Emma Miller – Mother of the Australian Labor Party

Each March Queenslanders recognise the achievements of women with two important events – International Women’s Day (8 March) and Australian Women’s History Month.

Portrait of Mrs. Emma Miller. State Library of Queensland. Negative number 86511

Through the annals of Queensland’s history there are many women who can be considered trailblazers, women who had the strength and conviction to break the shackles of a male dominated society. Emma Miller is one of these women.

Born in 1839 in Derbyshire, England, Emma Miller, a tailoress and widow, migrated to Brisbane in 1879 with four young children in tow. Emma became a strong advocate for equal pay and entitlements for women. She also developed ties with a number of union movements, including the Australian Workers Union, and was involved in the 1891 Shearers’ Strike.  During her term as President of the Woman’s Equal Franchise Association (1894 – 1905) she advocated for the introduction of legislation to grant women the right to vote.

In February 2012 we reflected on the 100th anniversary of the 1912 General Strike. On 3 February during the “Black Friday” violent clash between demonstrators and the police, Emma Miller led a group of women protesters. During the skirmish with police it was alleged that Emma stabbed Police Commissioner Cahill’s horse with a hat pin causing him to be thrown to the ground.

Workers from the clothing industry form a line at the 1912 Brisbane strikes. Possibly led by unionist Emma Miller who on ‘Black Friday’ of the strike, ‘led a large contingent of women to Parliament House, braving the batons of foot and mounted police. She reputedly stuck a hatpin into the horse of Police Commissioner Cahill who was thrown and injured’ (Information taken from: Australian dictionary of biography, v. 10, 1986.). State Library of Queensland. Negative number 86511

The following article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald detailing Emma’s clash with police.

“The funny side of the morning fray was the attempt of a score of tradeswomen to rush the bayonets… The attacks were led by Mrs Miller, an aged spare little lady, who could almost be blown over in a puff of wind. They came along in a kind of sectional rush, and doubtless a little disconcerted the armed men who expected at least to have their faces scratched. The little band was against the wall of adamant. The police squad might have been dead for all the notice they took. They simply stood “eyes front” as the ladies could make no impression either with fierce glances or physical efforts, they beat a slow retreat.” Sydney Morning Herald 3 Feb 1912 p.17

Emma Miller died in Toowoomba in 1917. Her body was brought back to Brisbane and laid to rest in Toowong Cemetery. The epitaph on her gravestone reads, “The world is my country; to do good is my religion“.

The achievements of Emma Miller are still recognised today by the Queensland Council of Unions which annually presents the Emma Miller Award to women who have made a contribution to the union movement. A statue of Emma Miller stands in King George Square in Brisbane.

Statue of Emma Miller in King George Square, the heart of Brisbane’s CBD. Photo taken by the State Library of Queensland        Statue of Emma Miller in King George Square, the heart of Brisbane’s CBD. Photo taken by the State Library of Queensland        Statue of Emma Miller in King George Square, the heart of Brisbane’s CBD. Photo taken by the State Library of Queensland        Bust of suffragette Emma Miller. State Library of Queensland. Negative number 79731

“May the memory of her brilliant life ever remain a source of inspiration and courage to the thousands of her adopted children in the Labor movement who are zealously working for the emanicipation of down-trodden humanity along the lines laid down and faithfully followed by dear old Mother Miller during the whole of her magnificent career.” The Worker, Brisbane, 25 January 1917, p.6.

The State Library of Queensland holds an illuminated address on parchment presented to Sir Arthur Morgan, Premier of Queensland, July 1905 to commemorate the granting of women’s suffrage in Queensland. The document is personally signed by Emma Miller in her role as President of the Woman’s Equal Franchise Association.

6223 Queensland Women’s Adult Suffrage Address 1905. Illuminated address on parchment presented to Sir Arthur Morgan, Premier of Queensland, July 1905. The work commemorates the granting of women’s suffrage in Queensland and is signed by Emma Miller, President of the Woman’s Equal Franchise Association. From the collections of the State Library of Queensland        6223 Queensland Women’s Adult Suffrage Address 1905. Illuminated address on parchment presented to Sir Arthur Morgan, Premier of Queensland, July 1905. The work commemorates the granting of women’s suffrage in Queensland and is signed by Emma Miller, President of the Woman’s Equal Franchise Association. From the collections of the State Library of Queensland        6223 Queensland Women’s Adult Suffrage Address 1905. Illuminated address on parchment presented to Sir Arthur Morgan, Premier of Queensland, July 1905. The work commemorates the granting of women’s suffrage in Queensland and is signed by Emma Miller, President of the Woman’s Equal Franchise Association. From the collections of the State Library of Queensland

You can find information on International Women’s Day and Australian Women’s History Month on their respective websites.

Myles Sinnamon – Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland