Woman Phillips, Marion (1881 - 1932)

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
23 January 1932
London, England
Labour movement activist and Politician

Written by Kim Rubenstein, Australian National University

Marion Phillips, first Australian woman elected to a national parliament (UK Parliament), was born in 1881, the youngest of seven children of Philip David Phillips and Rose nee Asher, an eminent Jewish family in Melbourne. Amongst her cousins were Constance Ellis (the first woman to graduate MD from the University of Melbourne) and the famous painter Emanuel Phillips Fox.

With a mother committed to equal education for her daughters, Marion was schooled at home and then studied at Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC) Melbourne in 1897 and 1898 undertaking matriculation subjects in both years. In her final year she was also captain of the PLC cricket team (Patchwork, April 1898, p. 11). She became part of PLC's The '98 Brigade'- their photo appearing in M.O Reid's The Ladies Came to Stay (between pages 230 and 231) with Marion in the centre of the photo in the middle of the back row, standing tall with a calm and confident air. 'The '98 brigade of friendship' was true to its name; for every year since they left school - whenever two or three were in the same place they met on 2nd February and one other day in each year (Reid. p 223).

Marion began her studies at the University of Melbourne in 1899, and by the end of 1903 she had won the Cobden Club medal for political economy (1902), the Wyselaskie scholarship in political economy and English constitutional history (1903 and the first woman to do so), and exhibitions in logic, philosophy and history and the final honours scholarship in history after gaining the first place in her class. Her degree was conferred on 9 April 1904 and soon after she set off to the UK to take up a £50 scholarship to study economics and history with Graham Wallas at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Her D.Sc. (Economics) was awarded for a thesis published as A Colonial Autocracy, New South Wales Under Governor Macquarie 1810-21. In it you can hear her voice:

The author cannot let this opportunity pass of recording her grateful thanks to Mr. Graham Wallas and Mr. Sidney Webb. Mr. Graham Wallas supervised her work in his official capacity, but he took a very generous view of his duties, and the author can scarcely measure the extent to which she benefited by his advice, admonition and criticism. To Mr. Sidney Webb her debt is also great, for he read this thesis in manuscript and made invaluable suggestions. She owes much too to the School of Economics, for no seat of learning could with finer generosity have welcomed the stranger within the gates.

Marion, London, July 1909 (Phillips, p. ix).

In 1906 Marion began working as a research assistant for Beatrice and Sidney Webb investigating the position of widows and their children for the royal commission on the poor laws. It was through this work that she became a member of the Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party, the Women's Labour League, the Women's Trade Union League, for which she was briefly an organizer, and several suffrage societies.

We know she came back to Australia in 1911, again through her PLC connections because her cousin Constance Ellis, together with Vida Goldstein were Conveners of the Old Collegians' Congress of that year, the second after a successful meeting of Old Collegians held in 1903 during a visit of Madame Melba to her native land! Among the subjects listed for discussion as part of the Congress were: 'The Development of the Girl - Physical Mental and Moral', 'The Social Effects of the Minimum Wage', 'Australian literature and the Arts' and 'Women and Citizenship'. Marion Phillips is listed as one of the speakers and in light of her work she could well have spoken to both the 'Social Effects of the Minimum Wage' and 'Women and Citizenship'.

By 1914 Marion was back in the UK, and effectively running the Women's Labour League. She was elected to the Labour Party's War Emergency Workers' National Committee to organize the working-class response to the war. She negotiated the terms on which the Women's Labour League was incorporated into the reconstituted Labour Party in 1918 and became the party's chief woman officer (chief organizer). Under her leadership the women's section became one of the fastest growing and liveliest of the party's constituent organizations. She published books, pamphlets and reports, and edited The Labour Woman. She also served on the government's Reconstruction Committee (1917-18), on the consumers' council of the Ministry of Food (1918-19) and as secretary of the standing joint committee of industrial women's organizations (a female version of the Trades and Labour Council). She was a Councillor for the Borough of Kensington and a member of the advisory committee for London magistrates.

By 1926 Marion Phillips was nominated as the candidate for Sunderland, a constituency she held until the October 1931 election. As the first Australian woman to win a seat in a national parliament Phillips was reported, after the successful Australian Labor party election in 1929, as saying: 'I have only one criticism to offer regarding the Australian Labor victory. . . I have not yet seen the record of a Labor woman's success. A Labor Government without a woman member of the Cabinet or a Labor Party without a woman on the benches is still incomplete; otherwise the triumph was overwhelming' (Daily News, 16 October 1929)

Already ill with cancer, Phillips died in London on 23 January 1932 aged 50. Her fellow'98 Brigader Miss Enid Derham, wrote this about Marion in a set of epitaphs to her fellow brigaders appearing in M.O Reid's The Ladies Came to Stay (p 224):

Stay, voter, stay and drop a tear!
She's lost for parliamentary cities,
Who travelled safe for many a year
To die of sitting on committees:
So tired she is, she will not stir
Until some more than mortal clarion
To one last meeting summon her

Published Resources


  • Goronwy-Roberts, Marian, A Woman of Vision: A Life of Marion Phillips, MP, Bridge Books, Wales, 2000. Details
  • Reid, M. O., The Ladies Came to Stay: A Study of the Education of Girls at the Presbyterian Ladies College 1875 - 1960, Council of the College, Melbourne, Victoria, 1960. Details

Book Sections

  • Kingston, Beverley, 'Yours Very Truly, Marion Phillips', in Curthoys, Ann; Eade, Susan; and Spearritt, Peter (eds), Women at Work, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1975, pp. 123 - 131. Details

Journal Articles

  • Phillips, Marion, 'A Colonial Autocracy, New South Wales Under Governor Macquarie 1810 - 21', Studies in economics and political science, no. 16, 1909. Details


  • Patchwork: in Prose and Poetry, Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne, Victoria, April 1898 - 1899. Details

Online Resources

See also