Millicent Preston Stanley

Millicent Fanny Preston Stanley (1883-1955), politician, was born on 9 September 1883 in Sydney, only daughter of Fanny Helen (born Preston) and Augustine Gregory Stanley, grocer. Her father deserted the family and her mother was granted a divorce in 1895. There is no record of Millicent's schooling and though she attended the University of Sydney she did not graduate. In her early twenties she was employed by the Liberal League as an organiser, running musical evenings, mock elections and debates in inner suburban electorates where, she said, Labor polled well because Liberals neglected women.

She campaigned for conscription during the war. In 1917 during the transport strike, she ran a Loyal Service Bureau enrolling women volunteers. The government took little interest in her Bureau and she engaged in a flurry of feminist organising. As president of the Feminist Club from 1919 she developed its political program and formed or joined the Business Women's Efficiency League, the Business Woman's Prohibition League, the British Women's Immigration League and a Little Citizens' Kindergarten Movement.

Preston Stanley was among the first women in New South Wales to be gazetted justices of the peace (1921). After narrowly missing election for the multi-member state electorate of Eastern Suburbs in 1922, she was employed as a Temperance Alliance organiser contributing regularly to Grit. Two issues which she particularly pursued were racial hygiene and lower maternal mortality. On the former she supported proposals for improved institutional care for 'mental defectives', the prevention of the transmission of venereal disease being the objective. To lower maternal mortality she called for improved training of medical students; when the University of Sydney introduced a course in veterinary obstetrics, she called for 'Horses rights for women'.

Millicent was a fine platform performer, adroit at turning a heckler's remarks against him: when called a battle-axe, she retorted 'a battle-axe is a pretty useful weapon if it is kept sharp'. She succeeded in winning one of the Eastern Suburbs seats in 1925, the first woman to be elected to the New South Wales Parliament, but lost her seat on the return to single-member electorates in 1927. She raised in Parliament a range of issues of particular importance for women but, as the single woman Member, was largely ineffectual. The cause which came to dominate all others was that of a woman's right to custody of her children.

In 1924 actress Emilie Polini (Mrs Harold Ellis) sought custody of her three year old daughter to go to London to further her career. The judge denied her custody. Though he found Emilie of blameless character and her husband's untruthfulness the cause of their separation (circumstances which normally would result in custody for the mother), he was prepared to give Mrs Ellis custody only if she 'made a home' for her child, ignoring the fact that her husband failed to support them and she had to work. The Ellis case became the cause célèbre of the women's movement; numerous delegations waited on ministers to have the law changed to give a mother equal rights with a father's. Millicent joined in the protest. She wrote a play, Whose Child?, based on the Ellis case which she persuaded J. C. Williamson to stage. The Act was amended in 1934 though without the clause which she had fought hard to have included, which would have barred the court from ruling against a mother merely for wishing to follow her career outside its jurisdiction.

On 29 May 1934 Millicent married Crawford Vaughan, a widower and former politician. Marriage in no way dimmed her enthusiasm for public life. She continued to serve on the New South Wales council of the United Australia Party and was foundation president of its Women's Coordinating Council from 1935 to 1937. She was an executive member of the Australian Federation of Women Voters and the British Film League. She was one of a small group increasingly fearful of a Pacific war and intent on securing American support in the event of war. As a member of the British-American Cooperation Movement (1936) she was a delegate to the Pan-Pacific Women's Conference in Vancouver in 1937 and followed this with a lecture tour of America, using among other arguments that of the likely ruin of America's cotton industry if Japan conquered China. On her return she urged a publicity campaign featuring Australia's independence of Britain.

During the 1939-45 war, as director of the Women's Australian National Services she helped coordinate voluntary work. After her husband's death in 1947, Mrs Vaughan fought her last political campaign in the Australian Women's Movement against Socialisation, helping to bring about the defeat of the Chifley Labor Government. She featured a cartoon camel with a woman's head carrying 'Mums' burdens' - each label a political message. She died on 23 June 1955.

Heather Radi