Joyce Steele and Jesse Cooper break drought in 1959 as first state female members of parliament

Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele end long wait in 1959: First women to be elected to the state parliament.

Although South Australia in 1894 was first in the world to grant women the right to stand as candidates, no woman was elected to the state’s parliament until 1959.
The breakthrough in 1959 came via the Liberal Country League candidates Joyce Steele (for the House of Assembly) and Jessie Cooper (Legislative Council) being elected.

In her maiden speech – the first by a woman in the House of Assembly – Joyce Steele outlined the issues she intended to pursue, including food price control, public transport for disabled children, laboratories for scientific research, and coordinated social welfare.

In her second year in parliament, Steele became the first woman appointed to the Council of the South Australian Institute of Technology.

In 1963, Steele became government whip and, in Steele Hall’s government from 1968, was successively minister of education, social welfare, Aboriginal affairs and housing.

Jessie Cooper in her maiden speech proposed education reforms including schools of Oriental studies. In her 20 years in the state’s upper house, she worked for issues relating to child welfare, and pressed for equal pay and ending other discrimination. She soon discovered she did not share her colleagues’superannuation entitlements and won this right for women parliamentarians.

In 1979, Cooper crossed the floor with two colleagues to vote with the Labor government, ensuring businessman Alan Bond did not gain control of Santos and the state’s Cooper Basin oil and gas. She earned the ire of her Opposition colleagues and the following month announced her immediate retirement.

 

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