Australia is in the habit of forgetting many of its brightest figures. A seamstress who led a political movement with both wit and grit is one of them. Emma Miller, otherwise known as “Mother Miller” was an Australian revolutionary. Seamstress, suffragette, leader and avid supporter of trade unions, Miller was working class hero.
Born in England, Emma migrated to Queensland in 1879, bringing along populist ideals that would change Australia forever. Throughout Emma’s life, she was an active promoter of women, workers’ rights, and the idea one vote for every person. Emma was a small woman, yet her spirit and determination were larger than life.
As a prominent member of Brisbane’s Free-thought Association, she was an unyielding campaigner for equal pay and the rights of the working class. In that time, she built her reputation as a bold radical thinker.
She also developed a name as a strong and charismatic public speaker. Emma was invited to speak at numerous public meetings on women’s suffrage. In 1890, she took she created the first women’s union in Brisbane.
Being a tradesperson herself, Emma gave evidence at the Royal Commission into Shops, Workshops, and Factories in 1891. “Back in the day,” women workers commonly received less pay and were subject to harassment.
Emma was elected president of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association (WEFA) in 1884. Emma was a woman before her time, believing that gender inequality and class were overlapping issues. However, many disagreed with her, believing that the exploitation of the working class was a separate issue to the poor treatment of women.
Meanwhile, the upper class continued to rule over the country. Farmers were entitled to a vote for each of their properties. And the rich farmers would buy, or inherit multiple properties.
Emma continued to campaign for one vote for one person, and that included women. Something that was predictably unpopular with the elites. The Telegraph newspaper called Emma and the other members of WEFA “autocratic,” and accused them of “hijacking the Labor Party.”
Emma would accept nothing less than complete fairness in Australia’s voting system. And in 1904, women in Queensland were the right to vote in federal elections. Emma took another step in advancing equality one year later. She became a member of the Brisbane Political Labor Council.
But the battle for equality continued. After members of the Australian Tramways Association were sacked for being members of a union, the historical General Strike of 1912 began.
At 72-years-old, Emma played a pivotal and notorious, role in the protests. On 2 February, which would go down in history as Black Friday, protesters were denied permission to march that day. Still, Emma organised the 300 women who had come to protest, and they moved forward. When the police couldn’t stop the strike, they resorted to violence, lashing out at the women with their batons.
Emma fought back with only a hatpin. She stuck it into the rear end of the Police Commissioner’s horse. The Commissioner soon found himself on the ground, thrown from his stead in a very undignified manner! Emma’s actions that day were celebrated by her friends and fellow unionists as a victory against the oppressive authorities.
Even after being diagnosed with cancer, Emma remained active. During WW1, Emma joined the committee for the Anti-Conscription Campaign and often gave speeches on the need for peace.
In 1917, Emma passed away after a long struggle with cancer. On the day of her death, Trades Hall flew the Australian flag at half-mast in honour of Emma activism. Fiercely protective and brave, Emma Miller was called the “Mother of the Labor Party.” She was a tireless campaigner for the downtrodden and working class, making her story one that needs to be told.