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Women on top

By Brett Bowden - posted Monday, 30 January 2006

In the past couple of weeks or so Liberia inaugurated Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as its first democratically elected female president, while the people of Chile chose Michelle Bachelet as their first female president elect.

In ascending to the presidency of the oft-troubled West African nation of Liberia, Sirleaf also becomes Africa’s first elected female president. In order to win the job Sirleaf had to overcome popular former world footballer of the year, George Weah, which she did with around 57 per cent of the vote. A bigger hurdle was surviving two stints in prison courtesy of Samuel Doe’s military junta in the 1980s. On becoming president, Sirleaf, a 67-year-old grandmother, told a West African women’s forum: “I am excited by the potential of what I represent - the aspirations and expectations of women in Liberia, African women and women all over the world”.

In becoming Chile’s first female president, and South America’s fifth woman to lead her country, Bachelet also had to overcome considerable obstacles. As a pediatrician and a single mother, she is not an immediately obvious choice for president in one of South America’s most socially conservative countries. But again, a greater obstacle was surviving being kidnapped, tortured and eventually exiled from her homeland thanks to the military regime of Augusto Pinochet. Upon being elected, Bachelet told a crowd of supporters: “Fifty per cent of my Cabinet will be women. We are going to set a standard for Latin America”.


In the United States political pundits are licking their lips over the prospect of a presidential showdown in 2007 between Hilary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. Should such a contest eventuate the victor would be the first woman elected to the presidency. If the victor happened to be Rice she would become the first woman and the first African-American to move into the White House. Although the contest is unlikely to eventuate, the very fact that Americans are talking about a single black woman as a possible presidential candidate is significant in itself.

The prospect of an Australian woman moving into the Lodge other than as the prime minister’s wife or partner would seem to be as remote as ever. How has Australia fallen so far behind when once it was a leader in this domain?

In 1902 Australia became the first nation to nationally grant women the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament in national elections (New Zealand granted women the right to vote in 1893 but no the right to stand). In 1903, for the first time in the British Empire, Australian women were candidates for election to the federal parliament - three for the Senate and one for the House of Representatives. None were successful.

The next country to allow women to stand was Finland, and by 1919 it had elected 19 women to the Eduskanta, the Finnish national parliament. By contrast, in Australia it took nearly 20 years before the first woman was elected to a state parliament. And it was not until 1943 that the first women were elected to our federal parliament when Dorothy Tangney became a senator for Western Australia, and Enid Lyons entered the House of Representatives. The 41-year lag between gaining the right to stand and actually having a woman elected to the federal parliament was the longest in any western country.

In respect to women in political leadership roles, Carmen Lawrence was premier of Western Australia from 1990 to 1993, later becoming the first woman elected by the ALP to its national presidency. Joan Kirner was premier in Victoria for a similar period (1990-1992), while Kate Carnell was chief minister in the ACT (1995-2000), and Clare Martin currently holds the post of chief minister in the Northern Territory. But no women have come close to leading the country.

Women have been elected to lead their countries in virtually every region of the world. They have been elected in Western nations, in Islamic nations, in Asian nations and nations at war. But a woman has not even come close to running for the highest office in Australia, let alone being elected to it.


In 2005 Germany made Angela Merkel its new chancellor. In our own region Gloria Arroyo was sworn in as president of the Philippines in January 2001. Before her, Cory Aquino presided over the country from 1986 to 1992. Megawati Sukarnoputri was president of Indonesian, the largest Muslim nation in the world, from July 2001 to October 2004. She too was the country’s first female president. Australia’s closest neighbour New Zealand has recently re-elected Helen Clark to an unprecedented third term as prime minister. To get the job in 1999 she had to defeat Jenny Shipley, New Zealand’s first female prime minister.

And of course there are other ground-breaking women leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher who ruled the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first female prime minister, led Sri Lanka on three occasions, 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000. She is also the mother of former Sri Lankan president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, serving her third term as prime minister under her own daughter. Indira Gandhi governed India for more than 15 years during two stints as prime minister until she was assassinated in 1984. Benazir Bhutto, another to overcome house arrest, became the first woman to lead an Islamic country, albeit briefly, when she was elected as Pakistan’s prime minister in 1988. Golda Meir was one of the founders of the state of Israel and its fourth prime minister from 1969 to 1974.

Undoubtedly many or all of these women faced far greater obstacles than women should in Australian politics yet they still ascended to the pinnacle of politics in their respective countries.

Meanwhile in Australia we are still waiting for women, or even one woman to get close to being in a position to have the opportunity to contest the top job. The chances of that happening anytime soon - not good. Despite the quotas and the pledges what is it about party politics in Australia that prevents women from rising to the top? It’s long overdue that both major parties addressed this very question.

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About the Author

Brett Bowden is a Professor of History and Politics at Western Sydney University.

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