Dame Enid Lyons: Maiden Speech
Dame Enid Lyons reads her maiden speech, originally presented in the House of Representatives in Canberra on 29 September 1943.
Summary Maryanne Doyle
While it is possible to access Hansard records, newspaper reports and photos of the day, to actually hear the voice of Dame Enid Lyons brings to life the person as well as an important event in Australian political history.
In her biography of Lyons, Anne Henderson argues that she effectively used her domestic experience and abilty to speak plainly to great success in political debate throughout her career. For example, listen to her choice of words on the topic of housing: 'We want good walls and strong foundations; we want good fittings, but we don’t want something that will cost more than is necessary.’
According to newspaper reports of the period there was a great deal of public interest in her first appearance in Parliament. This interest probably led to the decision to record her reading the speech for broadcast on radio. There are a few slight differences in wording between the text of the official Hansard record and this recording. The sense of the significance of this event is suggested by the slight tremble in Lyons’s voice when she says, ‘This is the first occasion upon which a woman has addressed this House’.
During the speech, Lyons refers to recently seeing a film dealing with the European conflict, which included a scene of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Contemporary newspaper reports refer to screenings of American army films including Divide and Conquer (1943), which features a segment that bears a close resemblance to the footage Lyons describes.
Dame Enid Lyons: Maiden Speech synopsis
Dame Enid Lyons reads her maiden speech in this sound recording for radio broadcast. Lyons was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in Australia’s federal parliament.
Dame Enid Lyons was sworn into office in the House of Representatives on 23 September 1943, in the 17th Australian federal parliament. On 29 September she presented her maiden speech. By the time Dame Enid became a parliamentarian at the age of 46, she had already experienced a rich and eventful life. Like Dorothy Tangney, who entered this session of parliament as the first woman senator, Lyons had trained as a schoolteacher. Tasmanian born, she married Joseph Lyons, a Labor politician, in 1913 and had 12 children.
Joseph Lyons became leader of the United Australia Party in 1931 and prime minister in 1932. In 1936 Enid was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. Joseph Lyons died in 1939, whilst still in office as prime minister. Dame Enid was convinced by her daughter to run for office in May 1943 (see Enid Lyons: Leading Lady to a Nation by Anne Henderson, 2008, Pluto Press). After a vigorous campaign in which Lyons travelled extensively and spoke on the radio whenever she could, she narrowly won the election for the UAP in the division of Darwin, in north-western Tasmania.
Lyons begins her speech acknowledging the historic nature of the occasion. She has a responsibility to all the women of the Commonwealth to perform well so as not to prejudice their chances of a potential parliamentary career. She also addresses the fears that some parliamentarians may have about the election of women. Lyons links the domestic concerns of the housewife with the major issues of the day. She quotes King George V who said that ‘the foundation of a nation’s greatness is in the homes of its people’. This statement became the motto for the Lyons Forum, an organisation named after Joseph and Enid Lyons and set up by conservative politicians in the 1990s to 'initiate and monitor legislation with respect to its influence and effect on the family unit’.
Similar to Tangney’s maiden speech, Lyons only mentions the war briefly and concentrates on issues of welfare such as pensions and the child endowment scheme. In looking toward a postwar Australia she proposes training schemes for returned servicemen and training in domestic science for those women who are currently working in the services or munitions factories. She explains that she has always been a supporter of peace but that the war has led her to recognise the need to arm to defend the nation. Hansard transcripts record that, at the conclusion of her speech, Prime Minister John Curtin rose to make a few comments in recognition of this being the first time a woman had stood as an equal in the House of Representatives.
In 1949 Lyons became the first woman to be appointed to the federal Cabinet. In 1951 due to ill health she retired from office. She remained in public life as a popular columnist for the Melbourne Sun newspaper and Woman’s Day magazine, and was appointed as a commissioner for the ABC. Lyons wrote two memoirs about her career – So We Take Comfort (1965) and Among the Carrion Crows (1977). She died in 1981 and was accorded a state funeral in Devonport, Tasmania. The Lyons electorate in Tasmania was named after Joseph Lyons and Dame Enid Lyons, and the Lyons family home in Devonport ('Home Hill’) is now a house museum.
Dame Enid Lyons delivered her speech on 29 September 1943 in the House of Representatives of the then Parliament House in Canberra. This building is now called ‘Old Parliament House’ and houses the Australian Museum of Democracy. Australian parliamentary broadcasts did not begin until July 1946 after an allocation of ₤10,000 to equip the Senate and the House of Representatives with technical equipment and facilities.
This recording is not of the original delivery of the maiden speech but a reading recorded later by Lyons for the ABC. The recording on one side only over two discs has 'Process Recording by Columbia Graphophone’ labels. Ross Laird writes in Sound Beginnings: The Early Record Industry in Australia (1999, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills) that, from 1928, this Sydney company provided a service for clients to record a range of performances including speeches, political and religious messages. The disc labels are marked with numbers that denote that the client was the ABC and they also include the handwritten date of 29 September 1942 (note the incorrect year). This recording has survived because it was recorded onto a transcription disc to facilitate distribution to radio stations.
Radio was an important medium during the Second World War for a public hungry for news of the conflict. Other recordings of wartime broadcasts surviving in the NFSA include speeches by John Curtin and Robert Menzies.
Notes by Maryanne Doyle