A review of The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Australia’s First Female Labor Parliamentarian by Lekkie Hopkins.
Mary Alice (May) Holman was born in 1893 in Broken Hill, NSW to miner and unionist Jack Holman and his (very) new wife, the 17 yo Katherine. Jack had problems in Broken Hill as the mining companies attempted, successfully, to reduce workers’ pay and conditions during the recession, and moved to the goldfields around Cue in Western Australia, settling at Nannine – a thriving centre then, but these days not even a ghost town – where he was joined by his wife and daughter a couple of years later. Katherine returned to Broken Hill for the birth of their second daughter and when she came back her mother came too and lived with the family for the rest of her life.
Hopkins has Katherine travelling by coach between Nannine and Yalgoo (southwest of Cue) which may be right as the rail line from Geraldton to Cue was not completed till 1900 and the extension through to Nannine and Meekatharra not till 1909 (Sorry, you know the Northern Railway is one of my enthusiasms).
Jack prospered in Cue. In 1901 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of State Parliament for the Labor Party and ‘for one year from 1904 to 1905 he was minister for railways under the short-lived Labor Daglish government’.
When the family moved to Perth in 1905 May was the oldest of five children which, by the time she was 21, had increased to ten. Katherine was a Roman Catholic (Jack was a Salvo) and in Perth May went to Sacred Heart girls school (presumably, the one in inner city Highgate) until she was 17.
Meanwhile Jack represented Murchison (Cue) electorates until 1919 and then from 1923 till his death in 1925, the seat of Forrest. As this seat then became May’s it is infuriating that Hopkins gives us no idea of the location or boundaries of Forrest, the book contains many illustrations and she could easily have included a map for non-Western Australians. As far as I can make out, Forrest extended from the southern outskirts of Perth about 200 km to the town of Donnybrook, staying inland of Mandurah and Bunbury. The main industry was timber cutting based on the Jarrah forests along the Darling escarpment but also included farming and vegetable growing.
The research for this book was initially undertaken by Labor MLA Judyth Watson, so it is also surprising there is little discussion of the internal politics underlying some of Jack’s and then May’s decisions. Jack had already left the miners’ union and was secretary of the Timber Workers’ Union in 1910 when May commenced working for him straight out of school. Except during WWI she worked as his personal clerk for the next 15 years ‘gaining invaluable experience at his side in the state and federal arbitration courts as a trade union advocate’. Jack appears to have been on the right of the party and in 1923 successfully sued the Sunday Times for labelling him a communist. He also appears to have been pro-war and pro-conscription.
May’s mother was also involved in Labor politics – president of the North Suburban Women’s Political League, president of the Women Workers’ Union, delegate to the 1912 Labor Women’s Conference (for which 19 yo May was minutes secretary), member of the Eight Hour Day committee, board member of King Edward Memorial Hospital (the Perth equivalent of Melbourne’s Royal Womens). Hopkins has her succumbing to depression and alcoholism, even prior to the early deaths of her 11th child and of her husband both in 1925, but is able to find little evidence for the latter, depending probably on the oral evidence of May’s younger sisters who spoke to Watson in the 1990s. Certainly, she was very poorly provided for in Jack’s will which enjoined May to care for the younger children.
May went on to have a ‘magnificent’ career as an MLA, becoming the longest-serving female parliamentarian in the empire, championing the rights of timber workers and working women, and as a member of the Australian delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930. Freed of the influence of her father she appears to have moved at least a little to the left over time. Times were different of course and I’m sure they wouldn’t ever write this of Julie Bishop, but on May’s departure for Geneva The West Australian reported “Miss Holman’s travelling outfit includes sets of dainty underwear in fine silk and wool, stockings, corsets and fabric gloves …”. May compounded this by writing back mostly of the women she met and the clothes they wore. However, her two speeches to the Assembly covered Australia’s response to the dangerous drugs conventions, and the trafficking of women and children.
We learn little of May’s personal life other than that she was a gifted pianist and entertainer. The central mystery of her life is contained in one episode: at her 21st birthday party (in 1914) her father asks her is it true she has secretly married, she answers ‘yes’ and her father breaks up the party, smashing all the gifts with an axe. Her husband is 27 yo Joseph Gardiner, state member for Roebourne (in the north west), there is some doubt the marriage is consummated (no discussion of whether it was legal with May under 21) and in any case he deserts her, or maybe she asks him to stay away, he leaves the state and eventually they are divorced. May remains unmarried, seems overly dependent on her role as family protector, and no friends, male or female, are mentioned other than her sidekick Ettie Hooton. By 1918 or 19 she and her father are back working side by side.
Although she was once extremely popular, these days May Holman is relatively unknown. Hopkins introduces her by comparing her with two better known Western Australian women, Katherine Sussanah Prichard and Edith Cowan. Hopkins imagines a meeting, over cups of tea, between May and KSP whose novel about working conditions in the WA timber industry, Working Bullocks, was published in 1926. There is no evidence of such a meeting but I think we can assume they met but did not socialise, as Prichard, a member of the Communist Party, occasionally addressed meetings of Labor women which were most likely chaired by May.
May was preceded in state parliament by one year by Cowan, whose focus on women’s issues was based on her membership of the Karakatta Club (which only a few years earlier was one of Daisy Bates’s principle forums), but she had no party support and lasted in parliament for only one term.
In 1939, while campaigning for re-election, May Holman was seriously injured when her sister, who was driving, crashed their car. She was successful in the election but died within a few days.
Nathan Hobby, A Biographer in Perth, wrote recently, “The best biographies, in my opinion, are generally written by biographers who care about biography as a genre rather than biographers who are simply passionate about their subject. The demands of the genre are just too great; a good biography requires someone who has thought through its challenges and conventions. Particularly in Australian biography, there are a lot of biographies written by those who are not biographers (perhaps academics, perhaps enthusiasts) and with less concern for what makes not just for accuracy or comprehensiveness, but for a well-told story.” Sadly, while fascinating in its subject matter, The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman is one of the latter.
Lekkie Hopkins, The Magnificent Life of Miss May Holman, Fremantle Press, due for release Jan 2016
See also the review by Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers (here)