Enid Lyons

Enid Muriel Lyons (1897-1981), politician, was born on 9 July 1897 at Duck River, north-western Tasmania, daughter of Eliza (born Tagget) and William Burnell, a sawyer. Her Cornish-born Methodist mother was a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, an active Labor supporter and later one of the first women appointed justice of the peace in Tasmania. Enid was educated at Stowport and Burnie State Schools and Hobart Teachers' College. On 28 April 1915 aged seventeen she married Joseph Aloysius Lyons, the 36 year old Minister for Education and Railways and Tasmanian Treasurer; Enid converted to Catholicism. She resigned her position as probationary teacher at Burnie State School.

This remarkable marriage, lasting 24 years and producing twelve children between 1916 and 1933 (one died in infancy), became a formidable political partnership. Joe encouraged Enid to be publicly involved in politics, even when pregnant. Between confinements she attended State and federal Labor conferences with him, delivering her first political speech in 1920. By 1925 Enid was well-known to Tasmanians as wife of their Labor Premier (1923-28) and in her own right. Both she and her mother contested seats in the 1925 elections; both lost though Enid by only 60 votes. Her astute political judgement and intellectual ability made her an ideal confidante to her husband, sharing his major decisions, including his move from Labor to the United Australia Party in 1931.

Despite her large family, Enid travelled all over Australia for official engagements while Lyons was Prime Minister (1932-39). She aimed to win support among women, appealing to a sense of citizenship and public responsibility. An attractive woman and a skilled speaker she was frequently invited to address women's associations and conferences, both religious and secular. Feminist associations such as the Victorian Women Citizens' Movement and the Sydney Feminist Club sought her as an ally in their causes: she also was an advocate of 'women's rights' - a 'liberal feminist'.

Accompanying the Prime Minister to England in 1935 and 1937, Enid spoke at feminist and Catholic meetings and in 1937 was appointed GBE. When Joe Lyons died from a heart attack in 1939, Enid collapsed, overwhelmed by exhaustion, shock and grief. The government's bill (eventually passed though amended) proposing an annuity for her and her children, evoked hostile opposition and many antagonistic letters, which greatly upset Enid. By 1940, her five youngest children were in boarding schools, and illness had forced her retirement to her home in Devonport.

The retirement in 1943 of the federal member for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin, prompted Dame Enid's return to politics. She won the seat by 160 votes, becoming the first women elected to the Commonwealth Parliament. She was motivated by her enduring belief in the right of women to a place in government and by financial pressures. She saw a place in government as an extension of her nurturing role. Many speeches dealt solely with issues concerning women and the family. Enid cited the difficulties which war-induced inflation and shortages posed for housewives and mothers, and canvassed the need to improve maternity care, assist mothers (she advocated large families), raise widows' pension and eliminate discriminatory practices in employment. Stereotyped as 'the mother figure in Parliament', 'an ideal national housekeeper', she was rightly considered the expert on domestic matters. She retained a humanitarian concern for the under-privileged though an anti-socialist, upholding individual enterprise and self help. She opposed divorce and abortion.

Electorally she was extremely successful, trebling her majority in 1946 and quadrupling it in 1949. In the new Liberal-Country Party ministry, Prime Minister Menzies appointed her vice-president of the Executive Council, the first woman to enter a federal cabinet. Her proudest boast was that she was responsible for the extension of child endowment in 1950 to include the first child. She claimed as another victory the raising of the allowances paid returned servicewomen to equal those paid returned servicemen. With other women she had spent many years lobbying for a woman's right to retain nationality and citizenship on marriage to foreigners (the legislation was passed in 1948).

Her public activities continued after her retirement with health problems in 1951. The medical profession failed for 40 years to discover the broken pelvis sustained at her first delivery. Her grave health problems necessitated numerous operations over the years, yet she managed somehow to keep up her public work. She chaired the Jubilee Women's Convention (1951), was a member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission from 1951-62, a columnist for the Sun 1951-54, and Woman's Day 1951-52. She published two autobiographical volumes So We Take Comfort (1965) and Among the Carrion Crows (1972). In 1980 she was awarded the Order of Australia.

On 2 September 1981 Enid Lyons died. Justin O'Byrne, a retired Labor contemporary, claimed that in retirement she became 'respected and venerated across the whole cross-section of the community, a sort of matriarch among politicians'.

Anne Sells