TANGNEY, Dame Dorothy Margaret (1907–1985)
Senator for Western Australia, 1943–68 (Australian Labor Party)

In 1943 Dorothy Margaret Tangney became the first woman senator and the first Labor woman in either house of the federal Parliament. Tangney was born in North Perth, Western Australia, on 13 March 1907, though either through misinformation or artifice she provided 1911 as the year of her birth. She was the third of seven surviving children of Irish-born Eugene Tangney, timber mill worker and engine driver, and his wife Ellen, née Shanahan. The Shanahans were an Irish family who had established themselves in Bunbury. Ellen’s father, Owen, had assisted in the escape of the Fenian convict John Boyle O’Reilly from a road gang near the town.

Dorothy, or Dot, as she was often called, spent her early childhood years with her family in the Murchison district in the lower north-west of the state, and in the timber mill settlements of Holyoake and Marrinup in the south-west. After her father obtained employment as an engine driver at the State Implement and Engineering Works at Fremantle, Dorothy attended St Joseph’s Convent School, Fremantle, where she won a state secondary scholarship that allowed her to attend St Joseph’s College, both schools run by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition. She passed the leaving certificate at fifteen. The following year she worked as a trainee schoolteacher, combining this with part-time university study, and observing at first hand the effect of malnutrition on the health of the students at Plympton State School in Fremantle. In 1927 she was awarded the degree of Bachelor of Arts by the University of Western Australia, and in 1932 a Diploma of Education. She taught at Claremont Central School, and organised hiking or sight-seeing tours for girls from private and public schools. She also organised children’s holiday and health camps. A member of the Teachers’ Union, she was also vice-president of the state Parents’ and Citizens’ Association. In 1933 she was president of the association’s federal conference in Sydney, and in 1939 Australian delegate to the Pan-Pacific Conference in Wellington, New Zealand. She was a founding member of the Newman Society at UWA in 1924 and its president in 1940. Tangney gave instruction to Catholic children at state schools, and made first communion dresses for girls whose parents could not afford the fabric.

Both Ellen and Dorothy Tangney were fully involved members of the Claremont branch of the Australian Labor Party. By 1939 Dorothy was branch president, having earlier served as delegate to the party’s Metropolitan Council and South-Western Council. In 1929 she was founding president of the Fremantle Young People’s Ideal Club, which became the Western Australian Young Labor League. A member of the League’s A Grade debating team, Tangney was a founder and president of the University Labor Club, and would become a long-serving member of the Western Australian Labor Women’s Organisation Committee and a member of the executive of the Western Australian Labor Party.

In 1936 and 1939 Tangney was a candidate for the blue-ribbon Nationalist seat of Nedlands in the state Legislative Assembly. On both occasions she lost, but in the process formed a lifelong friendship with her Nationalist opponent, the crusty Norbert Keenan. At the federal election of September 1940 she tried, unsuccessfully, for the Senate. For the August 1943 federal election, Tangney was placed fourth on the party ticket for the Senate. This would not normally have gained her a seat, despite her hard campaigning, but circumstances were in her favour. In the landslide victory for the Labor Party, then led by her Western Australian party colleague John Curtin, Tangney secured the casual vacancy resulting from the defeat of Senator Latham, who had been filling the vacancy in place of Senator Johnston. As Johnston would not have been due for re-election until 1946, Tangney was eligible to fill the vacancy until the 1946 election. [1]

It was an historic occasion when Tangney took her place in the Senate on 23 September 1943, conducted to her seat in the Senate by Labor’s venerable Senator Collings. Her parents looked on, having travelled with her on the long train journey from Western Australia, though the poll had not been declared when the family left Perth. Her brother Kevin, serving with the AIF in New Guinea, wrote, ‘All the boys are having a party to celebrate your victory’. Tangney brought to the Parliament a much-needed touch of femininity, tossing a hand-embroidered cloth over her desk and decorating the office with flowers and pictures of flowers. In an eloquent and confident first speech, in which she endorsed her party’s proposed expansion of social services within the framework of postwar reconstruction, Tangney moved the Address-in-Reply, during which she said:

I … realize my great honour in being the first woman to be elected to the Senate. But it is not as a woman that I have been elected to this chamber. It is as a citizen of the Commonwealth; and I take my place here with the full privileges and rights of all honourable senators, and, what is still more important, with the full responsibilities which such a high office entails.

From the very beginning, Tangney energetically represented the concerns of her whole electorate, but within that she made the needs of women a high priority. Although she did not align herself formally with radical feminist organisations, both she and the United Australia Party’s Dame Enid Lyons, elected to the House of Representatives in the same year that Tangney entered the Senate, actively promoted the needs and interests of women, and provided vital conduits for women who approached them, either singly or in organised groups, to raise their concerns. In 1946 Tangney chaired a government committee dealing with equal nationality rights for women. Enid Lyons was on the committee, as were members of the National Council of Women and the Country Women’s Association. The men on the committee came from government departments, then unrepresented by women. The committee’s 1946 report recommended that an Australian delegation to a forthcoming ‘nationalities’ conference in London should move to have the United Nations adopt the principle that a woman be free to determine her own nationality, regardless of marriage. In an astute political statement in 1953, Tangney admitted that while divorce was against her religious convictions, as it was on the statute books, ‘no man or woman should be at a disadvantage in matrimonial matters simply because of geographical difficulties’.[2]

An anti-communist, and influenced by her social and sectarian background, and doubtless by her conservative constituency, Tangney took particular exception to the goals and methods of the Australian Women’s Charter movement headed by the distinguished feminist Jessie Street. In July 1949 Tangney accused the charter movement of being ‘Communist-inspired’; she had made similar comments during a debate on the Supply Bill in 1948. On another occasion, she made what has been described as a ‘veiled attack’ on Street, at a meeting of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.[3]

Tangney had a deep feeling for the well-being of the individual. Throughout her time in the Senate she absorbed new information, much of which emanated from her own experiences as she moved among the poorer families of Perth, and she modified her priorities according to what she had discovered. Her concern for deserted Australian wives of US servicemen, for instance, strengthened when she was ‘amazed by the number of Australian–American marriages that have foundered’. She said in 1943:’In Perth, eight or nine girls came to see me and others telephoned me … They had seen little of their husbands. One girl had known hers for only three days. Some had babies and were without maintenance of any sort from their husbands.’ Her work on behalf of these women was eventually recognised by the United States State Department, which sponsored her visit to the USA in 1963.

Tangney’s well-structured speeches were laced with anecdotal support for her arguments, and a warm humanity. She opposed the Menzies Government’s 1953 reduction in sales tax on furs and jewellery, items that hard-pressed housewives, she said, could only read about in magazines. She would like to have seen every housewife with furs or jewellery since women on the lower rung of the social ladder, whose income went entirely to meet the cost of food and clothing for their children, were denied personal indulgences of any kind. As an example, she gave the cost of having children’s shoes half-soled. She denounced inadequate pay and working conditions for nurses and spoke of the difficulties faced by women as war widows, civilian widows (whose circumstances often went unnoticed), unmarried women, wives of invalid pensioners, wives with unemployed or unemployable husbands, and as carers of parents. She highlighted the great hardships endured by women in remote parts of rural Australia and in particular by deserted wives whose problems increased when husbands moved out of reach of the law of their home state. Tangney was concerned with the poor quality of food provided at hostels for young women working in Canberra. She addressed the special needs of handicapped children and the fact that the mentally ill were often treated as criminals. From October 1943 until August 1946 she was a member of the Joint Committee on Social Security. On the Opposition benches after 1949 she consistently lobbied the Liberal–Country Party governments for increased funding for social services. During the second reading debate on the 1960 Social Services Bill, she moved, unsuccessfully, that the bill be redrafted to provide, among other social service benefits, increases for dependent wives of invalids and old-age pensioners, and in child endowment. Tangney saw social security as ‘a sacred duty of this Parliament’ that must be kept ‘inviolate’.[4]

In 1943 she saw Labor’s task as twofold—‘the winning of the war and the winning of the peace’, recalling what had occurred after World War I when ‘instead of Australia being made fit for heroes to live in it became a land for paupers to die in’. Hence her lifelong support of social security measures. In her October 1943 budget speech she said she was disappointed at not finding any reference in the budget to funding for Aboriginals, arguing that this should become a Commonwealth responsibility and referring to the deplorable conditions under which Aboriginal people suffered in Western Australia. During 1953 and 1954 (with Members of the House of Representatives, Kim Beazley senior and John Nelson) she was co-opted by the ALP’s Federal Executive to select policy points for the ALP platform from a conference report on Aboriginal welfare.

Education policy was a preoccupation throughout Tangney’s political career. In 1943 she noted that universities were ‘floundering’ in financial difficulties and pointed out that the ‘Government subsidizes the production of wheat, pigs and almost everything under the sun’. She asked, ‘Why should it not subsidize brains?’ During the same year she suggested that the time had come for education to cease being a ‘Cinderella’, reliant almost solely on state funding. She was against increases in broadcasting licences because of the disadvantage to mothers in the bush, who used radio as an aid to correspondence lessons. Tangney wholeheartedly supported the establishment of the Australian National University in 1946 as an institute for research, and the incorporation in 1960 of its undergraduate arm. She was a founding member of the ANU Council, serving from 1951 until 1968. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, Tangney considered Canberra the proper place for a national university, and hoped ‘a true spirit of Australianism and intellectualism’ would prevail. By 1966 she was concerned that too much emphasis was given to the funding of tertiary education at the expense of the primary and secondary levels. In Perth, she was an honorary life associate of the University of Western Australia and a member of the university’s Standing Committee of Convocation. Committed to Commonwealth support of health services, she showed bemused impatience with a delegation from the British Medical Association who descended upon her while she was in hospital in 1948 to dissuade her from supporting the nationalisation of medicine as had occurred in Britain.[5]

Tangney maintained interests in international affairs and defence and was disappointed that no Australian woman had been selected as a member of the inaugural United Nations conference in 1945. For some fifteen years she lobbied Government ministers for the establishment of a naval base at Cockburn Sound. Mining, whaling, shipping and hydroelectricity, whatever was of benefit to the development and defence of the West had her cheerful support. She saw South-East Asia as the real ‘menace’ to security, and dreaded the prospect of another world war. Speaking in the debate on the National Service Bill in 1951 she crystallised the question of a fair mode of selecting young men for the draft by referring to a recent conversation:

Last week I visited a friend who has a family of boys. They came in after school to get some bread and jam. After they had gone … she said to me, ‘I wonder what I am rearing them for? In three years time Dick will be eighteen [and eligible for National Service]’ … that question was typical of many questions that are going through mothers’ minds at present. They are wondering whether their sons will be plunged into a third world war.

In August 1966 she gave a moving speech, opposing Australian participation in the Vietnam War and the conscription of troops for that conflict. Referring to the fact that she had ‘two sisters who are war widows, a sister-in-law who is a war widow and a brother who is still on the 100 per cent pension’, she continued:

I do not want to see the youth of this generation and the next going through a period similar to the terrible period that we of our generation have seen and those before us have seen … The whole trouble is that we in Australia cannot get at the truth of the matter concerning Vietnam … I do pray that the Government will not continue to conscript national servicemen for this service overseas.[6]

In 1944 Tangney had served for one year on the Federal Executive of the ALP, and in 1954, with the support of the leader of the left-wing faction and MHR for East Sydney, E. J. Ward, won a place on the executive of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party from the right-wing MHR for Perth, T. P. Burke, winning again in 1956. Between 1949 and 1961 she headed the Western Australian Labor team for the Senate. In 1967, following changes to preselection procedures in the Western Australian party, and despite her immense popularity in the electorate, she was dropped to the ‘unwinnable’ third place. Some in the party, particularly the powerful F. E. (‘Joe’) Chamberlain, would have regarded Tangney as too right-wing, an impression reinforced by her later acceptance of an imperial honour.

At the November 1967 Senate election, she fought hard but was defeated. A few weeks earlier, she had moved the adjournment of the Senate on the Government’s failure to honour its international obligations by taking steps towards achieving equal pay for equal work. On 12 June 1968 she spoke for the last time about deserted wives, and the following day remarked in her farewell speech to the Senate that unlike ‘most of the other senators who are retiring, I am not doing so voluntarily’. Appointed a DBE on 8 June, she had served for nearly twenty-five years.[7]

Poor health could have been a reason for her preselection loss; she had suffered from a serious kidney condition for some years, though she had a shown a great facility for rising above adversity. On 27 November 1957, when the Labor Opposition and the Australian Democratic Labor Party senators in the Senate defeated the Menzies Government’s banking legislation, Tangney, with Senators Critchley and Arnold, all unwell, had stoically turned up for the crucial division in the Senate. The Opposition Whip in the House of Representatives, Gil Duthie, sent ‘Senator Dot’ a telegram: ‘Proud of your vital cooperation in helping defeat governments vicious banking legislation in spite your illness. You are a real political Texas Ranger God bless.’[8]

The ‘Texas Ranger’, who had been, in 1948, the first Australian woman to attend the Empire Parliamentary Association conference in London, the only female delegate at an inter-parliamentary conference in Belgrade in 1963, and the first to preside over the Senate as a temporary chairman of committees (1962–63, 1965), died on 3 June 1985, celebrated as the ‘champion of the underdog’. She had remained active in community causes, continuing to live at her Claremont home until moving to a nursing home in 1978. Tangney had not married, though it seems a sweetheart had died on active service with the RAN in 1941. She remained very close to her family and enjoyed the company of a wide circle of friends. At her death, tributes came from the Prime Minister, Western Australian R. J. Hawke, and the Leader of the Government in the Senate, John Button, who described Tangney’s sense of humour and wit. Newspaper tributes also came from former pupils who remembered her more than forty years later. She was commemorated by the Western Australian electoral division named in her honour in 1972, by a postage stamp in 1993 and, in 1999, by Dorothy Tangney Place in the parliamentary triangle in Canberra. A portrait by A. D. Colquhoun hangs in the Members’ Hall, Parliament House.

Tangney was a woman of generous spirit, and her friendships, such as the one she enjoyed with the Country Party’s Sir Walter Cooper, transcended party politics. She was also tough and a canny political operator, as she had to be at a time when very few women were given the opportunity to pursue parliamentary careers, especially in the ALP. Paul Hasluck, who described Tangney as having ‘a quick eye for the main chance and a great capacity for being busy and friendly without burdening herself with commitments’, acknowledged that she ‘showed great political shrewdness’ in maintaining a winning place in Labor’s Senate team for over twenty years.[9]

Margot Kerley

[1] Woman (Syd.), 9 Sept. 1940, p. 4; Connie Hooker, Unpublished biographical notes, Dame Dorothy Tangney Papers, MS 7564, series 8, folder 12, NLA; Bulletin (Syd.), 24 Mar. 1962, p. 10; Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, A Woman’s Place: Women and Politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1993, pp. 119–22; Pix (Syd.), 2 Oct. 1973, p. 5; WA (Perth), 6 June 1985, p. 60; Senate, Journals, 23 Sept. 1943, p. 3.

[2] Australian Women’s Weekly (Syd.), 2 Oct. 1943, pp. 12–13; Ann Millar, Trust the Women: Women in the Federal Parliament, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 1994, p. 54; CPD, 24 Sept. 1943, pp. 30–4; CT, 26 Sept. 1964, p. 24; CPP, 72/1946; CPD, 7 Oct. 1953, p. 401.

[3] WA (Perth), 8 July 1949, p. 12 ; CPD, 18 June 1948, pp. 2332–3; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, pp. 220–1;

[4] SMH, 6 Dec. 1943, p. 7; CPD, 17 Sept. 1953, p. 135, 8 Mar. 1945, p. 456–7,  28 Nov. 1946, p. 709, 21 June 1945, pp. 3401–2, 23 June 1949, pp. 1395–6, 15 May 1947, p. 2435-9, 25 Nov. 1959, pp. 1834–5, 28 Sept. 1945, pp. 6113, 13 Oct. 1955, pp. 501-10, 22 Sept. 1960, pp. 636–7, 674, 8 Mar. 1945, p. 455.

[5] Text of a 1943 radio script, Tangney Papers, MS 7564, series 3, folder 2, NLA; CPD, 24 Sept. 1943, p. 32, 14 Oct. 1943, pp. 550–1, Patrick Weller and Beverley Lloyd (eds), Federal Executive Minutes 1915–1955, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1978, pp. 547, 569; SMH, 25 Aug. 1943, p. 9; CPD, 27 Nov. 1951, p. 2735, 24 July 1946, pp. 2945–9, 6 Apr. 1960, pp. 500–4; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Sigrid McCausland, University Archivist, ANU Archives; CPD, 31 Aug. 1966, p. 239, 18 June 1948, p. 2330.

[6] Newspaper cutting, ‘W.A. Senator Wants Women as Delegates’, Tangney Papers, MS 7564, series 4, folder 6, NLA; CPD, 23 Aug. 1967, p. 189, 21 Oct. 1959, pp. 1112–13, 17 May 1967, pp. 1628–9, 28 Sept. 1945, p. 6115, 29 Feb. 1956, pp. 216–7, 221, 6 July 1949, pp. 2019–21, 6 May 1958, p. 804, 8 Mar. 1951, p. 124, 31 Aug. 1966, pp. 240–1.

[7] Weller and Lloyd, Federal Executive Minutes 1915–1955, p. 248; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1984, p. 160; SMH, 4 Aug. 1954, p. 3, 15 Feb. 1956, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 15 Dec. 1967, p. 1; CPD, 18 Oct. 1967, pp. 1342–4, 12 June 1968, pp. 1725–30, 13 June 1968, p. 1810–11.

[8] Sawer and Simms, A Woman’s Place, p. 79; Sun (Syd.), 28 Nov. 1957, p. 11; Telegram, Gil Duthie, to Tangney, Tangney Papers, MS 7564, series 8, folder 12, NLA.

[9] WA (Perth), 4 June 1985, p. 9; Sunday Independent (Perth), 9 July 1978, p. 2; CPD, 20 Aug. 1985 (R), pp. 6–7, 20 Aug. 1985, pp. 18–21; WA (Perth), 6 June 1985, p. 60; Paul Hasluck, The Chance of Politics, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 36–7.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 457-463.

TANGNEY, Dame Dorothy Margaret (1907–1985)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Western Australia, 1943–68

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Social Security, 1943–46

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1943–47

Printing Committee, 1943–47, 1956–59

Library Committee, 1943–50, 1951–54, 1956–64

House Committee, 1950–51, 1962

Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, 1954–55

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1959–61, 1964–66

Standing Orders Committee, 1967–68