A century celebrated*

Article image - A century celebrated*

2019 is the 100th anniversary of the first woman elected to any tier of government. 

Susan Grace Benny was elected to Brighton Council, South Australia, now Holdfast Bay, on 22 December 1919.

Born in 1872 in Adelaide, Grace, as she was known, was active in the community and at the end of the first world war was the South Australian Liberal Union Women’s Branch President. 

She was instrumental in putting equality of divorce for women on the party’s platform. This became law in 1918. 

The Adelaide Observer reported on 20 December 1919, “She entered the Council from a sense of Public Duty, belief that there is work to be done in Municipal life which will not even be commenced unless a woman undertakes it”.

She served two terms and stood unsuccessfully for mayor in 1922. 

Among her achievements on council was enabling free access to the beach; the installation of electric lights; and the allotment of reserves as children’s playgrounds and public gardens. 

She successfully supported the abolition of segregated sea-bathing, so families could swim together.

Interestingly she attended night meetings, which legislators had commonly believed women incapable of doing. 

In 1921, she became a justice of the peace and heard State children’s, police and women’s cases.

Her husband Benjamin was Mayor of Brighton Council in 1903-5 and a Federal senator from 1919-26.  In 1926 he was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to three years’ jail. 

Grace established an employment agency and supported herself and their five children. Her husband died in 1935, she remarried in 1940 and died on 5 November 1944.  

Women were soon elected to councils in other states. 

In 1920 women were elected in both Victoria and Western Australia - Mary Rogers to Richmond City Council, Victoria, and Elizabeth Clapham to Cottesloe Town Council, Western Australia. 

In 1925 Dr Ellen Kent-Hughes was elected to Kingaroy Shire Council, Queensland. And in 1928 Lilian Fowler became the first woman in New South Wales when she was
elected to Newtown Municipal Council. The first woman elected in Tasmania in 1950 was Dorothy Edwards, Launceston City Council.

Today we have the highest percentage of women councillors in Australian history, but we still have a long way to go. 

Just over one-third, or 34.94 percent of Australian councillors are women. 

Full details: algwa.net.au 

The centenary will be recognised by an award for Gender Equality named after Susan Grace Benny as part of the national Local Government Awards, and announced during ALGA National General Assembly. 

*Copy supplied by ALGWA