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Even in 2016, being a female politician seems a fraught experience. Your dress sense and hairstyles are analysed. The role your partner plays, your choice of partner, your role as a parent, your decision not to be a parent are scrutinised in a way no male politician is subjected to.
We have had one female Prime Minister, several State Premiers, some Cabinet Ministers, and many Members of Parliament. Just recently our Defence Minister’s statements on involvement in Syria were being judged on the grounds of her sex, rather than her party’s policies.
Imagine then, being elected to Parliament, in 1925 at the age of 31, the first Labor woman Parliamentarian in Australia – such is The Magnificient Life of Miss May Holman, transformed from the archives collected by Dr Judyth Watson, by Lekkie Hopkins.
Edith Cowan was the first woman ever elected to an Australian parliament, both she and May held seats in Western Australia. Enid Lyons was the first woman elected to Federal Parliament, in 1943, but it has taken women a long time to be a presence in Australian politics and equality of representation has by no means been achieved.
Ms Hopkins not only has given an intriguing account of May Holman’s personal life, but also controls the details of the troubled decades of the twenties and thirties with the complexities of Australian and international political life.
May Holman was the eldest daughter of John Holman an official of the timber workers union who later represented them in parliament. She worked in the office of the union, and on her father’s death was elected to the seat of Forrest. John Holman was a domineering man; one of the key scenes in the book is the description of May’s 21st birthday.
Lekkie Hopkins paints the scene of the festivities – the home cooked food, a table laden with gifts, the decorated hall, May playing at the piano. (She was a gifted pianist and singer and ran a concert group during the war years.) The scene is disrupted by John Holman’s fury. He has just found out that May has secretly married Joe Gardiner, a man he despised. The table of gifts is smashed to pieces.
This secret marriage is a curiosity of May’s life. Why did she do it? The marriage apparently was never consummated; Joe and May never lived together and were soon divorced.
On her father’s death, May not only took over the constituency of Forrest. There were seven children in the Holman family and May had promised her father to look after them. Their Mother, Kathleen, had been very involved in various women’s activities in Perth, as well as running this large household, but by the time the children had grown it was obvious she was an alcoholic. This was, according to the times, hidden away and May took on her mother’s responsibilities too. The siblings were a close knit group and very supportive of May in her election campaigns. The other six all married, leaving May, at times, somewhat desolate.
May declared she was not a feminist. The press made much of her stylish dressing and she was often patronised by male members of parliament, Hopkins gives several instances where she certainly bested her fellow parliamentarians. May Holman’s view was that she was there to represent her constituents. From her work at the union, she knew the working conditions of the foresters and often visited the small towns in the southwest of the state. She championed the cause of dental health for the children of the area. Unlike the few other women parliamentarians in Australia, she voted in the House on party lines, not on lines of gender.
In her fourteen years in parliament, she sat on a number of inter-state committees, traveling to the Eastern States to attend meetings. She also represented Australia at the League of Nations in Geneva.
In the 1939 election in Western Australia, she was travelling to one last booth with her sister when a mechanical fault caused an accident and May Holman was killed.
Her death was mourned around Australia, and the funeral in Perth was a large one with the streets lined with mourners.
Lekkie Hopkins has had access to an amazing amount of source material, She quotes from personal papers, newspapers, meeting notes, Hansard at length. I particularly liked the accounts from newspapers which give such a feel for the attitudes of the times. Ms Hopkins frequently speculates about events – what might relationships have been e.g. May Holman’s connections with Katherine Susannah Pritchard, what a scene may have looked like to onlookers, eg the 21st birthday party and what it was like in the car the evening of the fatal crash. This is a technique I personally don’t warm to, though others may.
Such a remarkable woman. May Holman is no longer a household name, but those women in politics today surely stand on her shoulders.
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