Throughout its history, Labor has been a progressive force for women, establishing many of the reforms and initiatives that continue to drive gender equality to this day.
1940s: Party member and close-run candidate for the federal seat of Wentworth, Jessie Street, is part of the Labor Government’s delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945 – one of only eight delegations that included women. Alongside these women, Jessie Street was instrumental in ensuring the UN charter recognised the rights of women, and in the establishment of a permanent UN Commission on the Status of Women, separate from the Human Rights Commission. Street went on to be the Commission’s first Vice President.
On 21 August, 1943, Labor Senator for WA, Dorothy Tangney, becomes the first woman elected to the Australian Senate, going on to serve for 25 years. Tangney promoted equal pay and opportunity, endowments for abandoned women and war widows, education for all, medical pensions and benefits for disabled Australians as well as free tertiary education.
1970s: Whitlam appoints Elizabeth Reid, the world’s first adviser on women’s issues to a head of government. This also leads to the establishment of the Office for Women.
The Whitlam Government introduces no fault divorce, introduces the supporting mothers’ benefit (now called parenting payment) to support single mothers, passes the Family Law Act 1975, removes the tax from the contraceptive pill, and supports the decision leading to women’s equal pay for work of equal value. The Whitlam Government also appoints the first of Australia’s women Ambassadors (Dame Annabelle Rankin as High Commissioner to New Zealand in 1971, and Ruth Dobson, as Ambassador to Denmark in 1974).
1980s: Hawke Government releases the world’s first Women’s Budget Statement. The Women’s Budget Statement receives international acclaim and is the pioneer of gender responsive budgeting around the world.
The Hawke Government establishes the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act, which comes into effect on 1 August 1984, and also sets up the Affirmative Action Agency, which will go on to become the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
On 11 February 1986, Labor’s Joan Child becomes Australia’s first female Speaker of the House of Representatives.
1990s: The ALP introduces quotas for women in winnable federal parliamentary seats.
2000s/2010s: Rudd Government introduces Commonwealth Paid Parental Leave.
The Rudd-Gillard Government work with states and territories to agree the first National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. The Labor Government sets up key organisations to support this: 1800RESPECT, Our Watch and ANROWS.
Labor establishes an Ambassador for Women and Girls in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Julia Gillard is the first woman Prime Minister.
2022: For the first time in Australian history, a majority woman government is elected federally.
In its first six months, the Albanese Government centres gender equality as a key economic issue at the Jobs and Skills Summit, expands paid parental leave, increases funding for childcare, makes gender equality an object of the Fair Work Act, introduced paid family and domestic violence leave, funds and legislates implementation of all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report, finalises the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children (supported by $1.7b in funding) and begins the reintroduction of Gender Responsive Budgeting. The Government also establishes a Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce and begins work on a National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality.
2023: In the first sitting week of 2023, Labor introduces legislation to publish gender pay gaps for businesses employing 100 people or more.
Australian Labor: Leading the way for representation of women
In addition to leading the major policy changes that have propelled gender equality in Australia, the ALP also leads in the representation of women in parliament. Following the 2022 election, the Australian Labor Party in the 47th Parliament is 52 per cent women (54 of 103 total caucus members).
This is not by accident.
On 26 September 1994, the ALP made the historic decision to introduce quotas for women at the 1994 National Conference. The changes meant the ALP aimed to achieve 35 per cent of women ALP MPs by 2002. This decision prescribed that 35 per cent of candidates preselected for winnable federal parliamentary seats must be women – whether the ALP was in government or in opposition – by 2002.
In 2012 this was replaced by a 40:40:20 quota.