Skip to main content

Dame Enid Lyons AD GBE

1897 – 1981

Dame Enid Lyons AD GBE (née Burnell, 1897–1981) was the first woman elected to the Federal House of Representatives. Born near Smithton, Lyons led a somewhat itinerant childhood as her timber-getter father sought work at different sawmills in northwest Tasmania. In her early teens she learnt elocution, and with her mother’s encouragement went to Hobart to train as a teacher. She was 15 when she met Joseph (Joe) Lyons, then a Labour member of the Tasmanian parliament and 18 years her senior. Enid became a Catholic at his request and they married in March 1915, by which time Joseph was serving as Treasurer and Minister for Education. By 1923, when her husband became Premier, Lyons was mother to six children, ably managing to balance her domestic responsibilities with her political activities, including an unsuccessful tilt at parliament in 1925. Joseph Lyons entered Federal politics in 1929; after his 1931 break with Labour, Enid became an active campaigner for the newly formed United Australia Party, later stating that: ‘Together on the platform, Joe and I worked like partners in a game of bridge'. As the Prime Minister’s wife from 1932 to 1939, she maintained what she described as a ‘killing pace’ of official, political and personal duties between Canberra, Melbourne and the family home in Devonport. Her last child – her twelfth – was born in 1933. She returned to Tasmania following Joe’s death in office in 1939, thereafter experiencing a sustained period of grief and depression. However, she was encouraged to return to public life in 1943 when she stood as the UAP candidate for the seat of Darwin (now Braddon) and won. That year, Dorothy Tangney was elected to represent Western Australia in the Senate, making her and Lyons Australia’s first female Federal politicians, 41 years after women had won the right to stand for federal parliament. Lyons’s maiden speech – which was recorded for radio due to public interest in the prospect of a woman in parliament; and in which she addressed issues such as pensions, the declining birth rate, child endowment, a national housing scheme and the basic wage – demonstrated her commonsense approach and the grounding of many of her concerns in her beliefs about the ‘dignity and worth’ of home and family. ‘I hope that no one will imagine that that implies a limitation of my political interests’, she said. ‘Rather, it implies an ever-widening outlook on every problem that faces the world today. For every subject, from high finance to international relations, from social security to the winning of the war, touches very closely the home and the family.’ A strong proponent of issues of particular relevance to women, Lyons was also a capable advocate for her state on such matters as industry and agricultural development. Re-elected twice, each time with an increased majority, in 1949 she was appointed vice-president of the Executive Council, making her the first woman to serve in a Federal cabinet (although she was disappointed not to have been given a portfolio and later said that the position was ‘toothless’). Lyons retired from parliament in 1951 but continued to be involved in political and community activities through organisations including the Australian Women’s National League and the Housewives’ Association. She was a commissioner of the ABC between 1951 and 1962, and during the same period worked as a newspaper columnist and occasional broadcaster. She published three memoirs between 1965 and 1972, and was accorded a state funeral following her death, aged 84, in September 1981.

The portrait is a finely-painted watercolour on ivory miniature, housed in a carved wood frame and glazed. The artist has signed the work with the monogram, ‘JK’. It is unusual, amongst portraits of Dame Enid, in that it shows her dressed in a lace gown rather than in one of the plain black dresses that she usually wore during her years in parliament.

Updated 2018