Woman Benjamin, Phyllis


Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Born in Mosman in 1907, Phyllis Benjamin married in 1926. In 1940 she moved with her husband and four children to Hobart in 1940 following her husband's appointment as chief electrical engineer for the Hydro-Electric Commission. Her foray into community leadership began with the Red Cross, but she also joined the Labor Party shortly after her arrival in the state. After the war she achieved prominence through the Housewives Association, serving as Federal President in 1951-3 and 1967-8 and accepting appointments as a consumer representative to several government boards and committees. The Housewives Association, she argued, was not a militant organisation; 'we want only our rights' (Examiner, 3 October 1951). At the same time, however, she was rising through the ranks of the ALP having become a member of the State Executive in 1949. In 1952 she was elected as a Labor member for the seat of Hobart in the Legislative Council, a position she would hold until 1976, including a period from 1968-9 as leader of the House, the first woman to hold such a position in Australia.

Although Benjamin claimed that her election was an endorsement of the party and not the individual (Mercury, 13 May 1952), she also argued that women brought particular skills to public office. 'They are concrete rather than abstract in attacking a problem [because] motherhood and domestic duties have given them the knack of common sense in dealing with practical matters' (Examiner, 17 May 1952). Newspaper coverage emphasised her capability as a housewife and a cook who always had 'women's interests at heart' (Examiner, 13 May 1952). At the same time she insisted that women members should not 'merely speak for women nor … specialise solely in the problems of women' (West Australian, 16 December 1952). Rather she argued for equal citizenship rights at all levels of government: 'If returned soldiers were entitled to a vote, so were the women. If women were prepared to send their boys to war, then the women were entitled to have a vote' (Mercury, 28 November 1952). A similar principle governed her reaction when, in 1953, more radical women wanted to challenge their exclusion from official levees: 'I don't think women should defy tradition now and go to levees uninvited, but it does seem time the matter was straightened out so that women could have the same right of attendance as men' (Mercury, 11 June 1953).

Benjamin's rise to prominence within the ALP was less visible, but no less important. Representing Tasmania on the party's Federal Executive, she was the only woman amongst the '36 faceless men' depicted in 1963 as controlling the Party, although her presence went largely unnoticed in contemporary coverage (Fitzgerald). Benjamin retired from the Tasmanian Parliament in 1976 but continued to exercise leadership in several community organisations. Benjamin died on 6 April 1996.

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