Margaret Guilfoyle: Irish born first female finance minister of Australia

The Belfast woman broke multiple barriers for women, and her intellect and good humour won over even her political opponents

Margaret Guilfoyle was the highest-ranking woman ever in the Australian government until Julia Gillard became prime minister in 2010.

Margaret Guilfoyle was the highest-ranking woman ever in the Australian government until Julia Gillard became prime minister in 2010.


Born: May 15th, 1926
Died: November 11th, 2020

Margaret Guilfoyle, an Irish-born Australian senator and Cabinet minister who broke multiple barriers for women in politics, died November 11th. She was 94.

“Dame Margaret opened doors for Australian women that will never be shut again,” Scott Morrison, Australia’s Liberal prime minister, said in a statement. “This is her great legacy.”

As a member of prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s Cabinet from 1975-83, Guilfoyle was the first woman to run an Australian government department and the first female finance minister. She was also the seventh woman in the Australian Senate, where she served for 16 years as a member of the Liberal Party, Australia’s main conservative party.

Guilfoyle was the highest-ranking woman ever in the Australian government until Julia Gillard became prime minister in 2010. Although she protected women’s interests in her work and sought to advance women in politics, Guilfoyle did not identify as a conventional feminist and said she wanted to avoid “tokenism.”

That idea was lost on the Australian news media, which called Guilfoyle “a mother with political ambitions” and “a housewife with a big say on prices”. She drew frequent comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, that Guilfoyle considered inaccurate.

I was aware that, at any time, a woman must be capable of independence

Guilfoyle’s skills, intellect and good humour won over even her political opponents on the left. Susan Ryan, a minister for women in the 1980s, said earlier this year that Guilfoyle was “capable and compassionate, a shining example to all of us, including on the Labor side.” (Ryan died in September.)

Highly regarded

According to her biographer, Margaret FitzHerbert, Guilfoyle was described by journalist Michelle Grattan in 1980 as “highly regarded but not charismatic, respected by her colleagues rather than popular among them, a determined personality who, when she pulls on a fight, can be politically deadly.”

Margaret Georgina Constance McCartney was born May 15th, 1926, in Belfast, Northern Ireland – the second of three children. Her father, William McCartney, was a civil servant, and her mother, Elizabeth Jane (Ellis) McCartney, was a former teacher. In 1928, they moved the family to Melbourne, Australia. After her father died when Guilfoyle was 10, her mother raised her and her siblings as a single parent. Growing up, “I was aware that, at any time, a woman must be capable of independence,” Guilfoyle said in a 1992 speech.

According to her Senate biography, Guilfoyle attended Fairfield State School and Westgarth Central Business College in Melbourne. By age 15, she was working full time as a secretary while studying at night at Taylors Institute of Advanced Studies and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, becoming a qualified accountant.

In 1947, Guilfoyle was hired as the head accountant of an export company. She said her professional qualifications gave her an advantage over men trying to catch up as they returned from military service in the second World War, in a reversal of the challenge women often face when they take time away from their careers.

“I cannot claim that I had overcome great adversity in doing this,” Guilfoyle said. “The timing and the circumstance suited my aspirations.”

In 1952, she married Stanley Martin Leslie Guilfoyle, an accountant, with whom she had two daughters and a son. She decided to go into private practice so she could spend more time with her family, all of whom survive her along with four grandchildren, her son-in-law and her daughter-in-law.

Political opportunity

In 1967, Guilfoyle became chairwoman of the Women’s Section of the Liberal Party. When a Senate vacancy appeared in 1970, she was encouraged to pursue it.

“I hadn’t considered any other opportunity to enter politics,” she said. “I am not the sort of person to seek opportunities, and if it hadn’t been presented to me, I don’t know that I would have tried again.”

Guilfoyle beat out about 20 other candidates who were interviewed for the ticket, shooting back when a delegate asked who would take care of her children while she was at work.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole of my parliamentary career

She began her Senate term in July 1971 at age 45, one of only two women in Parliament. Guilfoyle made a point of joining committees that were focused on finances rather than family issues, although when senators were debating a law providing paid maternity leave to government employees, she argued that maternity leave should be extended to all women.

When Fraser, leader of the Liberal Party, was named caretaker prime minister in November 1975, Guilfoyle became education minister. The following month, after Fraser’s resounding victory in the general election, she was named minister of social security, making her the first female Cabinet minister to hold a portfolio. (Australia’s first female Cabinet member, Enid Lyons, was appointed a minister without portfolio in 1949.)

As social security minister, Guilfoyle resisted pressure to cut benefits — 83 per cent of payments went to women, she said — and made the child allowance a cash payment instead of a tax rebate. She was also in charge of child care issues and “presided over a major expansion of government support for preschool, child care and after-school care,” Morrison said.

With Fraser’s reelection in 1980, Guilfoyle was named finance minister, which she said was “perhaps the most interesting part of the whole of my parliamentary career.” She played an influential role in several federal budgets.

When the Fraser government was voted out in 1983, Guilfoyle remained in the Senate, where she supported a contentious law against sex discrimination that was passed the following year.

Public roles

After she retired from her seat in 1987, Guilfoyle completed a law degree at The Australian National University. She also continued to take on public roles, including as a member of the National Inquiry Into the Human Rights of People with Mental Illness from 1990-93 and chairwoman of the Judicial Remuneration Tribunal from 1995-2001. From 1993-95, she was board president of the Royal Melbourne Hospital. She was also a board member at the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, the Victorian State Opera, the Mental Health Research Institute and the Infertility Treatment Authority.

Although Guilfoyle took pains not to be defined by her gender, she also worked to pave the way for others. In 1993, she was appointed chairwoman of the Liberal Women’s Forum, which had been formed to encourage more women from the party to run for Parliament. In 2001, she was co-chairwoman of an initiative to increase the number of women nominated for Australian honours and awards.

In 2005, Guilfoyle received one of those awards herself, being appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia “for significant contributions to public life.” She had also been made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1980.

In her 1992 speech, Guilfoyle said that as a senator, she “was often asked whether I was the first woman doing this or that.”

“I always said that I thought that was not important,” she said. “What was important was that I not be the last.” – New York Times