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Not just good girls in public life

By Marg O'Donnell - posted Friday, 27 March 2009

The announcement in March 2008 that Quentin Bryce, Governor of Queensland, was to be appointed Governor-General of Australia was thrilling news for scores of Queensland women. To have our woman as the first since Federation to hold the highest non-elected position in Australian public life felt like sweet vindication. Those years where Queenslanders felt defensive or apologetic may now end. Queensland can now dress in designer clothes and strut down the national catwalk without even the shadow of a cringe.

Nowhere had the perceived backwardness of Queensland been more obvious than in its treatment of women. They were invisible in the public sphere attained much earlier by women elsewhere. Some impediments were probably mythological, but during the 1970s and 1980s, everyone in Australia knew that if Joh Bjelke-Petersen needed policy advice in relation to women, he turned to his wife Flo. We also knew that Mayor Rex Pilbeam of Rockhampton sacked his female staff when they got married.

Now its public stage is comparatively strewn with women. Although women occupy fewer than half the seats in Parliament, they are there in numbers unimaginable even 20 years ago.


Women were permitted to stand for Parliament in Queensland in 1915, yet until 1989 only eleven had made it through the doors. The first, Irene Longman, a member of the Progressive Nationals, was elected in 1929. Thirty-seven years later, in 1966, the next arrived: Vi Jordan, the ALP Member for Ipswich. For eight years she sat alone, mostly silent. In the election in 1974 she lost her seat, but Vicky Kippin was elected as a National Party member, and Rosemary Kyburz as a Liberal member. By the time Goss lost government in 1996, there were two female Cabinet ministers and two female directors-general of departments.

During this time women, in steadily increasing albeit comparatively minute numbers, filled positions of great importance. Liberal Party activist Sallyanne Atkinson became the first woman Lord Mayor of Brisbane in 1985, a position she held until 1991. Joan Sheldon was elected as the member for Landsborough, north of Brisbane, in 1990, and the following year became the first woman to lead a political party in Queensland and the first female leader of a Liberal Party in Australia. In 1996, she became Treasurer - the first time a woman had filled this position in any state.

Women in public life in Queensland experienced criticism and ridicule that was sharper and more personal than that directed to their male counterparts. They were often said to have abandoned their rightful roles as wives and mothers, were accused of being too noisy, too silent, too dumb, too much of a smarty pants.

Often, women venturing into this male-dominated public world were outrageously and quite cruelly portrayed by cartoonists, journalists and their political opponents, including those within their own parties. A former member of the Canberra Press Gallery said that entering politics was like a female social circumcision - “women had to cut off their most sensitive parts to fit in”.

Queensland women were not only missing in action from the Parliament, but few made it to the Bench or to senior positions in the law. There were some women in the senior executive of the public service, and just one woman Director General of a government department in 1990. The culture strongly rejected women in positions of public responsibility, although there were a few, singular exceptions. From the National Party, Flo Bjelke-Petersen and Yvonne “Call me Mum!” Chapman were careful to maintain a super-housewife/mum image, banging on about making pumpkin scones or carefully constructing a hapless female message.

But look at us now. In 2008, Queensland is the only state with a woman Premier. Anna Bligh, who has led the Labor Party to an election and won, is at centre stage. She was assiduously groomed by her predecessor, Peter Beattie, who ensured she had opportunities to “act” as Premier in his absence, and ensured her amazingly smooth transition to the top role. We hardly noticed the change. This was in stark contrast to Victoria and Western Australia, where 15 years earlier women had been handed the leadership of tired and chaotic governments destined to lose office. Both Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence paid a high personal price for taking on the top job at a difficult time.


Now a third of the Members of the Queensland Parliament are women. Women are no longer confined to token “female” portfolios, but are in charge of some of the most substantial. Queensland Justice Susan Kiefel was appointed to the High Court, only the third woman on that Bench. Queensland has had a woman Chief Magistrate, Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions and currently both the Chief Judge of the District Court and the President of the Court of Appeal are female.

The change is dramatic and has been caused by the happy coincidence of circumstances. People living outside the state during the Bjelke-Petersen days found it hard to imagine life in Queensland for those with ambition and verve, but not of the National caste. Many left, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier Anna Bligh. There was a view, expressed by Rudd on a number of occasions, that the best and brightest departed. There was an implication that those who “chose” to stay were dullards.

During these times, and well into this current century, Queenslanders travelling south for ministerial meetings and conferences experienced the cool breeze of condescension. “You knew as soon as you said you were the Queensland delegate that a small smile would play on their lips, a crack would be made about Joh, and later Pauline Hanson, and they would settle into not regarding your contribution,” said a senior bureaucrat. It didn’t help being a woman. When I took up a senior position in Victoria I was warned by a friend not to wear colourful clothes. “They’ll pick you in an instant,” she explained. “You can tell when those yellow and pink jackets come into the room where those women have come from … Queensland!” Therese Rein, a Queenslander and wife of the Prime Minister, has felt the southern opprobrium of the style police.

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This is an edited version of an article titled "Not just good girls" first published in the Griffith Review, Edition 21: Hidden Queensland.

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About the Author

Marg O'Donnell was director general of three state government departments in Queensland: Aboriginal Affairs, Equity and Fair Trading, and the Arts. She is currently Chair of Legal Aid Queensland, the Griffith University Law School Visiting Communities, and the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. She is Deputy Chair of the Board of the National Breast Cancer Network of Australia, and a member of the Playing Australia Committee. Apart from a two-year stint in Victoria as the state's first Legal Ombudsman, she has lived in Queensland all her life.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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