Woman Tangney, Dorothy Margaret
Written by Gwen Allsopp, Australian National University
Australia's first woman Senator, Dorothy Tangney, was born in Perth in 1907, the third child in a large working class family. Her mother, Ellen, was a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and her father, Eugene, was a staunch unionist whose employment was interrupted by work injury and the depression. The family struggled financially but Tangney was a gifted, hard-working student winning a government scholarship that enabled her to complete secondary school. She then studied part-time at the University of Western Australia while working as a monitor teacher. Her political sensibilities were formed by witnessing the deprivations that her own family and others endured during the depression.
Unusually for the time Tangney set her sights on a political career from an early age, joining the ALP at 17 and quickly becoming an active and involved member. By sheer hard work, persistence and determination Tangney forged her path to political success. While working full time as a teacher, she involved herself in many areas of the ALP, from attending conferences as a delegate of both the Claremont branch and the University Labor Club to participation in debating competitions for the Young Labor League. She fought two State elections as a candidate in an unwinnable seat in 1936 and 1939 and, having gained campaign experience, she then sought pre-selection for the Senate. On her second attempt, coming in on a casual vacancy in a landslide to the ALP, she became the first woman elected to the Senate.
In her maiden speech Tangney emphasized her belief in women as equal partners in Australian society and stressed the importance of encouraging equal opportunity for all Australians. She then spent the following 25 years promoting this ideal, especially for women who were penalized across a wide range of issues such as 'citizenship rights and duties', equal pay and in matters relating to divorce and child custody (The West Australian, 9 June 1949). Women throughout Australia found that they had a champion who fought for deserted wives, for women to retain their Australian nationality after marriage, for equitable pensions for civilian widows and for equal pay for equal work.
While Tangney maintained that throughout her career she had been treated as an equal by her fellow parliamentarians (The West Australian, 22 August 1953) she was never promoted to the front bench. As a well-educated, articulate and hard-working woman she may have been seen as a threat to many of her fellow senators. She worked hard on behalf of her constituents, the wider community and within the parliament - at one stage she was on 23 committees and chairman of 13 of them (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 1968). In the Senate she did not confine herself to 'women's issues', rather she spoke on a broad range of concerns and developed a reputation as a woman of integrity who sought to assist those in need.
At the beginning of her career she acknowledged the unsung work of the previous generation of Labor women (Westralian Worker, 24 December 1936) and at the end of her career when, in opposition to ALP policy, she accepted the Order of Dame of the British Empire she did so as a tribute to all Labor women. While refusing the title of feminist, Tangney promoted and valued the roles of women across all spheres of Australian society and she sought to empower women to achieve equality in the political sphere.
National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection
- Jenkins, Cathy, No Ordinary Lives: Pioneering Women in Australian Politics, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, Victoria, 2008. Details
- Watson, Dr. Judyth, We Hold Up Half the Sky, Australian Labour Party (WA Branch), Perth, Western Australia, 1994. Details
- Shelton Smith, Adele, Women Members Make Their Bows to Canberra, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 2 October 1943, 12 pp. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46937048. Details
- 'Mr. Chifley Meets Women to Discuss Rights', The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia), 9 June 1949. Details
- 'Senator Looks Back on Ten Years in House', The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia), 22 August 1953. Details
- Wall, Judith, 'Australia's First Woman Senator: Dorothy Tangney', BAHons thesis, Claremont Teacher’s College, 1962. Details
- 'Tangney, Dorothy Margaret (1911 - 1985)', The Australian Women's Register, National Foundation for Australian Women, http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE0243b.htm. Details
- 'Dorothy Tangney', in Australian Women’s History Forum incorporating Women's History Month, Australian Women’s History Forum (AWHF), http://www.womenshistory.com.au/person.asp?pID=167. Details