Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bennett, Emily (1871–1941)

by Jill Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Emily Bennett (1871-1941), feminist and political organiser, was born on 29 January 1871 at Camperdown, Sydney, eighth daughter and ninth child of Irish-born parents Denis McNamarra, soap boiler, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Green. On 11 April 1894 at her mother's Camperdown home Emily married with Catholic rites Francis Andrew Bennett, a widower with three young children, who lived at Cootamundra. Their only son was born next year. The family moved to Singleton where Frank set up as an auctioneer and served as mayor (1902, 1903 and 1907), town clerk (1908-12) and secretary of the Northern Agricultural Association. After he drowned in a dam in September 1913, Emily returned to Sydney.

Active in the cause of women before and during World War I, in 1921-23 Emily Bennett was organising secretary of the Women's Reform League of New South Wales which was led by Laura Luffman. Supporting the Progressive Party in State politics and believing that 'Woman has come into her own', Bennett made strenuous efforts to rally 'one hundred thousand women' to the movement and represented the league on numerous allied organisations in Sydney, among them the National Council of Women, the New Settlers' League of Australia and the League of Nations Union.

A loyal supporter of Bessie Rischbieth, Bennett helped to secure the Australian Federation of Women Voters in the early 1920s. She was a member of its delegation to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance's ninth congress, held in Rome in May 1923. It was a thrilling experience. She shook hands with Mussolini, and the delegation was entertained by the British ambassador and received by the Pope. Bennett served on a committee (chaired by the suffragist Chrystal Macmillan) which examined the loss of British nationality by women who married foreigners. She then spent some happy months in London and had her faith in Empire-wide feminism and in extra-parliamentary organisation confirmed. With Henrietta Frederica Bennett, who had joined the Theosophical Society in Australasia in Perth in 1915 and later come to Sydney, she was to watch over the federation's interests in New South Wales.

Admired for her skills and extensive knowledge of the women's movement, Emily Bennett worked hard behind the scenes to establish the United Associations (of Women) in December 1929; she was a founding vice-president and honorary organising secretary in 1930. Next year, when the U.A. decided to endorse women candidates in the coming elections, she was appointed campaign director. She advocated reforms to the laws affecting marriage, divorce and child custody. In 1932 Jessie Street declared her 'the best feminist I know'.

Practically without income due to a bank crash, Bennett appealed to Rischbieth: a feminist benefit was held at Farmer & Co. Ltd's store in June 1932. Appointed industrial organiser in July for the Australian Women's Guild of Empire, founded by Adela Pankhurst Walsh, Bennett was to promote the causes of Empire and anti-communism until the guild's demise in 1939. She had been appointed a justice of the peace and had joined the Women Justices' Association of New South Wales in 1933; she also joined the Theosophical Society in 1935 and was attached to the Radio Lodge.

Despite serious illnesses in 1919 and 1928, Emily Bennett continued to live strenuously and in her last years often spoke in the Domain. She participated in the A.F.W.V.'s 1938 conference in Sydney, but by late 1939 was unable to attend its State committee meetings. Survived by her son, she died of complications from a fractured arm on 10 May 1941 at Manly District Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. In a photograph of the 1923 delegation she stands directly behind Rischbieth, tall, angular, intense.

Select Bibliography

  • Woman's Voice, 1916-23
  • Empire Gazette, 1932-39
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Aug 1921, 10 Mar 1923, 3 July 1931, 24 June 1932
  • Bessie Rischbieth papers (National Library of Australia)
  • AFWV records (National Library of Australia)
  • AWGE papers (University of Wollongong Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Bennett, Emily (1871–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-emily-9488/text16695, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 July 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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