Review for the Women’s Electoral Lobby

April 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Electing Women into the ‘Bear Pit’

This review below, of an academic paper about women in the New South Wales Parliament, was written for the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) NSW State Election special edition newsletter. I saw Deb Brennan present this paper at the Australian Political Science Association Conference in 2006. Her research was so entertaining that I remembered it years later when WEL asked me to contribute a short piece. 

The New South Wales parliament, Australia’s oldest, is sometimes referred to as ‘the bear pit’. Our so-called pit of democracy gets its less-than-complimentary nickname from a renowned masculine and adversarial political culture.

Professor Deborah Brennan explores this phenomenon for women. She describes the pit of NSW politics as one of “rough tactics, no holds barred style of debate, and occasional outbreak[s] of fisticuffs.”

Women in the Bear Pit (2006) was written as a conference paper, a precursor to Brennan and Chappell’s No Fit Place for Women? Women in NSW Politics, 1856-2006, of the same year. It examines the 83 women who entered the NSW parliament until 2005, and the “experiences, aspirations and priorities they have brought to parliament,” by considering their backgrounds and inaugural speeches. The premise of this approach is that inaugural speeches have “special significance for an MP and her supporters.” However, new members are generally discouraged from controversial topics or fire branding. The women of NSW parliament have not always followed this advice.

Brennan’s paper is filled with pithy quotes and anecdotes from women of the House. She begins with Millicent Preston-Stanley, the first woman to enter parliament in 1925, and a member of the then Nationalist party, precursor to the modern day Liberals. Stanley had been a campaigner on issues like maternal mortality, and President of the Feminist Club in her party. She began her speech with an attack on men in the Chamber who “consider… Parliament is no fit place for women… if it is so it is the most serious indictment which can be lodged against men.” Hansard shows that men interjected frequently during the first woman MPs speech.

In the Bear Pit also explores the changing issues and representations of women MPs over time. The presence of racism in politics is highlighted by the late entry of non-Anglo women to the NSW parliament. Brennan highlights these intersectionalities that are important to later MPs such as Linda Burney, elected in 2003 as the first indigenous person in the NSW parliament. Burney described herself in her inaugural speech as “a member of the mighty Wiradjuri Aboriginal nation” as well as a loyal member of the Astralian Labor Party and a proud representative of the Canterbury community.

Brennan builds on her fascinating narrative with analytic insight as well. She tabulates the backgrounds and professions of the women Members and the issues of import in their speeches. She notes the professionalisation of politics and the changing work roles of women, as more and more female MPs have professional or political staffing careers. This is spread across both sides of politics, though she notes that the ALP is more often accused of it in the media.

In the Bear Pit makes a fascinating pre-election read, and essential background for Ben Raue’s analysis of gender in the upcoming state election.

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