History Detective

Irene Longman the First Woman in Queensland Parliament Case 15

Episode Summary

Meet Irene Longman, the first woman to be elected into Queensland Parliament in 1929. Could you imagine living in a society where when they were designing the parliament house, they didn’t even bother to put a female toilet in? Well, in 1929 Irene Maud Longman broke the glass ceiling in Queensland that women could stand for and be elected into QLD Parliament.

Episode Notes

Meet Irene Longman, the first woman to be elected into Queensland Parliament in 1929.

Could you imagine living in a society where when they were designing the parliament house, they didn’t even bother to put a female toilet in? Well, in 1929 Irene Maud Longman broke the glass ceiling in Queensland that women could stand for and be elected into QLD Parliament. 

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Reflection Questions:

  1. Research the term Glass Ceiling. What does this term mean, and does it have other applications other than politics?
  2. Explain why Irene thought it was important to have female police officers?
  3. How do political candidates tell people about their policies today? How does this differ from methods from more than 90 years ago?
  4. In her campaign leaflet Longman said, 'there can be no true democracy where only one sex is directly represented in parliament'. What is the implicit meaning of this statement?
  5. When QLD parliament house was built, there were no female toilets. What does this implicitly tell us about the role of women at this time?

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All original music written and performed by Kelly Chase.


Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and welcome back to season 2 History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and then I explore how that story might be reimagined through song. This is Case 15: The First Woman elected to QLD Parliament, Irene Longman.

I first stumbled across Irene Longman in an online article that was celebrating 90 years since QLD elected its first female politician. The article also discussed how there were no female toilet in QLD parliament house and the late 1960, the second female politician, used to leave her high heels outside the bathroom to make sure no one would walk in. No female toilets in the 1960s, I thought the 60s was a time of hippies and free love and experimentation, and second wave feminism but there still wasn’t female toilet in QLD Parliament House. Seriously, could you imagine living in a society where when they were designing the parliament house, they didn’t even bother to put a female toilet in, because it was that unthinkable that women could have anything whatsoever to do with politics. Well, in 1929 Irene Maud Longman, proved that women could stand and be elected into QLD Parliament. And for the record, the afore mentioned article did not know how Mrs Longman tended to her bathroom needs, but further research revealed that she would walk over the road to use the ladies’ toilet in the Bellevue Hotel. This original article sent me down the rabbit hole to find out more about this incredible woman who has move up to top place in my all-time favourite ladies list. And that is not just because she shares a name with my Nanna, she was an extraordinary woman who broke the glass ceiling of QLD Parliament.

Irene Longman started her career training as a kindergarten teacher in the late 1800s. Her mother had passed away and she boarded with a couple in Sydney to complete her training. The institution where she trained was run by a woman called Maybanke Wolstenholme. Maybanke was the founder of the Womanhood Suffrage League and an editor of a publication called The Woman’s Voice. The beliefs of the people who ran this school were that teachers should be registered, paid as professionals, and that child development should be recognised as a discipline.

The things that Irene learned at this institution were carried with her into her many careers and activist groups she was a part of. She also developed her interest in literature, science and history. She taught in schools in Sydney and Rockhampton and in 1904, she met and married her husband and moved to Toowoomba. 

Her husband was the owner and editors of one of the newspapers in Toowoomba and Irene started a feature in the Saturday paper that was especially for children. This column would include things like stories, puzzles, riddles, and brain teasers and there would be a competition with prizes for the letters that children sent into the paper. Irene’s pseudonym was “Aunt Tabitha” and the children who wrote in would sign the letters from, “Your new niece” or “I remain your fond nephew.” Aunt Tabitha would respond to their letters and ask them about their lives, encouraging them to participate in society events and recommend books that they could read.

One week, during an election, they were unable to publish the Children’s Column and the next week Aunt Tabitha published an apology, “Last week the Editor had so much to say to the big folks about the elections

that he could not spare even one column for our letter. It was a pity, but still we know how important it is to try to send the very best men into Parliament, and so we will not grumble.” And 21 years later, “Aunt Tabitha” or Irene Longman became the first woman to become elected into QLD parliament.

But before that happened, she was an incredibly active member of society joining many groups and advocating for women and children. One thing that she was particularly passionate about was Playgrounds. She became the secretary of the Playground Association of Qld. This associations would lobby councils to build free playgrounds and include children’s sections in the public libraries. At this time, she was friends with Lillian Cooper, who was the first woman in Queensland to practice medicine. These two pioneering women travelled to Stockholm in 1912 to attend the International Council of Women and also swung by America to attend lectures on public playgrounds in Berkley.

On top of that, she helped to found the Queensland Bush Book Club, it was designed for people in remote areas, who couldn’t access public libraries, including people in lighthouses and prisons. Longman was a champion of reading and she also spoke out about book censorship. Australia had quite strict censorship laws in regard to what books could be imported and sold and all of these decisions about books were made by men. When she had a chance to speak about this issue in parliament, she said “women had been excluded from any political decision making regarding the censorship of literature on the assumption that intellectual ability was the province of men”. 

Speaking of men, let’s hear at what her political opponent said of her when he found out she was running in the election. “Well, you know, I’m only being opposed by a woman.” I know he sounds cocky, but back in those days they would often only put women candidates up for unwinnable electorates.

The electorate that she ran for was called Bulimba. Bulimba is now a quaint little suburb on a bend of the Brisbane River where the average house price is $1.5 million. But back in 1929 the electorate was huge. And Longman literally went door knocking to get to know the local people. She didn’t have a motorcar, but because of her connections in many women’s societies, she would ask her friends to drop her off and she would walk the suburbs meeting the constituents. She knocked on thousands of peoples’ doors and asked them what they were concerned about and she also held meetings where she would make speeches. She was well spoken, intelligent and quick witted. One of her election leaflets said, 'there can be no true democracy where only one sex is directly represented in parliament'. And so, she won the unwinnable seat of Bulimba.

Irene Longman, unlike many of our female politicians today was fortunate enough to be very well supported by the newspapers. Most of the articles that you find about her are very positive, although there were a few voices of dissent.

A report in the Catholic Advocate said, “The contemplation of a woman sitting in Parliament amongst 71 men creates the same kind of funny impression that the sight of a timid hare would amongst a yard -full of sheep. Members would feel indefinably but, nevertheless, sensitively embarrassed.” However a political writer in 1931 wrote “And so it came to about that one little feeble woman, full to the brim with energy, overflowing with sympathy for her sex, simple, non-aggressive, ladylike to her fingertips, just metaphorically took A.J. Wright by the scruff of the neck and scrubbed the whole surface of the large Bulimba electorate with him, wiping out a majority of thousands.”

One thing that the newspapers reported on, that still happens today was what she was wearing. When our first and only female Prime Minister came into office, the media was obsessed with what she wore and how she did her hair. This is a common issue for female politicians the world over to the extent that many try and have a uniform of sorts so the media will care less about their outfit and more about their policies. On her first day of parliament the newspapers reported she wore “an ensemble of navy-blue crepe de Chine with a long coat and she appeared without a hat.”

Another thing that Longman had in common with Julia Gillard was the fact that they did not have children. Female politicians have long been taunted by the media in a catch-22 situation. If they have children, they supposedly should be at home looking after them, and if they don’t how could they possibly be a whole woman and represent the needs of mothers. With Longman, it was not as vitriolic as it was in Julia Gillard’s case, but it was most certainly mentioned. An opposition party member said of Longman, “she, childless, coolly talks, in a superior way, from her vantage ground of culture and economic independence down to the common working class of how to 'manage' on 18 shillings a week. Father, mother, and child! How to 'manage'!” Just to give this a little context, Longman was elected in 1929, the same year the world was plunged into the Great Depression. He was attacking her economic policies and saying she couldn’t understand the plight of mothers because she didn’t have children herself. This was an incredibly sensitive subject for her as she had experienced 12 miscarriages.

One of her successful campaigns was the appointment of women into the Queensland Police. Although during WWI women had been able to join the Police in other states, this was not so in Queensland. She believed that even if women were criminals or unfortunates, that they deserved to be looked after and searched by women. And although Longman was a supporter of equal pay for equal work, the first two women who were employed by the Queensland police only received half the wage of a male officer.

Another thing she campaigned for was privacy in divorce cases, her target being newspapers, she argued that enduring court cases for divorce was a distressing time and that newspapers should not publish intimate details of families who were going through this pain. The other members of the house taunted her as a “Mrs Grundy” who was fictional prude, if you wish to learn more about Mrs Grundy, have a listen to the bicycle face episode in season one.

Aside from having to walk across the road to go to the bathroom, Longman was not allowed to eat in the dining room with the male politicians, perhaps as our reporter friend from earlier said, the men would have felt “sensitively embarrassed.” She would instead take all of her meals on the veranda of Parliament House, which to me sounds way more appealing than eating in a room of 71 male politicians. 

Irene Longman only served one term in office and during this time on the 39 occasions she addressed the house, she spoke about issues relating to women and children on 31 of these times so she truly was an advocate for those who did not have a voice in parliament. Longman lived to a ripe old age of 87, but unfortunately in her lifetime she never saw another woman set foot in Queensland parliament. It was not until 2 years after her death in 1966 that Vi Jordan had to leave her high heels outside the toilet door.

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The inspiration for today’s song is not just Irene Longman, it is dedicated to any woman who has served in politics and I wrote it after reading Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s book “Women in Leadership.” I highly recommend it by the way and Annabelle Crabb’s book The Wife Drought that looks at how our society is not set up foster women having political careers. The song is called Sticks and Stones.

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.


Sticks and stones may break my bones

But your words will never hurt me

Sticks and stones may break my bones

I’m made of iron and fuelled with fire

Here I am 

standing in the eye of the storm

The glass is raining all around me

So tiptoe through this hostility 

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But your words will never hurt me

Sticks and stones may break my bones

I’m made of iron and fuelled with fire

I am too strong, but I’m not strong enough

I am too soft, I am not soft enough

If you adjust your frame, 

you will see we’re all the same

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But your words will never hurt me

Sticks and stones may break my bones

I’m made of iron and fuelled with fire

Sticks and stones

Fuel the fire

If you are a teacher or student, you will find reflection questions in the show notes. All of my Season 2 songs are available on YouTube

Next time on History Detective, we will investigate Gunnhild the Viking Mother of Kings.

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