Amazing Australians: Enid Lyons

Dame Enid Muriel Lyons AD, GBE (née Burnell; 9 July 1897 – 2 September 1981) was an Australian politician who was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. Prior to her own political career, she was best known as the wife of Joseph Lyons, who was Prime Minister of Australia (1932–1939) and Premier of Tasmania (1923–1928).

Lyons was born in Smithton, Tasmania. She grew up in various small towns in northern Tasmania, and trained as a schoolteacher. At the age of 17, she married politician Joseph Lyons, who was almost 18 years her senior. They would have twelve children together, all but one of whom lived to adulthood. As her husband’s career progressed, Lyons began assisting him in campaigning and developed a reputation as a talented public speaker. In 1925, she became one of the first two women to stand for the Labor Party at a Tasmanian state election. She followed her husband into the new United Australia Party (UAP) following the Labor split of 1931.

After her husband became prime minister in 1932, Lyons began living at The Lodge in Canberra. She was one of the best-known prime minister’s wives, writing newspaper articles, making radio broadcasts, and giving open-air speeches. Her husband’s sudden death in office in 1939 came as a great shock, and she withdrew from public life for a time. At the 1943 federal election, Lyons successfully stood for the UAP in the Division of Darwin. She and Senator (Dame) Dorothy Tangney became the first two women elected to federal parliament. Lyons joined the new Liberal Party in 1945, and served as Vice-President of the Executive Council in the Menzies Government from 1949 to 1951 – the first woman in cabinet. She retired from parliament after three terms, but remained involved in public life as a board member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1951–1962) and as a social commentator.

Early life

Lyons was born Enid Muriel Burnell in Smithton, Tasmania, one of three daughters of William and Eliza Burnell (née Taggett). She was educated at the Burnie State School, and later went on to the Teacher’s Training College, Hobart, to train as a school teacher. Her mother was an activist in Labor and community groups in Tasmania, and was one of the first women appointed as a Justice of the Peace in Tasmania.

Politician’s wife

Eliza Burnell introduced her 15-year-old daughter to Joseph Lyons, a rising Tasmanian Labor politician. On 28 April 1915, the two married at Wynyard, Tasmania; she was 17 and Lyons was 35. Enid had been brought up a Methodist but became, at Lyons’ request, a Roman Catholic. They would have twelve children, one of whom died in infancy.

In 1931 Joseph Lyons left the Labor Party and joined the United Australia Party (UAP), becoming prime minister at the subsequent election. Enid Lyons was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in the Coronation Honours of 1937. Joseph Lyons died in 1939, aged 59, the first Australian prime minister to die in office, and Dame Enid returned to Tasmania. She bitterly resented Joseph Lyons’s successor as leader of the UAP, Robert Menzies, who had, she believed, betrayed her husband by resigning from the cabinet shortly before Joseph’s death.

Politician

At the 1943 election Dame Enid Lyons narrowly won the Division of Darwin in north-western Tasmania for the UAP, becoming the first woman in the House of Representatives. Her Labor opponent, who received more primary votes than she did, was the future Tasmanian Premier Eric Reece. At the same election, Dorothy Tangney was elected as a Labor Senator for Western Australia, the nation’s first woman Senator. In 1945 the UAP became the Liberal Party of Australia.

On 23 August 1944, Lyons was one of four speakers in a debate on population which became the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s “largest controversy during the war years” Lyons devoted a chapter to this Australian Broadcasting Corporation debate in her 1972 autobiography, calling it ‘one of the most disturbing experiences I was to know as a member of parliament’. Her fellow debaters were Norman Haire, Jessie Street and the economist Colin Clark.

By the time she was elected to parliament in her own right, there was very little left of her Labor ties. Her speeches in parliament generally espoused traditional views on the family and other social issues. In 1949 the Liberals came to power under Menzies’ leadership. The frosty personal relations between Menzies and Dame Enid thawed slightly when Menzies gave her the role of Vice-President of the Executive Council. This was a largely honorary post which gave her a seat in cabinet but no departmental duties. Nevertheless, her health declined under the strain of regular travel between Canberra and Tasmania, and she retired from parliament prior to the 1951 election.

Later life and legacy

In retirement, Dame Enid’s health recovered. She was a newspaper columnist (1951–54), a commissioner of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1951–62), and remained active in public life promoting family and women’s issues. She published three volumes of memoirs, which embarrassed the Liberal Party by reviving her complaints about Menzies’ 1939 behaviour towards her husband.

Lyons was made a Dame of the Order of Australia (AD) on Australia Day 1980, the second woman to receive this honour after Alexandra Hasluck. She was the first Australian woman to receive damehoods in different orders. She died the following year and was accorded a state funeral in Devonport, Tasmania, before being buried next to her husband at Mersey Vale Memorial Park.

Jo Gullett in his autobiography discussed his fellow members of parliament and concluded that, “with hindsight, perhaps the wisest and most far-sighted of them all was a woman, Dame Enid Lyons.”

She had all the qualities of a successful member, for she was not only a clear, lucid and logical speaker but she also had an instinctive sympathy, and a wonderful sense of fun. She had beautiful manners and gave everyone the impression that she was happy to see them when she greeted them. Perhaps she really was glad to see them too, and that is the reason why when she rose to speak she usually made her points to a smiling and appreciative House. … Not only was she a very good parliamentarian but she had thoughts about the role of Parliament and government far ahead of her time. I remember her saying, “I don’t think we should automatically and formally differ with the government on everything they do. This attitude of confrontation is all wrong, whether in government or opposition. There are so many things in which we already do agree, and lots more on which we could both afford to modify our extreme views or attitudes. … We shall never deal with the real problems if we continue to waste so much time arguing over minor points of difference. Remember too that all this arguing confuses people. If we, who are their political leaders, can’t agree on national principles, how can we expect the people to know what is of national importance and what is not.

An informal political faction of the Liberal/National opposition parties called the Lyons Forum was formed in 1992. The group’s name alluded to Lyons’ maiden speech to the House of Representatives. The faction was considered to be defunct in 2004.

Children

Enid and Joseph Lyons sitting on the lawn outside The Lodge with their surviving 11 children

Lyons first fell pregnant a few months after her marriage, but miscarried just after her 18th birthday. She suffered a second miscarriage the following year, and in her memoirs recounted having to watch on as a nurse threw the remains of the foetus into a bedside fireplace. She was told by doctors that she would never be able to have children, but in fact went on to give birth to twelve – the first born when she was 19 and the last born when she was 36. Her subsequent pregnancies went relatively smoothly, with the except of a third miscarriage in 1926; she had to carry the dead foetus for three months before it could be removed. All but one of her children survived to adulthood, and all those who did out-lived her. Her son Garnet, born in 1924, died from meningitis at the age of 10 months. Another son, Barry, was born with achondroplasia.

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