Inside Story

Doing “the work that men do”

Two talented Liberal senators paved the way for future female ministers

Stephen Mills Books 9 August 2023 2280 words

“Our Annabelle”: the newly elected senator arrives at Parliament House in 1946. National Archives of Australia

Labor’s Dorothy Tangney made history in 1943 when she became the first woman elected to the Australian Senate. But though she sat in that chamber for twenty-five years, no Labor woman ever joined her. Instead, she watched as the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh women were elected to the Senate — all of them Liberals. And while Tangney spent her entire career on the backbench, two of those six Liberals managed to become ministers.

They hardly shattered the glass ceiling. But that first wave of elected Liberal women — six senators, along with Enid Lyons elected to the House in 1943 — were real pioneers, prising open the men’s world of parliament.

Who were these pioneering women? And how did they get there? Recent biographies of two of them, Dame Annabelle Rankin and Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, describe two very different women who took strikingly different paths to power and who, against the odds and in different eras, became ministers.

Rankin, a Queenslander who became the first Liberal woman in the Senate, served from 1946 and eventually became Australia’s first female minister; her biography is written by long-time Canberra journalist and lobbyist Peter Sekuless. Three months after Rankin left the Senate, in 1971, Margaret Guilfoyle, a Victorian, entered; she served until 1987, becoming a senior and powerful cabinet minister. Her life is told by the prolific Anne Henderson of the Sydney Institute.

For both, the path to power, and the exercise of it required innovation, political smarts and sheer tireless persistence. But both operated within heavy constraints imposed on them by the masculine character of their chosen career. These biographies tell us important stories about the past that prompt good questions about the present: in particular, they stand as an implicit challenge to the present-day Liberal Party which, by its own admission, struggles to find and promote female members of parliament.

Annabelle Rankin came from a prosperous middle-class family in Queensland’s coastal Wide Bay region. Her father, a Boer war veteran, was elected to state parliament as a conservative; he then ran a colliery. The elder of two daughters, Annabelle later claimed in a well-worn anecdote that a childhood game had involved imitating her father “being a member of parliament. I would play that I was opening fetes and all that sort of thing and making speeches.”

Rankin attended the all-girls Glennie (Anglican) School in Toowoomba, and her path forward continued via women’s and girls’ associations as state secretary of the Girl Guides and assistant commissioner with the YWCA. But it was the second world war that made her, opening up leadership roles in two women’s paramilitary forces, the Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Australian Women’s Army Service.

Sekuless suggests Rankin’s constant travel and networking within local communities in these roles provided invaluable training for the future senator. Before long, her political potential was recognised and she was encouraged — by a man — to seek Senate preselection with the conservative-leaning Queensland People’s Party, or QPP (which soon merged into the Liberal Party).

In July 1946 Rankin, a thirty-eight-year-old single woman, found herself as one of two women and four men seeking endorsement for two QPP Senate spots. The gender make-up of the interviewing panel is not recorded, but one can assume a predominant male gaze. One of those present, state director Charles Porter, resorted to the language of love to describe the “splendid” impression Rankin made:

She was a strikingly handsome young woman, with a fine lot of auburn hair and she had this ringing clear voice, and she enunciated the principles that she believed in with such a fervour and dedication that was almost a passion…

She also wore her service uniform, which no doubt helped.

After making her speech to the panel, Rankin went home convinced she had lost, walked the dog and went to bed. But she’d won, and within days — a novice and a novelty — she was campaigning around the state. Her first rally, near her hometown at Maryborough, attracted 150, two-thirds of them women, and it was the women who led the cheering as Rankin outlined her political philosophy/strategy.

“I honestly believe,” she told the meeting, “that the need of a woman’s voice in the Senate is vitally necessary.” The audience applauded, and she went on: “For a number of years I have worked with women’s and children’s organisations all over Queensland. I have been honoured and privileged to meet and know so many women and men of our fighting services during my service years during the war years. I worked for those women and men during the war, and I want to go on working to help the woman and the wife during the years of peace.”

Rankin and her handlers carefully fostered her image: within a month, she was being widely described in the press as “our Annabelle,” creating what Sekuless describes as “a cosy familiarity” about her. She also carefully deflected questions about her decision to remain single. (Sekuless suggests there may have been a fiancé, who may have died, but he leaves it unclear.) In any event, Rankin routinely generated a high personal vote; in 1946, at third spot, she recorded twice the vote of the man at number two.

Rankin became the first female opposition whip, but was dumped when Menzies won government in 1949. Reinstated as whip in 1951 and despite tireless service, she was never promoted to the ministry by Menzies. It was Harold Holt who appointed her as the first female minister in 1966 (in the housing portfolio; Enid Lyons had been made a minister in 1949, but without portfolio — a deliberately toothless honorific).

Rankin then suffered the distinction of becoming the first woman dumped from the ministry (in 1971, by Billy McMahon). She quit the Senate in March 1971, reportedly in tears, and accepted as consolation prize another first — as first female head of a diplomatic mission (high commissioner to New Zealand).

The Belfast-born, state school–educated Presbyterian Margaret McCartney had few of Rankin’s social advantages. Night school at Taylor’s College led to accountancy qualifications, a corporate job, and a friendship with young RAAF veteran Stan Guilfoyle. They married in 1952.

Margaret and Stan quickly got involved in local Liberal Party work. Stan’s mother was a member of the Australian Women’s National League — one of the women’s organisations that later merged into the Liberal Party — and she had enrolled Stan as a Liberal while he was still in uniform; he was destined to be elected to the state executive.

Margaret became branch secretary in South Camberwell, set up her own accountancy business and produced three children. With the state’s Liberal Party division requiring fifty–fifty organisational power-sharing between men and women, Margaret steadily acquired influence and leadership in the Victorian Liberal Women’s section, the state executive and the Federal Council.

But these positions didn’t translate easily into parliamentary preselection. When senator Ivy Wedgwood, elected to the Senate for the Liberals in 1950, prepared to step down in 1971, it was Stan she first approached about replacing her; only when he demurred did Margaret come into the frame.

Even so, of the twenty candidates for Wedgwood’s spot, seventeen were men. Guilfoyle was opposed by the premier, Henry Bolte, and by a (male) member of the interview panel who asked her who would look after the children if she were in the Senate. An unimpressed Beryl Beaurepaire, another member of the panel, put the same question to the next (male) candidate. Guilfoyle won.

Guilfoyle became the third female Liberal senator elected from Victoria (after Wedgwood and Marie Breen) and the seventh overall. In opposition during 1975 she was one of the key Liberal senators, along with Reg Withers and Ivor Greenwood, who hung tough in refusing to pass Gough Whitlam’s budget, paving the way for his dismissal. Her reward was a senior position in the incoming Fraser government, becoming the first female member of cabinet as minister for social security (1975–80) and finance (1980–83).

As a young journalist in the press gallery I had the distinct joy of covering both the Senate and the social security portfolio. To visit Guilfoyle’s office was to undertake quite a trek: she occupied room M152, the most remote point on the southwest corner of the old Parliament House, accessed at the end of a long, gloomy, empty, creaking corridor.

The office was diametrically opposite the prime minister’s office in the northeast corner, and this seemed a metaphor for the way the Senate exercised power in those days — with aloof disregard for the hustle and bustle of executive government. There was no mistaking the silent sense of power in the air. Once admitted, I would sit with her private secretary Rod Kemp, who imparted as background a few carefully selected crumbs of news.

Henderson provides the broad context of Guilfoyle’s portfolio battles and crises, informed by interviews with former staffers and departmental officers, and analyses the complex way in which, even as a Fraser loyalist, Guilfoyle’s defence of her social security budget and turf managed to thwart the prime minister’s overall drive for reforms.

These interviews yield the gem that Guilfoyle’s always-assured and measured parliamentary performance was enabled by her “handbag statistics” — a notebook of key portfolio facts maintained by her department. But unfortunately we don’t hear Guilfoyle’s own voice; perhaps because of that same understated style, her Hansard is dull rather than daring.

These easily readable biographies form part of a series of short biographical monographs edited by political scientist Scott Prasser and published by Connor Court. Prasser describes the series as “scholarly rather than academic” — a very fine distinction that seems to mean narrative in form with clear referencing of sources. Fair enough, though a few of the “academic” virtues would not be out of place, such as a critical approach to sources and a more considered acknowledgement of previously published research (for example, Marian Sawer and Marian Simms’s A Woman’s Place: Women and Politics in Australia).

Neither author really probes the institutional obstacles and advantages facing these women. As becomes clear, though, both careers were at least partly subject to the will and whim of the (male) prime ministers of the day. Menzies fully recognised the importance of women for the Liberal Party, as a matter of organisational structure, political philosophy and electoral strategy. But talented women were routinely overlooked in preselections. And as PM he ruthlessly pruned the ministerial careers of colleagues male and female.

Rankin had to wait for her promotion until Menzies had finally gone. Fraser, by contrast, had to repay Guilfoyle’s loyalty in 1975 with portfolio heft in government; it probably helped that she was Victorian in a time when all but one Liberal prime minister had been from the jewel-like state.

Equally, it’s clear — though again, not analysed in either biography — that the political careers of these women depended heavily on the dynamics of the Senate. Fewer elections, longer terms and a less volatile statewide electorate helped to protect incumbents, including women. Once Rankin was in, she stayed in. A similar dynamic was at work in Victoria.

In fact, Guilfoyle’s replacement of Wedgwood was a watershed moment, effectively reserving one Senate spot in Victoria for women. (When Guilfoyle retired in 1987, she was replaced by Kay Patterson; when Patterson retired in 2008, Helen Kroger was elected; but the sixty-three-year line came to an end in 2013 when Kroger, from third spot, lost to Ricky Muir the Motoring Enthusiast — a perfect symbol of the decline of Liberals, and Liberal women, in Victoria.)

But these institutional explanations deny the agency exercised by each of these women in negotiating a narrow path into and through their male-dominated workplace.

After one setback in 1949 — when she was dropped as opposition whip — Rankin sought the comfort of Enid Lyons. Lyons told her that she would be accepted, “so long as you manage to do the work that men do and do it as well, and at the same time don’t antagonise them.” In remarkably similar terms, the newly elected Guilfoyle was advised by husband Stan “not to take on any responsibilities or portfolios that were women’s issues. If she was to make it, she would make it as a person like any man.”

Both women did indeed do “the work that men do”: long hours, late nights and mute persistence in hard slog. Both had a prodigious work ethic. It might have been harder for Rankin, a curio item in the 1940s and 1950s, than for Guilfoyle, who in the 1970s and 1980s was able to become a serious player. Rankin remained unmarried and lacked the personal support of a family; Guilfoyle had to negotiate a more complicated work–family balance.

But who would offer such advice to today’s female MPs? With unprecedented numbers of women in parliament, ten cabinet ministers, and teal and Green crossbenchers galore, the numbers have changed, thanks in part to Labor quotas. The nature of representative political work has changed as well. In today’s politics, does anyone (even a man) need to work “like” a man or “as well as” a man?

As for “antagonising” male politicians, Julia Gillard and others have shown that outing misogynists is a legitimate and valuable part of a female political career. But in an earlier era, it is notable that so many of these Liberal pioneers were rewarded — partly in tacit exchange for not antagonising the men — with the highest imperial honours. Rankin, Guilfoyle, Wedgwood, Lyons were all titled “Dame.” Even Tangney accepted one, though it was against Labor policy. •

Annabelle Rankin
By Peter Sekuless | Connor Court | $19.95 | 134 pages

Margaret Guilfoyle
By Anne Henderson | Connor Court | $19.95 | 84 pages