Empowering women: Women must support each other

17 April 2016, 12:00AM

Senator Anne McEwen
Chief Opposition Whip in the Senate
Parliament of Australia
Presentation to the Retreat for Women 
Members of Parliament in Samoa

 I would like to commence by paying tribute to the five women elected to the Samoan parliament in the last national elections and to the women who were candidates.  Don’t think your success and your candidacy is only important to Samoa.  

It is important to women everywhere, including in so called developed countries like mine where women have legislatively had the same rights as men to contest elections for a century or more but are still under-represented in our parliaments because of the many overt, and less obvious,  barriers we face when it comes to getting elected.

I hope by sharing with you some of the things that have helped me as a woman parliamentarian, I will give you some ideas and assistance as you take on the hard job of being a woman in a man’ s world.

As the Chief Whip in my Party my job is to help our MPs to be the most effective parliamentarians they can be. Hopefully my experiences after nearly 11 years in Parliament, through three pre-selections and  four elections and under four different Party leaders give some insights.

There are three main thoughts I want to share with you today:

1. Now that you have been elected, know that you will need support, work out where your support will come from and support each other.

2. Now that you have been elected, make the most of it.

3. Now that you have been elected and reached the top of the political ladder, don’t pull up the ladder behind you.  Use your new status and power to help other women climb that ladder.

To elaborate on these thoughts:

Support each other now that you have been elected.

Politics in my country and yours is mainly a man’s world, 

You might be  looked at as a curiosity, as a traitor to someone else’s ideals of womanhood

and as a threat.    You might be bullied, or unjustly criticised . Or, and sometimes this is worse, you might be ignored.  But by others you will be embraced.  You will need a thick skin and you will need support to help you through.  My advice is to find out where your support lies and reach out for it, know where it is and cultivate it before you even need it.

It might be with your family, your friends, your church or other networks you have.  Hopefully it will also be with some trusted and supportive parliamentary colleagues who are best placed to know what you are going through.

In your busy schedules, always make time for your supporters.  You don’t want to find yourself in the situation of needing your supporters and then realise  you haven’t actually spoken to them for months because you have been too busy.  Deliberately make time for just catching up with people for a coffee or lunch. It might seem like an indulgence when you have so much else to do, but it is worth it.  If you want to effectively represent the people who voted for you, and who will vote for you in the future, you need to be in the best shape you can be, both mentally and physically. Time out with friends and supporters is one way to do this.

Also remember it is not a weakness to ask for help, it is just wise. 

Now that you have been elected, make the most of it.

Be clear about what you want to do in your role as a politician. Your party will probably allocate you  portfolios,  committees and other responsibilities.   You also have a constituency to serve and sometimes you can get bogged down in constituency work. It is very important, but if you are able to delegate responsibility for some of that work, do so because you are unlikely to be able to do it all yourself.

Try and find a policy area in which you can make your own mark, and get yourself noticed. 

I have seen that women MPs tend to get pigeonholed into policy areas  like health, childcare, family support  and similar traditional ‘women’s’ policy areas. This is fine,  and essential, but also try to think outside the square.  

In my job as Whip I suggest to women they try to get on parliamentary committees,  and speak on legislation that deals with areas more traditionally claimed by men, policy areas like economics, defence, national security, and even sport.  Find something outside your comfort zone, or the zone you have been placed in by others. Show others that women are multi-dimensional, and that you are not going to be confined to policy areas that men think are the right ones for women.

In my case, after about a year in Parliament I knew I wanted to do more in defence and foreign affairs.    It took me a while to get on the right committees and I have sometimes had  to put up with a lot of patronising by my male colleagues on defence committees,   assuming just because I am a middle aged  woman I  must  have got lost on my way to the aged care committee.   It is nice to be able surprise people who have ‘pigeon holed’ me by talking with some credibility about submarines, unmanned aerial vehicles, joint strike fighter capability, warships and defence strategy.

I note that in the Australian Federal Parliament the Hon.  Teresa Gambaro is chair of our very important Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade. It is not often a woman has held that job.

Outside of Parliament, look at what other opportunities your new status and power  give you.  You can use your position to build alliances that will support you in your current term of office, and in your future campaigns.  Be rigorous about networking and collecting information about people who can help you in the future.

And have some fun!   As women, you are good at socialising and making the most of getting together,   so make time to do it together.  You might want to organise coffee or drinks with women from all parties in the Parliament, prayer breakfasts, or even theme parties, like clothing or fashion parties.  In the Australian parliament we have organised some of these things just for fun.

You won’t necessarily be best friends with everyone but,  was we have seen at the  Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnership’s forum, despite political differences, the common thread of being women MPs lends itself to dancing and good times.

Now that you’ve been elected don’t pull the ladder up behind you.

So you’ve made it, you have been elected and you are going to make the most of it.  But please don’t forget the women who will be the next wave of women MPs.

You need more women in your Parliament , we need more women in all our Parliaments, and you won’t be there forever yourself, so you need to think about succession planning. Ask yourself, where will you find the new women to stand up as candidates and how can you support them?

Emily’s List Australia  is an organisation that is not formally part of a political party but which helps women get elected in my political party, the Australian Labor Party.  I will share with you how Emily’s List works, but I am not suggesting the exact same model will work in the Pacific. You need to think about what works best for your region, and your nation. 

In Australia, Emily’s List has been in operation for 20 years and was originally established by some women who not only wanted to get more women into  parliament but also wanted to get more women’s issues onto the agenda in our parliaments.  Without more women in parliaments, women’s issues don’t get on the agenda.

Emily’s List relies on paid membership, donations from supporters, fundraising and the hard work of volunteers.  We have some paid staff, but most importantly, we have credibility and power.  The organisation is managed by a Committee that includes a number  of former and current MPs.  It works by identifying potential candidates for election, supports those candidates with campaign training, mentoring and money.  There is not a lot of money, but a little bit of money towards an election campaign can be a great help.

If women candidates agree to be supported by Emily’s List, they are expected to support Emily’s List supported legislation if they are elected to Parliament.  For example, in Australia, this includes legislation about sexual and reproductive health rights of women, anti- discrimination legislation and access to childcare.  

If they are elected, women MPs are also required to continue to financially support Emily’s List so the organisation can support more women.  Donations are also received from business, other NGOs , individuals and from others who share the goal of more progressive women in parliament.  We have lots of fun fundraising events including dinners, dances, movie nights and anything that brings women and their supporters together.

Emily’s List also advocates for rule changes in the Australian Labor Party and over the last decade  has worked to gradually  get the Party to change its rules so that , by the year 2025,  women candidates must be preselected for at least 50% of winnable seats in any election.  This has been a slow, hard fight but in the end the 2015 Party Conference supported the rule changes unanimously.

Importantly,  the role of Emily’s List  and the changes the Party made to its rules became a talking point in Australia’s political discourse and made the whole issue of the inadequate representation of women in our parliaments a live issue and a campaigning point that advantaged my Party. This positive point of difference between the Labor Party and the conservative parties was enhanced when the (male) leader of the Australian Labor Party championed  and ‘owned’ the rule changes.  

Emily’s List also makes sure we have events, awards and other ways of honouring the women who went before us and who are our heroes.  

Emily’s List is just one way that, in Australia, we make sure more women are ready to step up to the mark and to become effective members of parliament. There are other things all of us can do too.  We are lucky as Australian MPs  to have paid staff and I always try to keep at least one or two  positions for young women so they can learn political skills,   hopefully  with the view to having a pool of potential women candidates for the future.

Finally, on the topic of ensuring more women are ready to be candidates in the future, 

I try to prioritise my limited time so that I do find time to go to events and forums where women will be, so I can keep an eye on who is out there and who might be a potential candidate for the future.


Politics is hard,  and harder for women because there is not enough of us in politics.  

But it will get easier for us when there are more women.

To the women MPs and candidates here in Samoa, whether you are starting or continuing your political journey, I hope you will take comfort from knowing women everywhere support you and want you to succeed.  If we really are going to achieve gender equality we all need to work towards the goal of more women in all of our parliaments in all of our countries.  We do that best by supporting each other.

Go well sisters, we are here for you.

17 April 2016, 12:00AM

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