Gender equality milestones for Australian women

International Women’s Year


The United Nations coins International Women’s Year, and announces the period from 1976-1985 will be the United Nations Decade for Women.

In Australia, the Whitlam government spends more than $3.3 million over two years on projects and activities to celebrate International Women’s Year.

First World Conference on Women

To coincide with International Women’s Year, the United Nations convenes its First World Conference on Women in Mexico City.

Elizabeth Reid, who became the first adviser on women’s affairs to a head of state when appointed by the Whitlam government in 1973, leads the Australian delegation.

A total of 133 nations are represented at the conference, where a decade-long World Plan of Action is developed for the implementation of policies to advance the rights of women around the world.

Whitlam government introduces no-fault divorce

June 21, 1975

The Whitlam government makes major changes to marriage law in passing the Family Law Act at the end of 1975.

This legislation creates a “no-fault divorce” doctrine, meaning marriage breakdowns can be dealt with more privately, cheaply and without assigning blame to either party.

Prior to the reform, a divorce could only be obtained if one party proved the other was at fault.

Women and Politics conference held in Canberra

September, 1975

One of the ways Australia involves itself in International Women’s Year activities is to host the first Women and Politics conference in Canberra.

During the conference, women’s rights are identified as a political issue and the federal government provides funding to further the cause.

First sex discrimination legislation comes into effect

December 4, 1975

South Australia is the first state to pass sex discrimination legislation, enacting the Sex Discrimination Act at the end of 1975.

The act protects people against sex or marital status discrimination (including de facto relationships) in employment and education, and protects people against being victimised for complaining about discrimination.

Margaret Guilfoyle becomes first woman cabinet minister

November 12, 1975

In 1975, then-senator Margaret Guilfoyle (now Dame Margaret Guilfoyle) becomes the first woman to be given a federal cabinet portfolio – that of education minister.

Her parliamentary career spanned 16 years and included the positions of social security minister and finance minister, the latter of which made her the first woman to hold an economic portfolio.

First Reclaim the Night rally


The first Australian Reclaim the Night rally takes place, with protesters marching to speak out against the violence experienced by women who walked alone at night.

The event has since become an annual tradition in Australia and around the world, with marches taking place on the last Friday in October.

The range of concerns encompassed by the event has broadened to include all forms of sexual violence, and issues of particular concern to protesters at the time.

Second World Conference on Women

July 14, 1980

The Second World Conference on Women takes place in Copenhagen, with 145 nations represented.

Delegates review the Action Plan and determine that progress had been made, but specific action is required in the areas of employment, healthcare and education.

Anzac Day arrests

April 25, 1981

Police arrest 65 women in Canberra during a protest condemning rape in war.

Only days beforehand, ACT chief minister Michael Hodgman had moved to make it an offence to engage in conduct that was likely to give or cause offence to people participating in the Anzac Day parade.

Future G-G plans changes for women’s council

September, 1982

The National Times, September 5 - 11, 1982PHOTO: This article on a young Quentin Bryce, by Helen Thomas, appeared in the September 5 – 11 edition of the National Times, 1982. (Supplied)

A 39-year-old Queensland lawyer and academic named Quentin Bryce, who would later become our governor-general, is appointed as the convenor of the National Women’s Advisory Council.

This article published in the National Times following her appointment described her as “Brisbane’s best dresser” and a “superwoman”.

But she rejected these labels.

Radical or conservative? I don’t think I’m really either, and it’s probably part of being a 35-year-old mother of five… Woman are tagged with superwoman images when really they’re just exhausted. And they don’t talk about it – there really isn’t enough plain speaking about it all, about how hard it is.
— Quentin Bryce

Australia signs convention to end discrimination against women

August 17, 1983

Australia signs the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), described by the United Nations as the “first international treaty to address the fundamental rights of women in politics, health care, education, economics, employment, law, property and marriage and family relations”.

Since signing the convention, Australia has created legislation designed to give effect to it, including the Sex Discrimination Act.

Federal Sex Discrimination Act comes into force

August 1, 1984

The Sex Discrimination Act comes into force across Australia.

The legislation grew out of a private member’s bill developed by the then-minister assisting the prime minister on the status of women, Susan Ryan.

It makes gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment illegal and establishes the country’s first sex discrimination commissioner, Pamela O’Neill.

Since its introduction, the act has proven to be a cornerstone in the fight for equal opportunity for women, especially in the workplace.

Third World Conference on Women

July 15, 1985

The Third World Conference on Women takes place in Nairobi, and marks the end of the United Nations Decade for Women.

Representatives from more than 140 countries take part in the conference, where they review the successes and challenges of the past decade and develop a set of forward-looking strategies for the advancement of women.

Joan Child becomes Australia’s first female Speaker

February 11, 1986

Former speaker Joan Child
PHOTO: Joan Child was Australia’s first female Speaker.

During Labor prime minister Bob Hawke’s second term, Joan Child becomes Australia’s first female Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Also the first female Labor member of the House, Ms Child is the only ALP nominee and unopposed by the Liberal Opposition.

Ms Child resigns from the role in August 1989 and two other women become Speaker in the years that follow — Anna Burke (2012-13) and Bronwyn Bishop (2013-15).

Janine Haines becomes first woman to lead political party

August 14, 1986

Janine Haines
PHOTO: Janine Haines doorknocking at Christies Beach in South Australia in February 1989.(Supplied: State Library of South Australia)

Janine Haines becomes the first female federal parliamentary leader of an Australian political party when she is chosen to succeeded Don Chipp as the Australian Democrats Senate leader.

Following her death in 2004, then-Opposition leader Mark Latham remembered Ms Haines as a respected force in Australian politics.

“She was a very effective politician, the first woman to lead an Australian political party, so an inspiration to a huge number of Australians in that role,” he said.

“She was a strongly committed leader of her party and saw their role as much more than an Upper House organisation.”

Mary Gaudron appointed as High Court judge

February 6, 1987

Mary Gaudron becomes Australia’s first female High Court judge in 1987.

During an address to the NSW Women’s Lawyers Association in 2002, she said “by a process of elimination and with only a slight leap of faith and logic, I am driven to the conclusion that women lawyers are the law’s only real hope for the future”.

Quentin Bryce appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner


In 1988, Quentin Bryce is appointed as Australia’s second Sex Discrimination Commissioner, taking over from Pamela O’Neil.

About six months into the job, in this article in the Daily Telegraph, Ms Bryce described the challenges she faced in the role – from dealing with people who assumed any commissioner must be a man, to fielding distressing complaints about sexual assaults against women in the workplace.

The cases are coming out from under the carpet and they are distressing. It upsets me that women are being touched up in the most overt and degrading ways. The most distressing complaints are from young and vulnerable girls in their first job.
Quentin Bryce

Australia’s first female chief minister

May 11, 1989

Rosemary Follett

Rosemary Follett becomes the Australian Capital Territory’s inaugural chief minister and the first woman to become a head of government in an Australian state or territory.

But her Government is dissolved following a successful no-confidence motion later that year.

She returns to the role in 1991, a position she holds until March 1995.

Australia’s first female premier

February 12, 1990

Carmen Lawrence

Carmen Lawrence becomes the first leader of an Australian state when she is elected premier of Western Australia.

She holds the position for three years, later becoming a member of Federal Parliament, serving as a minister in the Keating government.

Australia’s first female director of a national institution

February, 1990

Betty Churcher becomes the first female director of a national cultural institution, the National Gallery of Australia.

Victoria’s first female premier

August 10, 1990

Joan Kirner becomes Victoria’s first female premier in 1990, a position she holds for two years.

She died earlier this year following a battle with cancer. At her funeral, she was remembered as a tireless advocate for women, the community and education.

Fourth World Conference on Women and the Beijing Declaration

September 4, 1995

The Fourth World Conference on Women sees 189 nations become signatories to the Beijing Declaration and its accompanying Platform for Action, “the most progressive blueprint ever” for advocating women’s rights according to the United Nations.

The Declaration calls on all nation states to address gender inequality in their countries, and set up a reporting system to review progress every five years.

In an updated foreword, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon says: “Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted… its stature and significance as a roadmap for the achievement of gender equality remains undiminished. This pivotal document continues to guide the global struggle against constraints and obstacles to the empowerment of women around the world”.

First Indigenous female director of a national institution


Dawn Casey becomes the first Indigenous woman to head a national institution, The National Museum of Australia.

The 1325 Resolution

October 31, 2000

The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security is adopted unanimously.

Northern Territory’s first female chief minister

August 18, 2001

Clare Martin becomes the first female and ALP chief minister of the Northern Territory.

It is a narrow victory, but it destroys the dominance of the Country Liberal Party, which has ruled the Northern Territory since self-government in 1978.

Ms Martin spends six years in the job.

Marion Scrymgour becomes first Indigenous woman to be made a minister

17 December, 2003

Marion Scrymgour becomes the first female Indigenous minister in an Australian state, territory or federal government, after being assigned the portfolios of family and community services and environment and heritage for the Northern Territory.

She goes on to become deputy chief minister of the NT.

Politician ejected for breastfeeding

February 26, 2003

Victorian politician Kirstie Marshall is ejected from the Lower House chamber for breastfeeding her 11-day-old baby.

In an interview with the ABC, she says: “I didn’t come here to make a statement or to break rules”.

I just didn’t really know what the situation was. As I said I didn’t come here to make a statement or to break rules and it’s really important for me that my job is, as a Parliamentarian, is the most important thing that I’m here. I could have taken, you know, six weeks off and relaxed and been at home, but I wanted to be here so much and as long as everything is working well and in balance, I’ll continue to do so.
Kirsty Marshall

Queensland’s first female premier

September 13, 2007

Anna Bligh becomes Queensland’s first female premier.

Two years later she goes on to become the first Australian woman to lead a party to victory at a general election.

Australia’s youngest female federal parliamentarian

July 1, 2008

Sarah Hanson-Young becomes the youngest woman to sit in Federal Parliament and the youngest senator at 25 years of age.

First female premier of New South Wales

December 4, 2009

Kristina Keneally becomes the first woman premier of New South Wales.

After losing the 2011 state election, Ms Keneally quits politics to become the chief executive of Basketball Australia before taking on a media and political commentary role.

Male Champions of Change established

April 2010

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick meets with a group of men holding senior roles in Australian organisations to explore options for increasing the presence of women in leadership.

The result of the discussions is the establishment of Male Champions of Change, a group of men who have committed to using their influence as leaders to elevate the social and economic importance of gender equality.

Australia’s first female prime minister

June 24, 2010

Julia Gillard is sworn in as Australia’s first female prime minister after ousting first-term prime minister Kevin Rudd as Labor leader.

Two months later she takes Labor into minority government after a general election. She leads the party for three years and three days before being toppled by Mr Rudd in a caucus ballot.

National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security launched

March 8, 2012

On International Women’s Day, the Australian government launches a six-year National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

The plan sets out practical methods of implementing UNSCR 1325 and similar resolutions, and commits the government to report on progress every two years.

In her foreword, then-minister for the status of women Julie Collins writes that the plan outlines “what the country will do at home and overseas, to integrate a gender perspective into its peace and security efforts, protect women and girls’ human rights, and promote their participation in conflict prevention, management and resolution”.

First Global Ambassador for Women and Girls appointed

September 13, 2011

Penny Williams becomes Australia’s first global ambassador for women and girls.

The role involves promoting national policies of gender equality and the social, political and economic empowerment of women and girls.

Gender restrictions on ADF combat roles removed

September 27, 2011

The Australian Government formally agrees to the removal of gender restrictions from ADF combat roles.

Women can now work in any ADF position, including combat roles, provided they have the ability to meet all of the demands of the role.

Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’

October 9, 2012

I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man, I will not.
And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.
Julia Gillard

In October 2012, Julia Gillard delivers her so-called “misogyny speech in Parliament, which receives worldwide attention.

Second Global Ambassador for Women and Girls appointed

December 6, 2013

Natasha Stott Despoja becomes the second Australian Ambassador for Women and Girls.

Ms Stott Despoja, former leader of the Australian Democrats and founding chair of the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children, describes the role as her “dream job”.

Second National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children launched

June 27, 2014

In June 2014 the Second National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children is launched.

This plan builds on the First Action Plan, reviews priorities and broadens consultation to include more sectors, groups and a larger cross-section of the Australian community.

Australia joins the #HeForShe campaign

March 8, 2015

Then-prime minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten sign on to the United Nation Women’s #HeForShe campaign, led by actor and feminist activist Emma Watson.

The campaign describes itself as a “solidarity movement” to get men involved in the fight for gender equality across the globe.

Thanks to much to National Archives and ABC News for sharing.

Can’t wait to mark our next milestones and create a better future for our women and girls.

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Martine Harte is founder of Engaging Women, a platform for social good.
She is a dedicated voice in the advancement of women & girls. Contact

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