Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tangney, Dame Dorothy Margaret (1907–1985)

by Carmen Lawrence

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

Dame Dorothy Margaret Tangney (1907-1985), politician, was born on 13 March 1907 at North Perth, third of nine children of Irish-born Eugene Tangney, engine driver, and his wife Ellen, née Shanahan, born in Western Australia. Her father was a staunch unionist and her mother a strong Labor supporter. Dorothy’s early childhood was spent in the south-western mill towns of Marrinup and Holyoake. Aged 8 she moved with her family to Fremantle, where her father was employed at the State Implement and Engineering Works. Even before the Depression the family’s financial circumstances were often strained, especially after her father was severely injured at work.

A bright student, Dorothy attended St Joseph’s Convent School, Fremantle, where she won a secondary scholarship that enabled her to proceed to St Joseph’s College. On one occasion, unable to afford a school uniform, she illegally sold raffle tickets at the Victoria Quay wharf gates to raise the money. At 16 she enrolled part time at the University of Western Australia (BA, 1927; Dip.Ed., 1932), while working as a monitor (student-teacher) at East Fremantle State School to help support her siblings. Temporary assistant at Fremantle Technical and South Terrace schools in 1928, she taught junior certificate students and moved next year to Claremont Central School. She took disadvantaged children on holiday camps and provided assistance to those who appeared in the children’s court.

During the Depression Tangney’s father lost his job; Dorothy witnessed unemployed men begging for food and she was appalled that ‘human beings should be dependent on charity for a mere existence’. In 1929 she was founder and president of the Fremantle Young People’s Ideal Club—an early form of the Western Australian Young Labor League—that organised activities for the children of the unemployed. She was also a foundation member of the Boys’ Employment League, which served as an employment agency. Founder and president of the University Labor Club, she was president of the university’s debating, Red Cross and the Newman societies and was the first woman president (1936) of the Societies Council. Active in the Parents’ and Citizens’ Association, she was the Western Australian vice-president of the central executive.

Tangney unsuccessfully contested the State seat of Nedlands for the Australian Labor Party in 1936 and 1939. She failed in 1940 to gain a seat in the Senate representing Western Australia but, in the Labor landslide of 1943, she was unexpectedly elected to fill a casual vacancy. A single woman and 36 years old, she became Australia’s first woman senator.

A member of the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances (1943-47) and of the Joint Committee on Social Security (1943-46), Tangney was a strong advocate of the use of Federal powers to improve social services and housing. She supported recommendations for increased child endowment and pensions for deserted wives, and for civilian and war widows. A believer in the value of a national health system, she strove to introduce hospital and medical benefits, and pensions for tuberculosis patients and the blind—measures that were subsequently introduced. She was passionate about the role of education in improving opportunities for the poor, was a strong proponent of free university education and was a foundation member (1951-68) of the council of the Australian National University, Canberra. Tangney was the first Australian woman to attend an Empire Parliamentary Association conference, in London in 1948, and to preside over the Senate (intermittently 1962-63 and 1965-68) as the temporary chairman of committees.

Tangney was prominently involved in women’s political organisations, and in the Senate she championed equal pay and equal opportunity for women. Yet, she projected a fairly conventional view of womanhood, describing herself as ‘not a Feminist’. She was strongly anti-communist and opposed to the left wing of the women's movement, as represented by Jessie Street. A good debater, she was renowned for making long speeches. She headed the Western Australian Senate ticket in 1946, 1951, 1955 and 1961, but was defeated in 1967 after changes to the preselection system had transferred authority from branch members to the State executive. Amid rumours about her ill health, she was relegated to the third (‘unwinnable’) position on the Senate ticket. Although campaigning vigorously, she lost her position and retired from parliament in 1968. From 1954 to 1968 she had been a lone female voice in the Labor caucus.

Described in a 1964 newspaper article as ‘jolly, convivial, plump, talkative and intelligent’, Tangney had a fine sense of humour. Despite Labor policy, which opposed Imperial honours, she was appointed DBE in 1968. Dame Dorothy never married. She died on 3 June 1985 at Wembley, Perth, and was buried in the Catholic section of Karrakatta cemetery. Her portrait by A. D. Colquhoun is held at Parliament House, Canberra. The Western Australian Federal seat of Tangney and Dorothy Tangney Place, Canberra, commemorate her.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Sawer and M. Simms, A Woman’s Place (1984)
  • C. Jenkins, No Ordinary Lives (2008)
  • A. Millar and G. Browne (eds), Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol 3 (2010)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 24 Sept 1943, p 30, 13 June 1968, p 1806, 20 Aug 1985, p 18
  • C. Lawrence, ‘Dorothy Tangney Commemoration’, Papers in Labour History, vol 8, 1991, p 60
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 2 Oct 1942, p 12
  • Australian, 25 Aug 1964, p 17
  • West Australian, 4 June 1985, p 9
  • Record (Archdiocese of Perth), 11-17 July 1985, p 10, 18-24 July 1985, p 14
  • D. Tangney papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carmen Lawrence, 'Tangney, Dame Dorothy Margaret (1907–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tangney-dame-dorothy-margaret-14913/text26105, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 July 2016.

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

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