Anna Bligh yesterday was sworn in as Queensland’s first woman premier. Her legacy from the remarkable Peter Beattie includes a large majority in parliament and a commanding lead in the opinion polls. If she goes on to win the next election, Bligh will be the first woman in Australia to reach that milestone at state or federal level.

Britain, Canada, France, Germany and New Zealand have all had women prime ministers, and a woman is favorite to be elected president in the US next year. But Australia lags behind; as recently as 1980 there was not a single woman in the House of Representatives, and only two had sat there (for just one term each) in the previous 30 years. (The parliamentary library has a complete list here.)

We have had women premiers before – Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia and Joan Kirner in Victoria – but each inherited an impossible electoral position, and they led governments that were doomed to defeat from the beginning.

Women have been successful local and territory leaders – Sallyanne Atkinson in Brisbane, Kate Carnell in the ACT, Clare Martin in the Northern Territory. Several women have also led the Australian Democrats, including current leader Lyn Allison (although that may just have reinforced the electorate’s perception of them as not entirely serious).

The practice of the major parties, however, suggests that, despite their protestations, they regard women as an electoral liability. Once upon a time that was clearly true, but the success of women candidates over the last decade should have put paid to the idea. Yet the highest levels of political leadership remain largely a male preserve.

The rise of Anna Bligh is a sign that the tide might be finally turning. The omens are good at federal level as well: Labor’s Julia Gillard looks like becoming our first female deputy prime minister, and if the polls are right about the government’s fate then Western Australia’s Julie Bishop may be one of the few credible leadership contenders left on the Liberal side.

But there have been false hopes before: remember the hype surrounding Bronwyn Bishop and Carmen Lawrence in the early 1990s. Best to wait and see whether Australia’s male leaders really are willing to share power.