Jessie Cooper MLC SA 1959-79 and Joyce Steele MHA SA 1959-73

Jessie Cooper

Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele were the first women elected to South Australia’s parliament, Jessie Cooper winning a Legislative Council seat and Joyce Steele a seat in the Legislative Assembly at the elections on 7 March 1959.

South Australian women had been the first in Australia to win the right to vote and to stand for election, but it took 64 years before the first women entered the parliament.

Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele

On the day of their historic win, reporters asked both women how they would combine their domestic duties with politics. Joyce Steele said that she would have to get a housekeeper, while Jessie Cooper replied she would ‘fit in her housework in the same way as a male member fitted in the running of an orchard’ – a perhaps deliberate reference to long-term premier Thomas Playford. A newspaper columnist the following day commented ‘theirs is a tremendous responsibility. To be a ‘first’ is always so.

 . . I have no doubt that they will prove themselves equal to that responsibility.

Perhaps to ensure that outcome, Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele both employed housekeepers.

Both women made their maiden speeches in moving the Address-in-Reply in each House when the State Governor opened the new Parliament in July 1959. Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman member of Britain’s House of Commons forty years before, wrote: ‘You are doing better than I did; you are moving the Address! I can assure you that even my best friends hardly spoke to me inside the House of Commons’.

Jessie Cooper in her maiden speech proposed education reforms including schools of Oriental studies and emphasised the ‘enormous demand for university education’.

In her twenty years in the State’s Upper House she worked for issues relating to child welfare, and pressed for equal pay and ending other discrimination. It did not take her long to discover she did not share her parliamentary colleagues’ superannuation entitlements; she won this right for women parliamentarians.

In June 1979 Jessie Cooper crossed the floor with two colleagues to vote with the Labor Government, ensuring passage of the Santos Bill preventing businessman Alan Bond gaining a controlling shareholding in the State’s Cooper Basin oil and gas enterprise. She earned the ire of her Opposition colleagues and the following month announced her immediate retirement from parliament, rather than waiting for the election due later that year.

Joyce Steele acknowledged the history she was making in delivering her maiden speech in July 1959, the first made by a woman in the House of Assembly. She outlined the issues she intended to pursue, including food price control, a public transport service for disabled children, laboratory facilities for scientific research, and better coordination of social welfare programs.

In her second year in parliament Joyce Steele became the first woman appointed to the Council of the South Australian Institute of Technology. In 1963 she made further parliamentary history when she was the first woman appointed party Whip, a post she held at an historic moment in State politics. The 27-year government of Premier Thomas Playford ended in March 1965 with the election of Labor. Then, in April 1968, the Opposition Liberal Country League used an adjournment motion to take control of the Legislative Assembly, forcing the resignation of the first Labor government of Don Dunstan. On 17 April 1968 Joyce Steele was among the new ministers sworn in, becoming the State’s first woman Cabinet Minister. She was Minister of Education in the government of Premier Steele Hall until 1970, and then Minister for Social Welfare, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister for Housing until the return to power of the Dunstan government on 2 June 1970.

In her fourteen years in parliament, Joyce Steele won five elections, holding the seat of Burnside until 1970, and then the seat of Davenport until her retirement at the next election on 10 March 1973.

Politics before parliament

Jessie Cooper lived in Canberra from 1942, when her husband was posted to New Guinea. Then in her early twenties, she often went to Parliament House for Question Time in the House of Representatives. After the war ended in 1945, the Coopers settled in the Adelaide suburb of Burnside, where they both joined the local branch of the Liberal and Country League (LCL). Jessie Cooper became branch president and served on the State executive for ten years; her husband became a Liberal Party state president and a federal vice-president.

Jessie Cooper unsuccessfully sought LCL pre-selection for her Legislative Council district (Central No.2) in 1952. In 1958, with both sitting members retiring from the two seats, she won endorsement at her second attempt, defeating Frank Chapman among other Party hopefuls. A record seven women candidates won pre-selection for the 1959 State election in March 1959, including Margaret Scott, Australia Labor Party candidate for the same Legislative Council district. As both women won first place on their Party tickets, this seemed a guarantee voters would give the Legislative Council its first woman member.

But in February 1959, three weeks before the election, Frank Chapman and an LCL colleague challenged the right of women to stand for election to the Legislative Council. They sought a Supreme Court order barring the women candidates on the basis that the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in South Australia’s Constitution meant ‘person’ must be interpreted as excluding women. Five days before the election, the Court ruled that the question must be decided by the parliament. Jessie Cooper won the election comfortably. The Opposition then joined with the government of Thomas Playford to pass retrospective legislation enacted as the Constitution Amendment Act 1959 affirming women’s right to stand for both Houses of the South Australian parliament.

Joyce Steele’s parents were both active in local politics in their town in Western Australia and she was only ten when she first took part in political rallies, when her father, principal of a technical college, stood as local Mayor.

After her husband’s retirement Joyce Steele moved from a cattle property in the Kimberleys to Adelaide, where from 1941-43 she was the ABC’s first woman radio announcer in South Australia.

She was active in several organisations, including the Queen Adelaide Club, and successfully campaigned for the State to establish a school for the deaf. She was closely aware of this need, as one of daughters had lost her hearing after contracting rubella as a baby in north-western Australia. Joyce Steele was founding president of the South Australian Oral School in 1947 and served until 1968.

She joined South Australia’s Liberal and Country League (LCL) and in 1956 after unsuccessfully running for pre-selection for the West Torrens seat, became president of the Adelaide Women’s Branch of the LCL. In 1958, with the strong support of her family, she won pre-selection for the LCL’s safest metropolitan seat, Burnside, against the sitting member.

Politics after parliament

Jessie Cooper retired from politics as well as from parliament after the Santos Bill affair in 1979 ended her 20-year term. She enjoyed travelling, bridge and her music, including working with Musica Viva South Australia. Jessie Cooper died on 28 December 1993.

Joyce Steele retired from fourteen years in parliament on 10 March 1973. She continued her active involvement with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, including fundraising campaigns to support young musicians, and was made a member of the Order of the British Empire in the 1980 Imperial Honours List. Joyce Steele died on September 1991, aged 82.

Early lives

Jessie Cooper was born Jessie Mary McAndrew in Sydney in 1914. After completing school at St George High, she enrolled in a BA degree at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1936. A pianist, she completed her AMusA qualification and also did a business course. She worked as the secretary of the Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Pymble, before marrying Army officer Geoffrey Cooper in 1940. After the war ended in 1945, the couple moved to Adelaide and Geoffrey Cooper joined the family brewing company Coopers & Sons Ltd. They lived in the suburb of Burnside, where their son James was born in 1954.

Joyce Steele was born Joyce Wishart in Midland, Western Australia in 1909. She attended Perth College. At 27 she married 52-year-old Wilfred Steele and the couple lived for several years in the Kimberleys, managing a cattle property established by Sidney Kidman. Their son and one daughter were both born there. Wilfred Steele retired during the war and they moved to Adelaide, where their second daughter was born.

Facts – Jessie Cooper

Born: 1914, in Sydney
Died: 28 December 1993
Education: St George High School & University of Sydney (BA 1936); AMusA
Party: Liberal Country League
Married: 1940, to Geoffrey Cooper
Election: 7 March 1959
Parliamentary term: MLC SA 7 March 1959 – 10 July 1979

Facts – Joyce Steele

Born: 1909, in Midland Western Australia
Died: 24 September 1991
Education: Perth College
Party: Liberal Country League
Married: 1936, to Wilfred Steele
Election: 7 March 1959
Parliamentary term: MLA SA 7 March 1959 – 30 May 1970 (Burnside) & 30 May 1970 – 10 March 1973 (Davenport)
Honours: OBE 1981


Fitzherbert, Margaret Liberal Women: Federation to 1949 Sydney, Federation Press, 2004

Jenkins, Cathy No Ordinary Lives: pioneering women in Australian politics Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008

Jones, Helen In her own name Adelaide, Wakefield Press, 1994

Sawer, Marian & Marian Simms A Woman’s Place Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993