By now I expect all of us in this place will have noticed the new statue at Constitution Place – it has raised many important public discussions. Today I would like to inform this Assembly about one such discussion: the representation of women and Canberra’s public art.

I think that at this point it is fair to say that, despite our city’s comparatively short life, Canberra has a rich tradition of investing in diverse and thought-provoking public art.

We see diversity of style in the modern brutalist architecture which characterises many of our buildings, the contemporary abstract sculptures such as the notable “Moth Descending Tuggeranong” on Drakeford Drive, the playful “Owl” on Belconnen way, the noble bronze figures of John Curtin and Ben Chifley which reflect this beautiful city’s rich political history and perhaps the most iconic of all: Patricia Piccinini’s notorious and delightful “SkyWhale” and “SkyWhalePappa”.

However, while this is a fine collection, there remains a gap, a gap roughly the size of 51% of Australia’s population.

There are 30 gendered sculptures listed on artsACT’s website: 11 of them are female while there are 16 male sculptures.

Of those 11, only one represents a historical figure, while the other 10 depict various abstract concepts. These include:

  • shopping;
  • being a sister;
  • dreaming in the nude;
  • separation;
  • being a mythical serpent queen;
  • civic pride;
  • whimsy;
  • naivety;
  • driving; and
  • stepping out of the house and celebrating play.

The 16 men include 10 historical figures. That is a ten to one gender ‘balance’.

The saying goes “you can’t be what you can’t see”. But along with leaving women out of our political heritage, and implying that we are not worth commemorating, this imbalance reveals that when women have been depicted in our public art, we are mostly detached from our individuality and instead deployed to express notions of ‘feminine’ public life in this city.

Madam Speaker, there is nothing inherently wrong with depicting abstract concepts, but it becomes a problem when it means that men get to share in our concrete history while women are left out.

I appreciate that the statue on Constitution Place was an initiative of the National Capital Authority, and not the ACT Government. However, I also appreciate that, since self-government, we have never let the Federal Government stop us from living our progressive values.

With this in mind, Madam Speaker I would like to use my platform of being able to talk within this place to acknowledge a few women who have been integral to our political history by advancing women’s suffrage and political representation, and without whose advocacy and activism our democracy would have most certainly unfolded quite differently.

  • Henrietta Dugdale and Annie Lowe: Co-Founders of the first female suffrage society in Australia.
  • Catherine Helen Spence: The first female political candidate in Australia, standing in 1987 for the federal convention in Adelaide.
  • Mum Shirl: A prominent Wiradjuriwoman, social worker and humanitarian activist committed to justice and welfare of Aboriginal Australians.
  • Sue Wills: an Australian activist, prominent in the Women's Liberation Movementand the press for LGBT rights.
  • Edith Cowan: The first woman to successfully to be elected to an Australian Parliament.
  • Rose Scott: A woman’s rights activist who advocated for women’s suffrage and founded the women’s political education league, which successfully campaigned to have the age of consent raised to 16.
  • Mary Moore-Bentley; Nellie Martel; Vida Goldstein and Selina Anderson: The only four women to stand in the 1903 federal election, the first election where women were eligible to stand.
  • Gladys Elphick MBE: A Kaurna and Ngadjuri woman of South Australia, best known as the founding president of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia.
  • Eva Seery and Henrietta Greville: The first two women to be female candidates to stand for the Australian Parliament, and to be endorsed by a major party, the Labor Party, naturally.
  • Enid Lyons: The first woman elected to the federal parliament house of representatives in 1943. Dame Enid’s party affiliation is lost to history.
  • Dorothy Tangney: The first women elected to the federal parliament senate in 1943.

I believe each of these great women is worth commemorating and I while I may not have the skills to immortalise them in sculpture myself I am glad I can share their contribution on our public record.