Australia: Howard Govt's "Becoming an Australian citizen" historically astray on women MPs Print E-mail
The Age ~~ Melbourne ~~ Monday October 29, 2007

Wasn't this a Government obsessed with historical 'truth'?

The mistake in "Becoming an Australian Citizen" is highly symbolic

By  Marilyn Lake

Kevin Andrews, Immigration & Citizenship Minister   Becoming an Australian citizen

WHAT a delicious irony. In the booklet Becoming an Australian citizen, distributed in the tens of thousands by the Federal Government to instruct would-be citizens in the facts of Australian history and national values, our political leaders get their historical facts wrong.

On page 25 we are informed that Edith Cowan was elected to the West Australian parliament in 1923. What will aspiring citizens think when they realise our national leaders don't even know the historical facts?

In "A Story of Australia", the booklet's account of the past ­ in the narrative form so beloved of our Prime Minister ­ is a section called "Economy and Politics", which discusses the political mobilisation of the working class and women for social justice in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1907, the Harvester judgement, we are told, set a minimum wage so that working people could live in comfort. Then, "Edith Cowan became the first woman parliamentarian when she was elected to the West Australian parliament in 1923. It was another 20 years until another woman, Enid Lyons (later Dame Enid Lyons), was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1943."

Enid Lyons, future citizens might be interested to know, was the widow of Joe Lyons, Tasmania's only prime minister. She was also the mother of 12 children. But what of the date of Cowan's election? As a historian of feminism in Australia (I wrote Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism), I was certain Edith Cowan was elected as a Nationalist candidate in the West Australian election of 1921, the same election in which the redoubtable campaigner for trade union and Aboriginal rights, Ada Bromham, was defeated in the electorate of Claremont.

Edith Cowan was an impressive candidate, a mother of five children and long-time activist for the cause of women and children, advocating improvements in child welfare, day nurseries and urban playgrounds. Like most of her contemporaries in the women's movement, Cowan had also become convinced of the importance of women's economic independence, through reading widely in the international literature of her day. She was familiar with the writings of Englishman John Stuart Mill, South African Olive Schreiner and American Charlotte Perkins Stetson.

Cowan is a significant figure in the history of the welfare state. The first legislation she introduced to the West Australian parliament provided for equal inheritance rights to the mothers of adult children who died intestate. Cowan envisaged a welfare state as a means of addressing the economic insecurity of mothers and children. Australian feminists led the world in calling on governments to alleviate the lot of the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community.

Surely our present Government, so intent on inculcating the population with the significance of historical facts, might be expected to get its facts right and record the correct date of the election that saw Edith Cowan returned as the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament.

Surely, too, it would know that 20 years later in 1943, the Australian people elected not just one woman to the Commonwealth Parliament ­ as suggested in Becoming an Australian Citizen ­ but two, with Enid Lyons, the United Australia Party member for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin, joined by Labor senator Dorothy Tangney, another West Australian woman.

The issue here is not just that the Government preaches historical correctness and then gets its facts about the past wrong, but that it makes such a fuss about defining the "equality of men and women" and "equality of opportunity" as "Australian values".

One would have hoped they could demonstrate their commitment to sexual equality through showing equal respect to the history of women and men. I'm sure the history of the Anzacs and the prime ministers is accurate.

There is a larger symbolic significance to the mistake made with regard to the date of Edith Cowan's election to the West Australian parliament. The careless substitution of 1923 for 1921 is symptomatic of a political project that invokes the principle of sexual equality not as a value in itself but as a means for denouncing other cultures' presumed denigration of women.

A real commitment to the recognition of the equality of men and women surely requires that we recognise the significance of the political history of women, not just in their joining men's political parties and parliamentary institutions but in their formation of distinctive organisations and shaping visions of a new society that put human welfare ahead of what leading suffragist Rose Scott called the "almighty dollar".

Australian women were the first in the world to win full political rights ­ the right to vote and stand for election to the national parliament ­ and like Edith Cowan they dedicated themselves to shaping a society structured around different values.

They were determined to bring a new element into politics. Australian values have always been a matter of debate. It behoves us all to get our historical facts right.

Marilyn Lake is professor of history in the school of historical and European studies at La Trobe University.