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Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel (1897–1981)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Dame Enid Muriel Lyons (1897-1981), politician, was, according to her birth certificate, born on 9 July 1897 at Duck River (Smithton), Tasmania, second of four children of William Burnell, sawyer, and his wife Eliza, née Taggett.  Anne Henderson has raised the possibility that her real father may have been Aloysius Joyce, son of a wealthy landowner in the Burnie district.  During her childhood William transferred from Lee’s Mill to Glance Creek Mill and the family moved to Stowport.  Enid and her two sisters walked two miles (3.2 km) each day to the local school, where Enid revealed an early dramatic talent in the school concert.  Her parents were a strangely assorted pair:  her mother, of Cornish Wesleyan stock, was sober, industrious and teetotal, her father 'a scoffer and a blasphemer' with a strong taste for alcohol.  He was something of a 'swashbuckler', Enid recalled, on whom 'the yoke of matrimony rode uneasily'.  There were long separations as her father pursued work around the timber mills.  Later they moved to Cooee and Eliza opened a store and a post office.  Enid attended the Burnie State School.

Ambitious for her children, Mrs Burnell had Enid taught elocution and encouraged her to perform whenever she had an audience.  She urged her two elder daughters to continue their education at the Training College in Hobart and, visiting them there, took them to State parliament where the plump, fresh-faced, blue-eyed, 15-year-old Enid met Joseph Aloysius Lyons, Labor member for the State seat of Wilmot.  In 1914 Joe Lyons became State treasurer and minister for education and Enid Burnell was posted to Burnie State School as a junior teacher.  A decorous correspondence between the minister and the young teacher led to a proposal of marriage.  Enid, an active member of the Methodist Church, acquiesced to Lyons’s request that she receive instruction in the Catholic faith from Fr T. J. O’Donnell, parish priest at Stanley, and she was received into the Catholic Church on 25 March 1915.  They were married on 28 April at Wynyard; Joe was 35 and Enid 17

Although the mother of six children by 1922, Enid played a leading part in Tasmanian election campaigns, talking politics, especially to women, in terms of 'pots and pans and children’s shoes'.  Joe Lyons became premier in 1923 and in the 1925 election Enid herself stood for the seat of Denison, losing by only sixty votes.  She had conducted her campaign amid a whooping cough epidemic, which had attacked five of her children.  Then her ten-month-old baby died of pneumonia.

After Lyons moved to the House of Representatives in 1929, as member for the Federal seat of Wilmot, Enid remained closely involved in his political career, albeit often at a distance as his work took him to Canberra and Melbourne and occasionally to their much-loved Home Hill at Devonport, Tasmania.  She strongly advocated his break with the Australian Labor Party in 1931 and his subsequent involvement with the embryonic United Australia Party.  While there was an element of ambition in her eagerness to encourage the move, she also felt a genuine concern about what she saw as a lack of probity in Labor’s handling of the Depression-induced national financial crisis.  Although pregnant, she joined the team that carried the UAP’s message around the nation, prompting a complaint from (Sir) Robert Menzies that she was stealing the limelight.  At each city Enid addressed the main meeting as well as supplementary women’s meetings.  'Together on the platform, Joe and I worked like partners in a game of bridge', she later recalled.

When (Sir) John Latham offered to step aside as leader of the Opposition in Lyons’s favour, it was Enid who urged Joe to accept, despite his reluctance.  On his becoming prime minister in January 1932 his first act was to write to her 'because whatever honours or distinctions come are ours not mine'.  Having moved with him to the Lodge, Canberra, she lived life at 'a killing pace', much of her time devoted to touring the country and making an average of three speeches per week:  once she made ten in twelve hours.  Her politics were pragmatic and undogmatic; for her, party allegiance was chiefly the means of achieving equity, security and justice.  She later declared that she made the same speeches after the break with Labor as before.

Having given birth to her twelfth and last child in 1933, Enid Lyons battled recurrent ill health as she continued to support her husband.  She accompanied him on an official visit to England in 1935 and another in 1937 when she was appointed GBE.  She later wrote scornfully of the snobbery and superficiality of London society.  At the Lodge she lived frugally, entertaining rarely and serving her large family simple, wholesome meals.  She herself was seen by a reporter as 'wholesome' in 'a comfortable brown-flecked tweed suit, sensible, cosy'.  Unlike his predecessors, who shielded their families from publicity, Lyons skilfully exploited through press photographs the image of the devoted mother and the happy brood.

Despite the demands of domesticity Dame Enid remained politically active.  In 1938 she gave speech after speech on the subject of peace, always stressing however the need to prepare for war.  Throughout her life she remained a staunch defender of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy—indeed she later claimed that her encouragement in September 1938 prompted his appeal to Mussolini that resulted in the Munich agreement.  Her continuing personal identification with her husband’s political career was evident a few weeks later in her angry and unshakeable conviction that a speech on leadership given by Menzies on 24 October was a treacherous attack on the prime minister.  Significantly, she referred to their shared decision early the following year that Lyons should soon retire as 'our resignation'.

In later life Enid Lyons deprecated the prevalent view that when Lyons was prime minister it was his astute and ambitious wife who made the decisions.  With some justification she pointed out that raising eleven children, her husband often absent, provided little opportunity for political discussion.  But if she was not active in day-to-day politics, the enduring intimacy of their relationship ensured that at the critical moments of Lyons’s career he drew on her self-confidence, shrewdness and determination.

When Joe Lyons died on 7 April 1939, Enid, exhausted and grief-stricken, plunged into a depression that only fully lifted when a daughter, noting that their Federal local member was retiring, persuaded her to stand for the House of Representatives.  She recognised that an element in her low spirits had been that she was no longer 'in the thick of things'.  On 21 August 1943 Dame Enid Lyons was elected member for the Tasmanian seat of Darwin (Braddon).  She was the first female member of the House of Representatives; Dorothy Tangney was elected to the Senate at the same time.

In her maiden speech on 29 September 1943 Enid spoke on social security, the declining birth rate, the need for an extension of child endowment, housing, the family, and the importance of looking ahead to postwar policies.  Her metaphors were homely but her speech was thoughtful and substantial, compassionate and visionary.  The response, from politicians, the press and the public, was overwhelming.  'In that place of endless speaking . . . no one had ever made men weep. Apparently I had done so, without desire or intention.'  While part of the response was to the significance of the moment and the novelty of a female member of parliament, it was also a tribute to her oratorical skills.

Over the following years Enid Lyons spoke in the House on many subjects of particular relevance to women:  pensions and benefits, housing, clothing, baby foods, child endowment, domestic economy, maternity services, discrimination against married women in the workforce, the plight of housewives, service women’s pay, widows’ pensions and the nationality of married women.  But she resisted being confined to women’s issues:  in her maiden speech she had observed that a woman in the public sphere must 'justify herself not as a woman, but as a citizen'.  She was a capable representative of her State, participating in debate on matters such as the aluminium industry, air and shipping services to the island, and agricultural development.  She also spoke on a variety of national issues including atomic energy, finance, population, industry, arbitration, social services, immigration and international affairs.

Her voice was light and cultured:  the dramatic and elocutionary talents she had cultivated as a child stood her in good stead.  'I’m a bit of a rabble-rouser you know', she later confided.  Menzies confessed that she could move him to tears over the condition of a railway track.  Sir George Pearce found her too emotional but observed that his wife was a great admirer of her speech making.  Her male colleagues treated her gallantly:  Menzies called her 'remarkable and talented and beautiful'; old W. M. Hughes saw her as a bird of paradise among the carrion crows.  But there was also widespread respect for her integrity and diligence.  In her first term she could take some credit for the extension of child endowment, free medical treatment for pensioners and free distribution of life-saving drugs.

Re-elected with increasing majorities in 1946 and 1949, Dame Enid was sworn in as vice-president of the executive council in December 1949, thus becoming the first woman member of a Federal cabinet.  Although it was a significant honour she was disappointed, having hoped for a portfolio.  She later complained that it was 'a toothless position', doubting that Menzies wanted her in cabinet at all:  'they only wanted me to pour the tea'.  Suffering from a thyroid problem, a persistent cancer on her nose, and long-endured pain from a pelvic fracture sustained during the birth of her first child, she struggled to cope with the demands imposed on a minister and local member.  She resigned from cabinet on 7 March 1951 and did not contest the next election.  On her retirement she was granted freedom of the town of Devonport.

After successful treatment of her medical conditions, Dame Enid went on to another twenty years of useful public service.  Throughout her career she had been actively associated with the Australian Women’s National League, the Victoria League, the Housewives Association and St Joan’s Social and Political Alliance.  In 1951-62 she was a commissioner of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, becoming a close friend and confidante of the successive chairmen Sir Richard Boyer and Sir James Darling.  She was made an honorary fellow (1951) of the Australian College of Nursing and founding vice-president (1954) of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.  Author of three memoirs, So We Take Comfort (1965), The Old Haggis (1969) and Among the Carrion Crows (1972), she also wrote (1951-54) a twice-weekly press column and gave frequent broadcasts, eliciting a large response from readers and listeners throughout Australia.  She reflected often on 'the incubus of her sex' that impeded a woman’s career, but did not like to be called a feminist.  On many moral issues her views, guided as always by her Catholic faith, were conservative:  she disapproved of early sex education, deplored homosexuality and promiscuity, opposed divorce, and in 1973 came out fighting against abortion.

On Australia Day 1980 Dame Enid Lyons was appointed AD.  She died on 2 September 1981 at Ulverstone, Tasmania, and, after a state funeral, was buried at the Mersey Vale lawn cemetery, Devonport, beside her husband.  Six daughters and five sons survived her; Kevin was deputy premier (1969-72) of Tasmania.  Her much loved home was acquired by the City of Devonport and its contents by the National Trust of Australia (Tasmania).

Enid Lyons had inherited from her mother a high sense of duty, self-discipline, rectitude, industriousness and ambition.  But she had also retained a sympathy for some of her father’s more buccaneering characteristics:  his light-heartedness, his humour, his colourful vernacular speech and his gift for anecdote.  In her own political career she drew on both these heritages, that of her father giving her warmth, approachability and a common touch, despite her almost regal presence.  At her death, colleagues praised her intelligence, courage, compassion, humour, vivacity and charm.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC, 1983
  • D. Langmore, Prime Ministers' Wives, 1992
  • A. Henderson, Enid Lyons, 2008
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 8 September 1981, p 971
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 8 September 1981, p 485
  • Australian Woman's World, 1 June 1931, p 9
  • People (Sydney), 6 October 1954, p 7
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 6 July 1977, p 39
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 14 July 1982, p 10
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 February 1980, p 9
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 September 1981, p 11
  • M. Pratt, interview with E. Lyons (ts, 1972, National Library of Australia)
  • E. Lyons papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel (1897–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lyons-dame-enid-muriel-14392/text25465, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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