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Great Women of Australia - Enid Lyons

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Dame Enid Lyons was the first woman to be elected to the Federal Cabinet in Australia.

Lyons worked indefatigably for the betterment of women and children. She espoused traditional family values but thought that women should be completely equal. One of her accomplishments was to bring in welfare payments for mothers. She also established equal training allowances for women and men.

Enid Lyons and family

Dame Enid Muriel Lyons was born Enid Muriel Burnell on 6 July 1897. Her family lived in an isolated timber camp near Smithton, in the north-west of Tasmania. She was the second of four children and grew up in humble circumstances. Her father was a timber worker in bush sawmills. Her mother took in sewing and washing to earn extra to pay for the education of her children.

By the time Enid was fourteen, she was studying at the Teachers' Training College in Hobart. It was here that she met schoolteacher Joseph Lyons. They married when Enid was seventeen and Joseph thirty-four. Joseph had now left teaching and had entered state politics.

When they married, Joseph was Minister for Education and Treasurer of Tasmania. By the time Enid was twenty-five, they had six children and Joseph was Premier of Tasmania.

Joseph became Premier in 1923 and remained so until 1928. The following year he entered Federal politics, becoming the member for the Division of Wilmot. He became leader of the United Australia Party (UAP) in 1931 after leaving the Labor Party and, at the beginning of 1932, he became Prime Minister of Australia. They formed a strong personal and political partnership, although Enid was often torn between her duty to her husband and to her children. She also had a lot of illness and was hospitalised many times. Enid believed she should share her husband's ambitions, ideals and achievements. Enid was very popular and a great support to Joseph. She was a popular public speaker and well known throughout Tasmania and the mainland.

Although they moved into the Lodge in Canberra, their humble weatherboard house in Tasmania remained Enid's true home. It was said that every time a child was born to her and Joseph, a new room was added. By the time they moved into the Lodge, they had twelve children.

Joseph and Enid travelled overseas, staying with King George V and Queen Mary. They also met the Pope and featured on the cover of Time magazine. On their return, Enid toured the country telling others of her experiences. She became Australia's best known woman.

In the Coronation Honours of 1936, Enid received a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire from King George VI. Three years later, Joseph died and Dame Enid returned to Tasmania. Joseph was only 59 and the first Australian Prime Minister to die in office. At the time, Dame Enid was highly resentful of Joseph's successor as leader of the UAP, Robert Menzies, who had retired from the Cabinet shortly before Joseph's death.

Dame Enid had stood for election to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1925 and had made a favourable impression on the people, although she didn't win the seat. She was an excellent public speaker, campaigning convincingly for her husband over the years. After Joseph's death, Dame Enid stood for and won the Division of Darwin in north-western Tasmania. This made her the first woman in the House of Representatives. The year was 1943 and marks a defining moment in Australian history.

Enid Lyons

At the same election, Australia got its first woman Senator, Dorothy Tangney (later Dame Dorothy), who was elected as a Labor Senator for Western Australia. In 1945, the UAP changed its name to the Liberal Party of Australia.

By now, there was little left of Dame Enid's Labor ties. In 1949, Menzies was made Prime Minister when the Liberals won the election and Dame Enid was appointed Vice-President of the Executive Council. This improved relationships between the two somewhat. However the post was largely honorary with no departmental duties. Dame Enid had never been particularly strong and the regular travel between Canberra and Tasmania took its toll on her health and she retired in 1951.

Without the incessant travelling, Dame Enid's health improved. She continued to promote family and women's issues. Work as a newspaper columnist (1951-1954) and as commissioner of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1951-1962) kept her busy. In her two volumes of memoirs, she embarrassed the Liberal Party by alleging Menzies betrayed her husband in 1939 by resigning from the Cabinet.

On Australia Day 1980, Dame Enid was made a Dame of the Order of Australia (AD), only the second woman to receive such an award. (The first had been the historian, Alexandra Hasluck.) She died in 1981 in the home she had lived in for over sixty years. She was 84. Dame Enid was given a state funeral in Devonport, Tasmania and buried next to the husband.

Enid Lyons had strong views on social justice. She was a reforming Liberal with a good, solid Labor background. She proved that women had a part to play in the community as well as in the home.

She had great compassion for the common people and their problems and once said 'the foundation of a nation's greatness is in the homes of its people'.



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