Dame Dorothy Tangney DBE

Dame Dorothy Tangney DBE was the first Australian woman Senator, elected in Western Australia in 1943.

Honour Roll

Dorothy was the daughter of an engine driver and one of a family of nine. She was born on 13 March 1911 in Perth. Her father was badly injured when she was young so the family grew up in poverty. Dorothy won a State scholarship which enabled her to go through secondary school. After matriculating at fifteen, she managed to attend university on the monitor system whereby school teaching is combined with part-time study.

Her first job was in industrial Fremantle where she saw children living in poverty and suffering malnutrition. She soon founded the first Young Labor League in Fremantle which also served as an employment agency. Dorothy also founded the University Labor Club and was president of the Debating Society at the University. Among all this she found time to graduate with a BA and a DipEd and continued school teaching.

In the State elections of 1936 and 1939 she contested the university seat of Nedlands and won a place on the Senate ticket in 1940 and 1943. She was placed fourth on the 1943 Senate ticket. None of the ALP candidates had been elected in the 1940 election, but one of the landslides characteristic of the Senate system before the introduction of proportional representation brought her unexpectedly into parliament in 1943. She became the first Australian woman senator.

Her popularity meant that she was placed number one on the ALP WA Senate ticket in 1946, 1951, 1955 and 1961. She was the first woman to lead a Senate team for one of the major parties. In parliament Dorothy argued for the extension of federal powers to provide social security, housing, education at all levels and a national health scheme. Accordingly, she felt that the Labor party should not be a party of low taxation. She opposed preference for returned service personnel, stressing the rights of all people to work.

She became a member of the Joint Committee on Social Security set up by the Labor government in 1943. This committee achieved increased child endowment, hospital and medical benefits and TB and blind pensions. Dorothy saw this as her greatest achievement in parliament. Despite the fact that she never married she always endorsed the primacy of the maternal role for women.

In 1967, the preselection system for the Senate team was changed and Dorothy was relegated on the ticket. She had been critically ill with kidney problems and political damage had occurred. She was unsuccessful in the elections and, despite a recount, she found herself unceremoniously bundled out of politics. She died on 1 June 1985. An electorate in Western Australia is named in her honour.