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The women of New South Wales gained the right to vote in 1902; however, it was not until 1918 that they were permitted to sit in the Parliament. It took another seven years for a woman to be elected. After one unsuccessful attempt in 1922, Millicent Preston-Stanley, the Nationalist party candidate, was elected to the Legislative Assembly by the people of the electorate of Eastern Suburbs in 1925. The first woman to enter the masculine domain of the New South Wales Parliament, Preston-Stanley was a realist with regard to the immediate impact she would have:

I'm not fool enough to suppose my going into the House is going to make any sweeping alteration. The heavens won't fall because a woman's skirts rustle on the sacred benches, so long the sacrosanct seats of the lords of creation. [1]

Understanding the limits to her power, Preston-Stanley nevertheless demanded that women who made it into parliament make the most of their opportunities to force issues that were neglected by men:

I do not expect to be exalted into the Ministry, but I will say this, that any woman who gets into Parliament and does not make up her mind to control the Department of Health so far as it concerns the women and children of the State does not properly conceive her responsibilities, powers or duties. [2]

Since Millicent Preston-Stanley's successful attempt, just over eighty women have rustled their skirts on the sacred benches, with nearly forty of them doing so now. [3] Some of them were 'first in their field'. Helen Sham-Ho, (MLC 1988-2003) was the first Chinese-born parliamentarian in Australia. Janice Crosio, who served on the executive of all three levels of government, was the first woman New South Wales Government Cabinet Member. In 2003, Linda Burney became the first Aboriginal person elected to the NSW Parliament when she won the seat of Canterbury.

However, for every successful woman there have been roughly nine whose efforts were unrewarded. Take Malinda Ivey, for example. Well known in Sydney women's organisations in the 1930s and 1940s, Malinda Ivey stood for election unsuccessfully more times than any other woman in the history of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Her nine attempts to seek election were a testament to her persistence and civic-mindedness. Even women who went on to become party leaders experienced early hurdles. For example, Kerry Chikarovski, leader of the NSW Liberal Party 1999-2002, failed at her first tilt at parliament in 1981. There are women who were, quite possibly, ahead of their time when they stood for parliament. It is hard to imagine a candidate of the stature and quality of Roberta Galagher receiving anything but safe passage through to parliament in 2006, yet she stood as the Liberal Party candidate for the Legislative Assembly electorate of King four times in the 1940s and 50s and was unsuccessful each time.

This project pays tribute to the women candidates for election to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, although the tribute comes with a twist. Because 'to the victors go the spoils' is more than a cliche, the stories of the 'losers', the 'almost successful' actors in history rarely get told. In order to subvert this truism, this project also focuses on women like Malinda Ivey and Roberta Galagher, the women who tried but failed.

The challenges associated with research for this project were significant. By virtue of their success, sitting candidates leave a record trail; their stories are relatively easy to come by and, mostly, the stories of their success are recent history. (38 of the 83 successful candidates are serving now).

Many of the stories of unsuccessful candidates are no less interesting, but they are much harder to trace. Drawing upon a range of archival and web-based sources, the project team have managed to track down over seven hundred names, and write biographical notes for over half that number. These notes reveal the depth of diversity amongst the candidates' aims and interests as well as their level of commitment and civic-mindedness. More often than not, the decision to enter politics was a logical extension to a long-term involvement in community organisations and issues. Having family members in parliament, working for members of parliament, being active in local government, being active in party structures and having a passionate commitment to a cause seem to be the major factors that influenced a woman's decision to run for election.

The Australian Women's Archives Project is pleased to present this special exhibition on women candidates for New South Wales Parliament. We congratulate all the women who sat and are inspired by their efforts.

  1. Cited in E.F. Smith, Millicent Preston-Stanley: A Feminist in Politics, BA (Hons) Thesis, The University of Sydney, 1977.     Return to text  
  2. Parliamentary scrapbook, Candidates who offered themselves at the General Election on 25th March 1922, NSW Parliamentary Archives     Return to text  
  3. See the website of the Parliament of New South Wales [accessed 2006-04-11]     Return to text