Every time I walk my dog in our local Queens Park I walk past this small plaque placed in tribute to Emma Miller, feisty, political, woman extraordinaire. Miller is perhaps somewhat unfairly remembered for one incident in particular, an incident that occurred late in her life, involving a riot, a hat pin and a police commissioner’s horse.
Early in 1912 in Queensland’s state capital Brisbane, unions declared a general strike after tramways workers were dismissed for wearing union badges to work, things quickly escalated, the strike spread to the railways and the conservative state government moved to shut it down, banning marches, swearing in special constables and issuing bayonets to their police. Significantly a number of Commonwealth military officers and part time military personnel signed on as specials. The conservative state premier had requested Federal military support but this was refused by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, himself a Queenslander, ironically the unions had also petitioned Fisher for military support, also refused, although Fisher’s support of the strike cannot be doubted since he made a financial contributions to the strike fund.
The strike committee had applied for a permit to march on February 2nd, an application that was refused by police commissioner Cahill, despite the refusal a crowd of 15000 turned up, and amongst the male workers there were also a considerable number of women, children and elderly, some of whom were merely spectators on the footpath, what subsequently happened was initially christened “baton Friday” but morphed into “black Friday” as even the conservative press was quick to condemn the riding down and batonning of peaceful protesters. Under Cahill’s direction police and specials attacked the crowd with Cahill reportedly shouting: “Give it to them lads! Into them”. What Cahill hadn’t reckoned on was the tiny, frail, 73 year old suffragette, Emma Miller.
Miller had led a group of women and girls to Parliament House and while returning along Queen Street they were attacked by a large contingent of foot and mounted police, and subsequently arrested but Miller did not go quietly, she stood her ground, taking out a hat pin she jabbed it into the backside of the police commissioner’s horse. The horse reared, dismounting Cahill and leaving him with an injury that left him with a permanent limp. Legendary stories sprang up suggesting the horse was not the recipient of the hat pin but rather Cahill himself received the jab. Perhaps the moral should be that if your going to take on a little old ladies you should at least make sure they are not carrying concealed weapons first.
Emma Miller should be remembered for so much more than standing up to a brutish policeman. She pioneered trade unionism for women in Queensland. As a seamstress herself she fought for the rights of women workers in an industry characterised by sweat shops and exploitation. She was a founding member of the organisation that went on to become the Australian Labor Party. She was a founding figure and president of the Women’s Equal Franchise association which with the Women’s Franchise League and the Christian Women’s Temperance Union campaigned tirelessly for women’s right to vote, a right they won in 1902, making Australia only the second country to grant national suffrage to women, (New Zealand was the first in 1893). She also campaigned fiercely against conscription and militarism over the course of the first world war and up to the week of her death in 1917 she campaigned tirelessly for workers rights and the labour movement. She is generally considered to be the mother of Australia’s Labor party and yet she is not widely known. In a culture which has so many male heroes political and otherwise, why is Emma Miller little more than a faded historical shadow?
There is a biography of Emma Miller available but I think it is now out of print and a bit hard to come by, although there is a copy in the USQ library, call number: 305.42092 Mil/You, in case anyone is interested: Proud to be a Rebel: The Life and Times of Emma Miller by Pam Young, it is a book that deals as much with the whole battle for recognition for women’s rights and the formation of the labor movement at what was a most turbulent and seminal point in Australian history.
And why do we have a plaque to this remarkable woman in Queens park? Suffering from cancer, her last public speaking event was in Queens park where she urged women to; “play a part in the Labor movement as it meant as much to them as the men”, two days after that event Miller passed away here in Toowoomba, on the 22nd of January 1917.