Counting the beans: Gender and the naming of federal electorates

in Commentary , Tagged gender equality, Electorates, Naming conventions, Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean.
  • Diane Gibson

    Diane Gibson

    Diane Gibson, Ba (Hons) PhD FASSA GAICD, is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Canberra. She has held senior appointments in both the university and public service sectors. Her strong interest in the policy/research interface has characterised her work across the sectors of health, ageing, gender and social policy. Professor Gibson is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Chair of the Academy’s Policy and Advocacy Committee.


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Few could have predicted the public response to the proposal to name the new ACT federal House of Representatives seat after official war historian and Australian War Memorial founder, Charles Bean. While the grounds for the objections varied, many called for the new seat to be named after a woman, or to recognise the Indigenous history of the area.  

The Australian Electoral Commission guidelines state that in the main, divisions should be named after deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding services to their country. As it stands, only 15 federal electorates are named after women - and 92 after men. Today on BroadAgenda, Professor Diane Gibson argues that is it about time that we take a good look at who we memorialise, and start recognising the achievements and contributions of women to our society.    


Equal pay for equal work? We might still have a pay gap but we know it is important. Equal representation in parliament, on boards and in the leadership of our public sector and private sector companies? That’s important too. Getting more women into the Australia Day Honours roll. Ditto! But we also need to turn our attention to what we recognise and memorialise – in this case the naming of electorates.

Are we ready to seize the day? Apparently not

The creation of a new Federal electoral division in the ACT was an opportunity to recognise the achievements of a woman – and take a small step to celebrate women’s contribution to Australian society. Are we ready to seize the day? Apparently not. The Redistribution Committee has recommended the new division be named after Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, a war correspondent and historian, who amongst other achievements was a key advocate for the creation of the Australian War Memorial.

CEW Bean with files

C.E.W. Bean working on official files in his Victoria Barracks office during the writing of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Australian War Memorial image

I don’t criticise Bean’s credentials, but they do stem from work on a topic - war and the military - that was, and to a large extent continues to be a male domain. Not to mention one that strictly limited the leadership opportunities for women in the past, an issue that has not been adequately resolved to date. 

But surely by 2018 we should recognise the achievements and the importance of women to Australian society – whether dead or alive, white or women of colour

Almost two thirds of electorates are named after dead white men and another quarter after geographical areas. This is part of our history and our tradition, and reflects decisions made since 1901. But surely by 2018 we should re-evaluate the naming patterns, and recognise the achievements and the importance of women to Australian society – whether dead or alive, white or women of colour.

ACT electorates

 And yet, only 10% of our electorates memorialise women and their contribution to society.  Or 12% if we include electorates named after married couples such as Lyons, named for Prime Minister Joseph Lyons and Dame Enid Lyons, or Hasluck, named for former Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck “and his wife”.

ACT electorates since 1981

Perhaps you are thinking that is the historical pattern, but things must be improving?

The picture since 1981 is indeed more positive. Of the 46 electorates named since then, 12 were named for women and 28 for men. In fact 1984 was a bumper year, with 10 electorates named in recognition of women of achievement.

But recently, the prospect has been much less rosy. Since 1991 two women and 15 men. And since the turn of the millennium, only one woman and 12 men. At that rate, getting better is going to take some time.

It is true that the naming of electorates is only one small way in which we as Australians memorialise what is important to us. And yes, there are other ways to recognise the importance of women. But electorates are part of our political process, politics is about power in society, and feminism has always been concerned with power and politics.

What a society chooses to memorialise is important. As indeed is what it chooses to forget. Electorates that show a historical predisposition to naming conventions that favour men are one thing – perpetuating that particular historical perspective is quite another.

Explorers, premiers, governors, prime ministers, politicians, lawyers and engineers all contribute to society. But they are also historically male dominated spheres of activity.

Julia Gillard will presumably eventually make the grade – when she is dead, and after waiting in line behind Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd

Of course, the naming guidelines prioritise deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding service, and make particular mention of former Prime Ministers. Julia Gillard will presumably eventually make the grade – when she is dead, and after waiting in line behind Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd. And given women’s greater life expectancy, possibly Tony Abbott and Malcom Turnbull as well.

Unconscious bias anyone?

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  • Van Ibay 11/05/2018 3:41pm (23 months ago)

    I concur that naming electorates should be equally recognizing the great contributions of Australian women to the county. It is not just to draw up the numbers but to understand that Australia is shaped built and shaped under the principle of equality. Names of great men and women of Australia will remind us of our identity as a Nation.

  • Lynne Redman 09/05/2018 10:11pm (23 months ago)

    In agreement with this, it is if Australia only progressed because of white males and that is not the case. I have no objection to significant men being recognised but they have had a fair go, Charles Bean was a an historian of note but he had his prejudices in his comments about John Monash. Looking at the graphs it is totally unrepresentative and as the Chinese people say women hold up 50% of the sky and in most countries it is more than that. So it is time for a change.

  • Danny boy 09/05/2018 7:43am (23 months ago)

    What an amazing read. All credit to Prof Gibson. This needs to be changed!

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