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Counting the beans: Gender and the naming of federal electorates

May 8, 2018 | News

Written by Diane Gibson

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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