This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Mabel Eileen Furley (1900-1985), Liberal politician, was born on 13 March 1900 at Mosman, Sydney, only child of Frederick John Griffith Llewelyn, a Victorian-born accountant, and his wife Alice, née Thompson, of Sydney. Educated at St Hilda’s Grammar School, Mosman, and St Scholastica’s College, Glebe Point, Eileen worked as a secretary for an engineering firm and then as a private secretary to a structural engineer. On 14 February 1931 she married Norman William Furley, a salesman, at St Andrew’s Church of England, Roseville. Remaining childless, she threw herself into charitable and civic works. She was officer-in-charge (1942-45) of sugar rationing in New South Wales; secretary of the Council for Women in War Work; a member of the National Council of Women and of the Food for Britain Fund; and superintendent of the Mosman National Emergency Services.
In 1943 Eileen Furley became a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Australia, which its creator, (Sir) Ernest White, hoped would form the nucleus of a new non-Labor party. In 1945 she left the quarrelsome White to devote herself to the new Liberal Party of Australia. She served on the State executive, chaired the women’s group of the party’s New South Wales division and the federal women’s committee, and was a State delegate to the federal council and a State vice-president. In 1949, elected female vice-president of the federal organisation, she wondered why the Liberals did not advertise the fact that no position in the party was beyond a woman’s reach. A zealot for female participation and advancement, Furley none the less opposed what she called `a certain militantly feminist section of women’ who wanted complete autonomy within the Liberal Party and who were taking up separatist causes.
Furley was appointed OBE in 1954 for her contributions to social welfare. Active in the New Settlers’ League of New South Wales and the Good Neighbour Council of New South Wales, in 1956 she assumed the chairmanship (which she retained for two decades) of the Migrant Advisory Council. The Liberals in New South Wales formed the council to enable the delegates of twenty-seven national groups to bring their concerns to the attention of government departments, and to establish direct contact between Liberal parliamentarians and migrant communities. An additional objective was to counter Labor’s perceived advantage of contacts with migrants through the workplace.
After several attempts to win Liberal Party endorsement Furley surprisingly defeated Senator J. A. McCallum for third place on the coalition’s ticket for the 1961 Senate election. She was the first woman from New South Wales to gain Liberal selection for the Senate but the post-credit-squeeze swing against the Menzies government rendered the third spot unwinnable. Next year she won the Liberal Party’s nomination to fill a casual vacancy in the New South Wales Legislative Council. Her presence, as the first Liberal woman to sit in the council chamber, was initially resented by her Upper House colleagues, who felt that the Liberals in the Legislative Assembly, embarrassed by the paucity of female representation, had foisted her upon them. Re-elected in 1964, she retained the seat until retiring voluntarily in 1976.
Later described by a former clerk of the Legislative Council as `a lady from an earlier generation’, Furley, who made many of her own clothes, was always well groomed in public. She looked like the conservative she had become. Having initially opposed a complete ban on the Communist Party of Australia in 1948, Furley chaired in the early 1960s the State division’s committee of headstrong anti-communists who wanted to expose the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation. She was also an active patron of the anti-Soviet Captive Nations Council of New South Wales.
Her principal crusades, however, were moral. Long concerned about `the deterioration of the morals and behaviour of young people’, Furley chaired in 1968-69 a Legislative Council select committee that inquired into violent sex crimes in the State. The committee’s report reflected her view that instability in the home underlay many of society’s moral evils and her belief that sex education in schools should be integrated `into the training of the whole personality’. Although the report was generally applauded the Sydney Morning Herald rightly argued that `Mrs Furley’s mop’ could not halt the rise of the permissive society.
Furley served on several bodies outside politics: the convocation of Macquarie University, the Children’s Film and Television Council, the Australian Council of Social Service and the Mothers’ Union of the Church of England. Predeceased (1966) by her husband, Eileen Furley died on 20 September 1985 at Mosman and was cremated. The grandfather clock that she donated stands in the Legislative Council vestibule. Within the Liberal Party, where one of her greatest contributions was to press for the promotion of women in the face of female apathy and male resistance, she is hardly remembered at all.
I. R. Hancock, 'Furley, Mabel Eileen (1900–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/furley-mabel-eileen-12518/text22525, accessed 12 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007