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Margaret Guilfoyle: Belfast-born trailblazer in Australian politics dies

Tributes for country's first woman to run governmental department

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Pioneer: Margaret Guilfoyle

Pioneer: Margaret Guilfoyle

Pioneer: Margaret Guilfoyle

A Belfast-born politician who became the first woman to run an Australian government department has died.

Margaret Guilfoyle passed away, aged 94, after a trailblazing career which saw her serve as a senator and a cabinet minister.

Scott Morrison, Australia's Liberal prime minister, said: "Dame Margaret opened doors for Australian women that will never be shut again… this is her great legacy."

Serving in Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's cabinet from 1975 to 1983, she was the first female finance minister and also the seventh woman to serve in the Australian Senate - a seat she held for 16 years.

It was only when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010 that a woman held a more senior role in politics.

She died on November 11 but her passing was only announced by the Liberal Party on Thursday.

Born in Belfast on May 15, 1926, Margaret Georgina Constance McCartney was the second of three children.

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Her father William McCartney was a civil servant while her mother Elizabeth Jane (Ellis) McCartney worked as a teacher before her marriage.

The family moved to Melbourne in 1928, but Ms Guilfoyle's father died when she was 10.

In a 1992 speech she recalled how watching her mother raise her children single-handedly taught her that "at any time, a woman must be capable of independence".

Having attended Fairfield State School and Westgarth Central Business College in Melbourne, she was working full time as a secretary from the age of 15 while attending night school to become an accountant.

By 1947, she had risen to the position of head accountant for an export company.

Marrying fellow accountant Stanley Martin Leslie Guilfoyle in 1952, she had two daughters and a son. Going into private practice gave her more time with her family.

By 1967 she became chairwoman of the Women's Section of the Liberal Party and was encouraged to pursue a seat in the Senate in 1970.

When she won pre-selection against 20 male candidates to run for a Senate seat in 1970, she famously shut down a question from a male MP who asked who would look after her three children.

She responded: "I'm asking you to make a decision to give me responsibility to be a representative in the Senate and I would ask that you would accept that I have responsibility to make the decisions regarding my family."

The New York Times reported that although she championed women's interests, she did not think of herself as a traditional feminist and preferred to avoid "tokenism".

She also rejected comparisons between her and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Despite breaking the mould of the male dominated political world in Australia, the media still branded her as "a housewife with a big say on prices".

Winning respect across the political divide, former minister for women Susan Ryan described her this year as "capable and compassionate, a shining example to all of us, including on the Labor side".

In 1980, journalist Michelle Grattan assessed her 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."


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