Tuesday, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. It’s an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and to call for greater equality for women, no matter where they are in the world. The theme for IWD 2016 is ‘Pledge For Parity’. The theme recognises the progress women have made throughout the world but also recognises that the pace for gender parity has actually slowed in many places. I am Pledging for Parity by sharing the story of a Queensland Women’s Rights pioneer.
Emma Miller (1836 – 1917) was born in Derbyshire, England. A rebel from the start, she eloped at the age of 18 and had four children before her husband died. Upon marrying again, she migrated to Brisbane in 1879 whereupon her second husband died a year later. Ever the optimist, Emma married a third time to Andrew Miller.
In 1890, Emma helped form the first female worker’s union for garment workers and in 1894 she became the president of the Women’s Equal Franchise Association. After years of lobbying, women were finally granted the right to vote for Queensland Parliament in January 1905, three years after they were able to vote in Federal elections.
In 1912 on ‘Black Friday’ Emma led a large group of women unionists to Parliament House as part of the Brisbane General Strike where tens of thousands protested over the basic right to join a union. Police used batons and arrests to subdue the crowd but they hadn’t reckoned on Emma Miller. Despite being a tiny woman in her 70’s of less than 40kg, she stood her ground and when challenged, swiftly removed a hatpin and stuck it into the rump of the Police Commissioner’s horse. It reared and threw him, leaving him with a limp and a permanent reminder that violence against women is not acceptable.
Emma Miller died in Toowoomba in January 1917 and is buried in Toowong Cemetery in Brisbane. She is an important figure in the labour movement, women’s suffrage and Queensland history. She is remembered by a statue in King George Square, a primary focal point during the 1912 strike. There is also Emma Miller Place, a park nearby with amphitheatre style seating where unions and social justice groups still convene for rallies and celebrations. Every year, the Emma Miller Award is presented by the Qld Council of Unions to women who have made an outstanding contribution to their union.
Happy International Women’s Day!