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Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel (1897–1981)

Dame Enid Lyons, whose husband J. A. (Joe) Lyons was Prime Minister for seven years, was a notable figure in Australian politics in her own right.

She died yesterday at hospital in Ulverstone, near Devonport in Tasmania, aged 84.

One of the first two women elected to the House of Representatives, she became the first woman Minister in the Federal Government as Vice President of the Executive Council in 1949.

Dame Enid combined a public career, which spanned decades of tumultuous politics, with the successful rearing of her family. She always regarded her family as her supremely important duty, and had 12 children (of whom 11 survived to adulthood).

Remarkably few people knew that she succeeded in so many activities despite continuing ill health. One disability, which affected her joints severely, persisted for 50 years until surgery cured it.

A fluent speaker, and later author and broadcaster, Dame Enid travelled widely in Australia to address political meetings before World War II, or to support many community, patriotic and charitable causes.

She had to bear the angry criticism her husband incurred after he decided, in 1929, to leave the Labor Party. The fact that doctrine and policy hardly influenced the decision doubtless lessened the bitterness.

Mr Lyons, who had been Premier of Tasmania from 1923 to 1928, opposed the return of Mr E. G. Theodore as Federal Treasurer. The personal motive caused, primarily, his decision to leave the ALP.

Turning to Federal politics he successfully campaigned in 1931 as the head of a new movement, the United Australia Party, which, in practice, proved to be far from united, politically and of brief duration. He was Prime Minister from 1932 to 1939.

Dame Enid was actively associated with the Australian Women's National League, the Victorian League, the Housewives Association, the Australian College of Nursing and the Country Women's League.

Her husband died in 1939. Four years later, she won the Tasmanian Federal seat of Darwin, now Braddon, and served as Vice President of the Executive Council in the Menzies Liberal Country Party Government in 1949-51. Resigning from Parliament because of ill health, she was a member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1951-52.

Dame Enid wrote extensively in verse and prose, and for some time broadcast commentaries on public affairs. She had lived in Devonport since 1917 and did the maintenance work at the family residence, Home Hill, for many years.

Despite these many interests and her indifferent health she wrote 'So We Take Comfort', 'These Old Haggis' and 'Among the Carrion Crows' – the latter title from a remark by a former Prime Minister, Mr W. M. Hughes. After she entered Parliament, Mr Hughes said to her: "Ah, there you sat, like a bird of paradise among carrion crows".

Dame Enid revealed in the book a conflict which developed between her husband and his ambitious Attorney-General, Mr R. G. Menzies, who became Liberal Prime Minister and Sir Robert Menzies. At first, Lyons regarded Mr Menzies as a man to whom he could hand over power although Mr Menzies' unpopularity and dominance worried him.

Many people considered that Mr Menzies, in a speech in 1938, had attacked the quality of Mr Lyons as Leader of the UAP. Dame Enid saw Mr Menzies as "the enemy within the gates" and disloyal to Mr Lyons.

She refused to be in an intrigue against Mr Menzies when he attained the Opposition leadership.

Sir Earle Page, who had been Deputy Prime Minister in the Bruce-Page coalition, suggested to her in 1943 a way to bringing Mr Menzies down. He said the Country Party would follow her to a man, if she broke away from the UAP and formed a separate group.

Dame Enid asked how she would fare in place of Mr Menzies as leader of the Opposition. Page replied: "You wouldn't have to do anything. We would do all the work. You would only have to be a figurehead".

That was never Dame Enid's style.

The Tasmanian political environment in which allegiances changed almost on a valley-valley basis did not affect Dame Enid. She had a fine record of service for the Tasmanian "family" and remained a respected figure, regardless of political changes.

She was committed to women's issues long before the feminist movement gained momentum.

Born on July 9, 1897, in Leesville, Tasmania, where her father, Mr William Burnell, was a sawmiller, she qualified, at the Teachers Training College in Hobart. She was not quite 18 when, in 1915, she married J. A. Lyons, also a former schoolteacher and then State Minister for Education.

The Tasmanian elections in 1925 had a strong family touch. Mr Lyons, then Premier for two years, was re-elected for Wilmot, but his wife and his mother-in-law Mrs Burnell failed in the seats where they stood as Labor candidates.

Mrs Lyons accompanied her husband in 1935, when as Prime Minister, he attended the Royal Jubilee Celebrations in London. Two years later, they attended the Coronation of King George VI and she received the award of Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire in the Coronation Honours List.

She was made a Dame in the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours List last year for her public and parliamentary service.

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'Lyons, Dame Enid Muriel (1897–1981)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/lyons-dame-enid-muriel-14392/text35573, accessed 19 September 2019.

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