Woman Wright, Penelope Lesley

Environmentalist, Lawyer and Parliamentarian
Alternative Names
  • Wright, Penny

Written by Judy Lambert (edited from blogs prepared by Jane Elix), Australian National University

Penny Wright was born in Red Cliffs, in country Victoria in 1961. The sixth of seven children, she grew up in a family in which compassion and the value of other people were important. When Penny was seven her father's work took the family to Melbourne, where she completed all of her education at public schools, her final year at a girls selective school. It was there that she was encouraged by the ethos that 'girls can achieve anything' and in a climate of striving for excellence she became 'comfortable with being a high achiever'.

From a traditional rural family, Penny became politicised by the involvement of her older siblings in anti-Vietnam activism and support for Aboriginal land rights. Her brothers and sisters also introduced her to environmental thinking and while at university Penny took part in the Franklin River blockade. As a law student, the decision to participate and thus to risk arrest required careful consideration, but Penny felt sure it was the right decision. Penny completed her BA LLB at Melbourne University and some years later, in Adelaide she also completed a graduate diploma in environmental studies.

After work in various parts of Victoria and some overseas travel, Penny and her partner Mark settled in Adelaide in 1990. Over the years, they have both been active in a wide range of social justice and environmental causes, including the formation of Adelaide's Environmental Law Community Advisory Service, of which Penny was honorary coordinator from 1990 to 1992. Committed to spending time with her children while they were growing up, she was involved in a number of environmental and social justice issues and in the late 1990s she became an Australian Conservation Foundation councillor.

Until Mark became a member of the Upper House in the South Australian parliament, Penny and Mark shared their family responsibilities, with Penny taking on paid work with the Residential Tenancies Tribunal, becoming a Guardianship Board member, and working on the Social Security Appeals Tribunal. She has been involved in The Greens in South Australia since the party's inception, and as her concerns about changes to refugee law and increases in CEO salaries in the corporate sector grew, she sought pre-selection for the Senate. Elected in 2010 she took up her position as a Senator on 1 July 2011.

Penny says she learned her leadership 'on the job', but learned the importance of listening, valuing what people are saying and taking them with you' through her tribunal work. She has found it valuable to work with other women, feeling that in general, women are better at relationships and that female leaders are more likely to have that understanding. Although she has never had a particular role model, she values the encouragement given to her by people she trusts and likes. Women such as Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former Victoria Premier Joan Kirner and Australian Greens leader Christine Milne are people whose courage, commitment and tenacity she admires.

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