Emma Miller

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Emma Miller

Emma Miller (26 June 1839 – 22 January 1917) was a pioneer trade union organiser, suffragist, and key figure in organisations which led to the founding of the Australian Labor Party in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Early life[edit]

Miller was born in Chesterfield, England, to a family with Unitarian beliefs and activism in the Chartist movement. She married three times and had four children, migrating to Queensland with her second husband in 1879. In Queensland she worked as a gentlemen's shirt maker and seamstress. In 1888 she helped found a local Freethought Association, where she first became known for her radical opinions, and articulated her opinions on equal pay and equal opportunity for women in the workplace.

Trade union activism[edit]

Along with May Jordan, she formed the first women's union in Brisbane in September 1890 supported by a campaign by William Lane in the Brisbane Worker newspaper. As a seamstress she gave evidence at the 1891 Royal Commission into Shops, Factories and Workshops, that highlighted the existence of many sweatshops that exploited women workers. Through this period Miller was an active participant in the Early Closing Association.

With the great strikes of the 1890s, Miller was active in supporting the 1891 Australian shearers' strike and in setting up the Prisoners' Relief Fund for the twelve arrested strike leaders. While William Lane chose to set up in 1892 the New Australia community in Paraguay along socialist lines which attracted many labour activists, Emma Miller believed Lane was "opting out of the struggle" and became a foundation member of the Workers' Political Organisation, a forerunner of the Australian Labor Party in Queensland. She became colloquially known as Mother Miller as the most dominant female figure in the Queensland labour movement.

Women's enfranchisement[edit]

The establishment of the Women's Equal Franchise Association in 1894, almost immediately suffered a split with Leontine Cooper leaving to form the Women's Suffrage League, alleging that the WEFA was too close to the labour movement which could hinder women's enfranchisement. Miller remained and was elected President of the Women's Equal Franchise Association (1894 - 1905), the remaining period of its existence. Despite the differences, Emma Miller, Leontine Cooper and the conservative Women's Christian Temperance Union often worked together on suffrage issues.[1][2]

Women were enfranchised under the Federal Electoral Act on 9 April 1902, becoming the first women of the world to win the right to vote for a national parliament. (Women in New Zealand won the right to vote in colonial elections in 1893). Members of the Women's Equal Franchise Association actively canvassed for the women's vote for the December 1903 Federal election, by forming the Women Workers' Political Organisation with Emma Miller as president. After the Federal election Miller stood down as president, but became President of the Political Labour Council in Brisbane. Women were granted the vote for the Queensland parliament on 25 January 1905, although not the right to stand for parliament. The following year Emma Miller embarked on a tour of western Queensland under the auspices of the Australian Workers' Union, speaking at large public rallies and helping to form local branches of the Workers' Political Organisation and the Women Workers' Political Organisation.

Later life[edit]

Brisbane General Strike[edit]

During the 1912 Brisbane General Strike for the right to organise trade unions, Miller thrust her hatpin into the Police Commissioner's horse causing the Police Commissioner permanent injury, a feat for which she is remembered.

Women's Peace Army[edit]

She was also involved in anti-conscription activism over the course of World War I by joining the Women's Peace Army when Cecilia John and Adela Pankhurst visited Brisbane in 1915. The following year she attended the Australian Peace Alliance conference in Melbourne, and is reputed to have attended the Yarra Bank where she denounced militarism from her soapbox. The campaign against the first conscription referendum on 28 October 1916 was a success, attributed by many historians to the strong women's anti-conscription campaign.


Emma Miller statue in King George Square, Brisbane
Emma Miller Place, 2013

In January 1917 Emma Miller travelled to Toowoomba for several weeks rest. At her last public meeting in the Toowoomba Botanical Gardens she impressed on the women present the "need to play a part in the Labor movement as it meant as much to them as the men". Two days later Emma Miller died of cancer. The flag at Brisbane Trades Hall was flown at half mast for the "mother of the Australian Labor Party". A state funeral was offered but was refused by her surviving son.

A marble bust of her by James Laurence Watts exists at the Queensland Council of Unions,[3] and a statue is located in King George Square in Brisbane.[4] There is also an Emma Miller Place located off Roma Street in Brisbane. The Emma Miller Award is presented each year by the Queensland Council of Unions to women who have made an outstanding contribution to their union.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Women's Equal Franchise Association. (1894-1905)". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  2. ^ "Chronology of Women's Suffrage in Queensland". University of Queensland. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  3. ^ "The Late Emma Miller.". Worker (Brisbane, Qld. : 1890 - 1955) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia). 26 October 1922. p. 15. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 
  4. ^ "Statue of Emma Miller, King George Square". Weekend Notes. Retrieved 1 March 2015. 

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