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Breaking Through: trailblazing women in federal parliament

 Bec Selleck
Kathy Lette, Margaret Reid AO and Susan Ryan AO at the launch of the Breaking Through: 75 years of women in parliament exhibtion. Photo by: Bec Selleck
A major milestone of Australian political history was showcased through a series of connected activities to highlight the historic and current challenges facing women in politics.

We celebrated the 75th anniversary of Senator Dorothy Tangney and Enid Lyons MP becoming the first women to enter federal parliament by presenting an exhibition on 11 women who were each responsible for a ‘first’ in Australian parliamentary democracy. The installation was complemented by a specially designed guided tour and website, and the information on offer was designed to engage a broad range of audiences.

The exhibition, titled Breaking Through: celebrating 75 years of women in federal parliament, featured Dorothy Tangney, Enid Lyons, Annabelle Rankin, Margaret Guilfoyle, Joan Child, Susan Ryan, Margaret Reid, Janine Haines, Julia Gillard, Nova Peris and Linda Burney.

The installation started in King’s Hall and continued through the corridors on the Senate side of the building, prompting visitors to consider the achievements and hardships faced by the 11 trailblazing women in federal politics. It included original artworks by TAFE NSW students who had been asked to create portraits of the women that portrayed their individuality and strength.

In partnership with the Canberra Writers Festival, the museum invited feminist author Kathy Lette to launch Breaking Through. Addressing a crowd of visitors and media in King’s Hall, she observed that, during a time when society should be celebrating the great achievements of pioneering women in politics, women are once again ‘getting concussion hitting our heads on the glass ceiling’.

Also as part of the festival, the museum hosted a panel event about women’s representation in parliament, titled ‘A woman’s place … is in the House’, featuring Anne Aly, Margaret Reid, Rosemary Follett and Susan Ryan and moderated by ABC journalist Emma Alberici. This discussion focused on the role of women in national leadership.

The website designed to support Breaking Through is sponsored by the Office for Women. It shares articles and other information on notable women’s ‘firsts’ in parliament, and provides the opportunity to find out more about the remarkable women showcased in the exhibition.

The museum’s special mystery tour, Daring Dames, focused on Enid Lyons, Dorothy Tangney and many other professional women who worked in Old Parliament House in the mid-twentieth century. The tour ran for 10 days and highlighted how the arrival of women changed the federal parliament forever.

Breaking Through and the associated suite of activities gave us the opportunity to communicate with a diverse audience, reflecting on the challenges that women in parliament have overcome and the barriers that remain.