Rankin, Annabelle (1908–1986)

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Rankin, Annabelle (1908–1986)

Australian politician and diplomat who achieved a number of firsts: first woman whip in the British Commonwealth; first Australian woman to hold a federal ministerial portfolio; and first Australian woman to hold ambassadorial rank. Born Annabelle Jane Mary Rankin in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, on July 28, 1908; died on August 30, 1986; daughter of Annabelle (Davidson) Rankin and Colin Dunlop Wilson Rankin (a cane grower and member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly); attended state schools at Childers and Howard and the Glennie Memorial School, Toowoomba, Queensland; never married.

Created a Dame of the British Empire (1957).

Although she was by no means an advocate of women's liberation in the abstract, indeed often speaking out in favor of the primacy of "the homemaker and the mother," by making a personal choice not to marry so as to devote her full energies to a successful career in politics, Annabelle Rankin was able to achieve a number of important victories for all Australian women. Australian attitudes toward women in public life are, like those of many other nations, a complex mixture of conservative and progressive tendencies. The country was founded as a penal colony in the last decades of the 18th century, and as late as the 1830s most of Australia's European women were either convicts or former convicts. The first six free women settlers arrived in 1793, with only 576 having settled there by 1831. Given the fact that 85% of the convicts, and most of the free settlers too, were male, Australia's population in its early years was heavily male. The 1828 European-born population of 54,700 was only about one-quarter female, and even by 1841, with the total white population at 206,700, only about a third of it was female. The shortage of women served to raise their level of marriage, so that in 1851 77% of New South Wales women over 20 were married. The comparable situation in Great Britain was only 57%. By 1861, the imbalance had changed to 42% of the total population being female, and as the frontier disappeared proportion between the sexes became more balanced, the number of males in 1901 being about 110 to every 100 females.

With the passage of time, Australian women began to achieve a growing number of legal rights. Following the British law of 1870, all of the separate colonies comprising the Australian continent passed laws recognizing a married woman's right to own property separately from her husband, starting with Victoria in 1870, and ending with Queensland and Western Australia in 1890 and 1892, respectively. In public affairs, breakthroughs began in 1894, when South Australia granted its European women the right to vote (Aboriginal women—and men—did not receive the franchise on a national basis until 1962). In 1908, Victoria became the last Australian state to give women the right to vote. Women's right to sit in a legislature was a different matter, with South Australia being the first to grant it in 1895, and Victoria the last, in 1923. Because the vast majority of women tended to vote the same way as their husbands or families, the women's vote had little impact on the political landscape, although there were some exceptions, particularly the defeat of two referendums on conscription during World War I, which many observers attributed to the "women's vote." At least through the 1960s, Australian women on balance tended to vote more for the conservative than for liberal political parties.

Although Australia had been the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote and the right to stand for Parliament with the passage of the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act, it would be an astonishing 41 more years before a woman was elected to the nation's federal Parliament. Why? As in most countries before World War II, it was simply not customary or acceptable for women to work outside the home. Those who did so were single women who gave up their jobs when they married, or women forced by financial hardship to provide for their families. Political life before the early 1940s reflected these social realities, and generally women who ran as candidates did so as independents or on the tickets of minor parties. None of the major Australian political parties endorsed a woman candidate for the Senate before World War II. In the states, there were a few exceptions. In Western Australia, which had granted women the right to vote in 1899 and the right to sit in its legislature only in 1920, Edith Cowan was elected in 1921. In 1929, Irene Longman became a member of the Queensland Parliament. In a 1953 radio interview, Longman noted: "We talk loudly and proudly of our democracy, but there is no true democracy where only one sex is directly represented in the Government of the country."

World War II radically transformed Australia, not only threatening it with a potential Japanese invasion, but also bringing about an acceleration of social and political changes begun decades earlier. In 1943, two women were elected to the federal Parliament: Enid Lyons of Tasmania (United Australia Party) was elected to the House of Representatives, and Dorothy Tangney of Western Australia (Australian Labor Party) won a Senate seat. Another sign of progress for women took place in 1947, when Florence Cardell-Oliver became a cabinet minister in the Western Australia state Parliament.

In 1946, Liberal Party member Annabelle Rankin was elected to the Senate representing Queensland. During her long tenure, which lasted until 1971, Rankin was concerned with a wide range of issues, particularly those connected with housing, health, and communications. Her participation in parliamentary committees included the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances. Born in Brisbane, Australia, on July 28, 1908, Annabelle Rankin was the daughter of Annabelle Davidson Rankin and Colin Dunlop Wilson Rankin, a cane grower and member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly. She was educated at state schools at Childers and Howard and the Glennie Memorial School in Toowoomba, Queensland. After she traveled overseas during 1936–37, she worked as a clerk in Brisbane upon her return to Australia. When World War II began, she started her public career and served as YWCA assistant commissioner in charge of welfare work for women's services. After her discharge, she became the state organizer for the Junior Red Cross in 1946. That same year she was elected to the Senate as a Liberal-Country Party representative.

From 1947 to 1949, Rankin served as Opposition Whip in the Senate—the first woman to hold such a position in the British Commonwealth. She was also elected vice president of the Queensland Liberal Party in 1949. In 1951, with a change in government favoring her party, Rankin advanced to the office of Government Whip, a post she would hold until 1966. Her service in Parliament showed her to be sensitive to the needs of women as well as the aged and the young. In recognition of her services to Australia, Rankin was created a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1957. Even more important for not only Rankin but the progress of Australian women was her appointment in January 1966 as Minister of Housing in the administration of Harold Holt; she served in that post until March 1971. "I think the women's vote shows itself on anything that affects general living," said Rankin in July 1969. "After all everything that happens in Parliament affects women in some way or other. I always say 'legislation goes into your home.'" After retiring from the Senate in 1971, Rankin was appointed High Commissioner (ambassador) to New Zealand, thus becoming the first Australian woman named to a top-level diplomatic post. She retired from this position in 1974. In the 1984 redistribution of federal seats, one of the new Queensland seats was renamed Rankin in honor of her many services to her nation.

Dame Annabelle Rankin remained an influential figure until her death on August 30, 1986. That same year, Joan Child of the Australian Labor Party became the first woman to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1996, another barrier fell when Margaret Reid became the first woman to be elected president of the Australian Senate. In September 1999, there were 22 women out of a total number of 76 members of the Australian Senate.


Browne, Waveney. A Woman of Distinction: The Honourable Dame Annabelle Rankin D.B.E. Brisbane: Boolarong, 1981.

Crystal, David, ed. The Cambridge Biographical Dictionary. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Docherty, J.C. Historical Dictionary of Australia. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

Hidden Women: Locating Information on Significant Australian Women. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne College of Advanced Education, 1986.

Sawer, Marian, and Marian Simms. A Woman's Place: Women and Politics in Australia. 2nd ed. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1993.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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