Emma Miller

Louisa Emma Miller (1839-1917), labour activist and feminist, was born on 26 June 1839 at Chesterfield, England, eldest of four children of Martha (born Hollingworth) and Daniel Holmes, cordwainer. Of a Chartist family, she never forgot the early lessons which influenced her to live and die a rebel. Throughout her life she followed a creed learnt from the writings of Tom Paine: 'The world is my country; to do good is my religion'. She eloped with Jabez Silcock in 1857 and they had four children, whom she supported after his death by sewing 70 hours a week. In 1874 she married William Calderwood and in 1879 they migrated to Brisbane; William died the following year. Her third husband Andrew Miller, whom she married in Brisbane in 1886, died in 1897.

Emma was prominent in the women's movement, involved in the formation of a women's union in 1890, pushing for equal pay and votes for women. She was tireless in agitation and propaganda work for labour, a behind- the-scenes power for adherence to principle. The first woman member and life member of the Brisbane Workers' Political Organisation, she stressed the labour movement was as important for women as for men. She gave evidence, as a shirtmaker, to the 1891 royal commission into shops, factories and workshops, exposing the 'sweaters' and their exploitation of women workers. She believed that where conscience was satisfied, unpopularity should not matter: respectability meant acting in humanity's interests.

Emma, as foundation president of the Woman's Equal Franchise Association from 1894 to 1905, campaigned vigorously for the female franchise on the basis of one woman one vote. At the time the labour movement was fighting to abolish plural property votes. After repeated petitions, deputations and meetings the vote in State elections was won in 1905. The Worker paid tribute to Emma for her years of trusted and tireless leadership: her energy and enthusiasm 'would put women half her years to the blush . . . Wherever Progress has needed a faithful worker or an earnest voice she has been there every time. In doing honour to her the women of Queensland would do honour to themselves'.

With the first federal vote for women due in 1903, the Women Workers' Political Organisation was formed, with Emma as president, to capture the women's vote for Labour. Speaking at an election meeting, she declared, at the age of 65, 'I am only beginning to live'. On Black Friday, 2 February 1912, during the general strike, she led a contingent of women to Parliament House avoiding police with fixed bayonets; but on their return being charged by baton swinging police. Emma reputedly dug her hatpin into the horse of Police Commissioner Cahill, who was thrown and permanently injured; her family maintains she dug the hatpin into Cahill himself. The courage and spirit of this frail, old woman endeared her to people. She was proud to be called Mother Miller and the Grand Old Woman of Queensland Labour.

An internationalist and anti-militarist, Mrs Miller opposed the 1914-18 war, saying 'those who make the quarrel should be the only ones to fight'. She fought for free speech, civil liberties and against conscription. She preached equal pay to those who feared women taking conscripts' jobs at low rates. As vice-president of the Women's Peace Army, she was a delegate to the Peace Alliance Conference, Melbourne, 1916, and spoke at a rowdy Yarra bank meeting.

When Emma died in Toowoomba on 22 January 1917, the flag at the Trades Hall in Brisbane flew at half mast, the meatworkers' union conference was adjourned and progressive papers carried glowing tributes. A publicly funded bust was unveiled at the Trades Hall on 22 October 1922.

Pam Young