Celebrating a centenary of women in local government

2019 is an important year for women in Australian politics, especially local government.

December 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the first woman elected to any tier of Government when Susan Grace Benny was elected to Brighton Council in South Australia.

Local Government led the way in women’s representation. It was another two years before the first woman was elected to a State Parliament when Edith Cowen was elected in Western Australia in 1921. But it was not until 1943 when the first women were elected to Federal Parliament – Edith Lyons (later Dame) to the House of Representatives and Dorothy Tangney (later Dame) to the Senate.

The number of women elected to local government before the Second World War was low – just a handful in each State. Numbers increased slowly in the following decades and in 1951 the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (ALGWA) was formed.

By the 1960s fewer than 2% of councillors were women. In 1967 the figures were: NSW 66 (2 Mayors); Victoria 31 (3 Mayors); Qld 22 (1 Mayor); SA 16 (2 Mayors); WA 17 (no Mayors); Tasmania 9 (no Mayors). This was before amalgamations, so there were many more councillors/Aldermen than today.

It is pleasing that we now have the highest percentage of women councillors in Australian history, but we still have a long way to go. Just over one-third, or 34.94% of Australian councillors are women.

Tasmania has overtaken Victoria with the highest percentage of women councillors elected at a general municipal election with 39.9%. Victoria is second with 38.1%, followed by WA with 36.21% and South Australia moves from last to fourth spot with 35.4%, followed by the NT 33% and QLD 32.5%. NSW is now the only State below 30% female representation with 29.5%.

“I look forward to the first State breaking 40%, but it is vital our largest State NSW overcomes 30% so we can continue on our goal of equal representation in local government to better serve our communities,” says Coral Ross, National President of the Australian Local Government Women’s Association, and Deputy Chair of the Australian Gender Equity Council.