When Edith Cowan became the first woman to be elected in Australia, winning the seat of West Perth on March 12, 1921, she had to duck home if she wanted to go to the toilet as there were no women's toilets in the building. Thankfully, she lived close by the West Australian parliament, a brisk four-minute walk. She did this for the three years she was in office.
One hundred years on, female politicians have continued to show such fortitude, fighting against injustices and inequalities, against misogyny and ... yes, even fighting to get toilet facilities in the building.
When Parliament House was opened in Canberra in 1927, there were no women's toilets in the building. Even though Australia was the first country in the world in which women could both vote and run for parliament, no one thought they would ever make it to Canberra.
How wrong they were.
ABC commentator Annabel Crabb had always wanted to mark the centenary of Cowan's election with a documentary about women in Parliament. She wanted to capture the stories that women in politics tell each other, but rarely share more often because of the disinclination most have to make their gender more of an issue than it already is.
Over the course of 2020, she conducted interviews with many female politicians, asking them about everything from pre-selection to wardrobe malfunctions, children to filling quotas, to those issues which fill our news feeds today, such as sexual harassment and gender inequality.
The result is Ms Represented, a four-part series premiering on the ABC on July 13, a raw and honest account of politics from the female perspective.
"Australia was the first independent nation in the world where women could both vote and run for Parliament," says Crabb. "But it took us a long time to actually elect any women, and when we did, we expected them to fit into the system that was already there.
"The struggle of female parliamentarians to be heard, to be respected, and to prosper in our federal Parliament is a thrilling and inspiring one, full of extraordinary stories that our cast tell with grace, humour and the deep authority of experience."
The cast list is full of female firsts. Julia Gillard, our first female prime minister. Anne Aly, the first woman of Islamic faith to be elected to the federal parliament. Bronwyn Bishop, the first NSW woman elected to the Senate. Julie Bishop, the first woman to serve as deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Sarah Hanson-Young, the youngest woman to be elected to the Australian Parliament. Ros Kelly, the first woman to represent an ACT seat in the House of Representatives.
Julia Banks, Quentin Bryce, Linda Burney, Emma Husar, Cheryl Kernot, Carmen Lawrence, Marise Payne, Nova Peris, Margaret Reynolds, Natasha Stott Despoja, Kate Sullivan, Judith Troeth, Amanda Vanstone and Penny Wong also share their stories. Proud, angry, determined, sad, hilarious stories about their time in politics.
"It's been such a privilege to work on this," says Crabb. "People say that about things, but with this series, just to stop and think about what has been achieved over the past century, has been a real honour.
"We're so used to politics happening so quickly and there's a tendency, sometimes, not to stop and reflect on it, and we're living through a period of such huge change.
"For these women to take a few hours out of their day, for them to sit back and reflect on gender issues, we heard some amazing things."
Crabb believes there are strong disincentives for women in politics to talk about gender.
"They feel like they're painting a target on their back sometimes if they talk about gender issues," she says.
"We talked at length with Julia Gillard and she explained why she kind of avoided talking about gender issues for the first part of her prime ministership.
"She didn't want to give up time that she could spend talking about other stuff. She was worried that if she started talking about gender, then that would be the only thing that people would expect her to talk about.
"It's a real puzzle for women in politics. And it's not something men in politics ever have to either tackle or deal with, or even imagine that that could be a problem."
If there's one thing the series makes you think about, it's this very thing. How many issues only affect female politicians, whether it be wardrobe choices, or admitting you're ambitious or whether to have children? Nobody bats an eye, well barely, when the Deputy Prime Minister extends his second family with two babies in the space of a year, yet when Hanson-Young arrived in the senate with her daughter Kora in 2009, the baby was ejected from the chamber floor on account of being a "stranger". In 1983, when Ros Kelly became the first woman to give birth while serving in the federal Parliament, she went back to work days after giving birth. Fearful of being thought neglectful of her constituents, she was slammed for neglecting her baby.
Another "invisible" issue is highlighted in episode two where the women, from different generations and different ends of the political spectrum, all talk about what happens when you're the only woman in the room.
"The testimonies they all have are so bizarrely similar to each other, about the fact that they can say something and have it not really heard or registered, and then hear a bloke say the same thing five minutes later, and everybody is suddenly hearing it. I mean, that, to me, was the most shocking part of the series actually," says Crabb.
She wonders how so many women can have this same story about not being heard, and says the answer is deeply rooted in the culture of Parliament House, "a building which works like no other I know".
"It's been more than three decades since the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, which is supposed to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, but what we're finding out is that in the very building in which that legislation was designed is actually a place where that behaviour has gone unchecked for a very long time.
"It works differently to other workplaces, the power structures are unique to the building in some ways and what we've discovered over the past six months, is that there are these undercurrents of behaviour that people don't think they can call out because there are other powers at play."
Just this week, former Liberal MP Julia Banks, who is interviewed in Ms Represented, alleges in her new memoir Power Play that she was inappropriately touched at Parliament House by an unnamed MP while parliamentarians waited in the then Prime Minister's office for a vote in the House of Representatives.
The former commercial lawyer says she assumed parliament would be like a "slick operating corporate machine, very much like a blue chip company" when she first headed there in 2016, "whereas in fact it's the complete opposite, it's not the place of governance and order and control you would expect".
There's an interview with Hanson-Young which looks back at an incident from December 2014 involving then senator Cory Bernardi. It's disturbing, but perhaps reflective of the culture.
Kate Sullivan was elected to the Senate from Queensland in 1974. Nicknamed "the kissing senator" because of her good looks, she served on the Coalition's front bench and then ran for the Lower House, winning the Gold Coast seat of Moncrieff in 1984. She was the first woman to serve in both houses of parliament.
During the making of Ms Represented, strengthened by the resolve of Brittany Higgins, Sullivan recounts a sexual assault she alleges happened to her inside Parliament House more than 30 years ago.
"Kate is quite an extraordinary person," says Crabb. "She wouldn't be on the top 10 list of female politicians you could recall, but she served in extraordinary times.
"When she arrived in the Senate, there weren't even ladies' toilets, she was asked to change her name to Kathy to appear friendlier.
"We had already done the interviews for the television series and when the Brittany Higgins story came out she called us back and said there was something she needed to tell us.
"She said it all occurred while the Senate was actually considering the Sex Discrimination Act."
Crabb says 2020 was a weird reflective year, which she thinks helped the women to open up and speak relatively freely. Another thing which may have helped was the death of former Labor minister Susan Ryan.
Ryan was a keen supporter of the project before her sudden death in September 2020. The on-camera interview had been delayed as Ryan was getting the floors done in her home. Crabb was due to interview her about four days after she died.
Ryan, who was a senator for the ACT from 1983 until 1988, became the first woman from the ALP to serve in Cabinet. She was Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women from 1983 to 1988, Minister for Education and Youth Affairs from 1983-84, Minister for Education 1984-87 and Special Minister of State, 1987-88.
Most notably she was instrumental in the development of the Sex Discrimination Act.
"Susan was this sort of incredible pioneer of Australian politics but a lot of interviews with her revolved around what it was like to work for Bob Hawke, or Paul Keating, they involved the powerful men around her.
"I think her untimely death really redoubled enthusiasm for finding and telling these stories and capturing them, while the women who lived them are still around.
"What these women have lived through is this sort of incredible transitional stage of Australian Parliament, going from having no women to having one-third women, and on it's way to 50-50 we hope, is quite a profound thing to live through and experience."
I wonder if we'll ever reach 50-50. When Edith Cowan first entered politics, most people thought a woman's place was in the home. One hundred years on, I don't know if Parliament, if politics, is any place I would like to work, or would like my daughter's generation to work.
"There is evidence to suggest that young women look at politics and think it just doesn't look like something I'd enjoy," says Crabb.
"But perhaps we don't often sit down enough to recognise the changes that women have been able to make in politics. Because politics seems like this high-octane, often quite brutal environment, you don't necessarily very often sit down with these individual women who have made a huge difference and ask them if it was worth it, ask them what drives them or what they've managed to do in politics.
"I hope this series has managed to capture these women in a bunch of different moods, because the stories are mixed.
"They have had great triumphs and moments of achievement, moments of frustration, moments of humor, they have a lot of laughs, even among themselves.
"Most of our participants, when asked, say absolutely, that even though the jobs that they've done have been incredibly taxing, and sometimes frustrating, they can look at what they've achieved and feel absolutely as though they've made a difference. Not just for themselves, but for women that come after them in politics and for women in the population more broadly."
- Ms Represented premieres on the ABC on July 13, at 8pm, with all four episodes available on iview.
- The six-episode podcast, with Annabel Crabb and comedian Steph Tisdell, is available on the ABC listen app from July 13.