Australian women.

Why not a division to honour Faith Bandler—a tireless campaigner for indigenous rights—or a division for Catherine Helen Spence—writer, social worker, and an instrumental advocate for Federation?

At its core, the AEC guidelines state that division names should not be changed “without a very strong reason”. What better reason could there be?

Banner image: The University of Adelaide Council in 1919. Helen Mayo is first on the right in the front row. Courtesy of University of Adelaide archives.

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gender; politics; election Gender Watch; Politics; Election