Liberal David Tonkin's Australian-first sex discrimination law changes the workplace


South Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 – a first for Australia – had a profound effect on the state’s workplace and elsewhere.

In the SA police force, for instance, women could now be promoted into all areas and they also were allowed to remain in the department after marriage.
In the wake of the bill, Mary Beasley became Australia’s first commissioner for equal opportunity to oversee reforms on a wider scale.

Liberal backbench member of parliament (later premier) Dr David Tonkin had introduced the legislation as a private member’s bill in 1973 to focus on investigating and fixing sex discrimination.

The bill covered sex discrimination in employment and jobs training, services and the granting loans. Dr Tonkin was motivated to introduce the bill having grown up with a widowed mother who struggled to provide for her family during the Depression.

His bill was passed after a committee took evidence from individuals and groups representing employers and employees. The committee clearly found discriminatory practices, based on sex and marital status, within the community and laws were needed as a remedy.

From 1976 to 1977, files were opened on 154 discrimination complaints on the grounds of sex or marital status. Of these, 127 were from women, 27 from men. Employment practices generated 70 complaints: 56 from women, 14 from men. Education: Four complaints; three from females, one from a male. Accommodation: Eight complaints: five from women, three from men. Other goods and services: 54 complaints; 45 from women, nine from men.

Other related ADELAIDEAZ articles

Scarlet Alliance formed but attempts to change the state's prostitution laws keep on failing

After numerous failed attempts in state parliament since 1980, South Australia status on prostitution is little changed from the 19th Century; the only state where prostitution is completely illegal. Sex industry law reform in late 20th Century South Australia grew out of the 1970s feminist movement. A Women's Electoral Lobby seminar in 1978 supported a prostitutes union but voted against legalising prostitution. Sex workers formed the Scarlet Alliance to advocate for their rights.

Roma Mitchell becomes Australia’s first female QC, supreme court judge, state governor

Roma Mitchell set a series of firsts for Australian women as a judge, Queen's Counsel, chancellor of Adelaide University and a governor of South Australia. She was also a pioneer of the Australian women’s rights movement. Mitchell served on many committees and contributed actively to many organisations, particularly those concerned with education, heritage, arts, equal opportunities and human rights. She was patron of the Centenary of Women's Suffrage in 1994.



Annie Montgomerie Martin respected early educator of Adelaide University graduates

Anna (“Annie”) Montgomerie Martin’s Pulteney Street, Adelaide, school, opened around 1870, provided a well-rounded unconventional education comparable to John Lorenzo Young’s Adelaide Educational Institution. From an English Unitarian liberal background, Martin moved on to other schools, notably Madame Marval's school on North Terrace, Adelaide, and was associated with teaching some of Adelaide University’s first female graduates, such as Edith Cook, Laura Fowler and her niece Caroline Clark. Martin played a part in the campaign for women’s voting rights, addressing meetings with Mary Lee.


Meg Lees crucial to GST negotiations: succeeded as Democrats leader by Natasha Scott-Despoja

Meg Lees put South Australian women further into the federal political spotlight – and heat – as leader of the Australian Democrats from 1997. When Cheryl Kernot defected to Labor, Lees became Democrats leader, with another South Australian, Natasha Stott Despoja, as deputy. Lees came under pressure when she negotiated aspects of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Many Democrats disliked the deal and Stott Despoja successfully challenged for the leadership in 2001.

Madeline Rees George leads girls' education at Advanced School equal to the best for boys

Madeline Rees George, with a governess background, was appointed in 1880 as part-time German and French mistress at the new Advanced School for Girls in Franklin Street (later Grote Street), South Australia's only state secondary school at that time. As headmistress from 1886, she worked with education inspector-general John Anderson Hartley to maintain high academic standards. Emulating English girls' high schools, Rees George provided higher education for girls equal to that in the best private boys' schools.


Suffrage cause grows from an alliance for temperance, working conditions, social purity

The main groups campaigning to get the vote for South Australian women were the Women’s Suffrage League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Working Women’s Trade Union. This alliance was concerned about the effects of alcohol, sexual purity and working conditions on family stability. To make change, they needed the vote. The Women's Suffrage League, set up in 1888, organised petitions, lobbied MPs and mustered many women to attend the debates.

Contact Us

We welcome positive constructive feedback