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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Phillips, Marion (1881–1932)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Marion Phillips (1881-1932), politician, was born on 29 October 1881 at St Kilda, Melbourne, youngest of seven children of Philip David Phillips, solicitor, and his wife Rose, née Asher. M. M. Phillips was her brother. In accordance with her mother's belief that girls should have the same opportunities as boys, she was educated at home, at Presbyterian Ladies' College (for her matriculation year, 1898) and at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1904), where she won the Cobden Club medal for political economy in 1902, the Wyselaskie scholarship in political economy and history in 1903, exhibitions in logic, philosophy and history and the final honours scholarship in history. She belonged to the Gladstone Debating Society which held monthly meetings in 1897-1900.

In July 1904 Marion went to England where a £50 scholarship enabled her to study economics and history with Graham Wallas at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her D.Sc. (Economics) was awarded for a thesis published in 1909 as A Colonial Autocracy, New South Wales Under Governor Macquarie 1810-21, which, although severe towards Macquarie, was, according to H. M. Green, a 'conscientious and detailed analysis of his administration' written in a 'direct, perspicuous and … extremely condensed' style.

In 1906 Dr Phillips was recruited by Beatrice and Sidney Webb as a research assistant investigating the position of widows and their children for the royal commission on the poor laws. She became immersed in the working-class and women's movements through her membership of the Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party, the Women's Labour League, the Women's Trade Union League, for which she was briefly an organizer, and several suffrage societies. By 1914 she was effectively running the Women's Labour League and was elected to the Labour Party's War Emergency Workers' National Committee to organize the working-class response to the war. She negotiated the terms on which the Women's Labour League was incorporated into the reconstituted Labour Party in 1918 and became the party's chief woman officer (chief organizer). Under her leadership the women's section became one of the fastest growing and liveliest of the party's constituent organizations. She published books, pamphlets and reports, and edited The Labour Woman. She served on the government's Reconstruction Committee (1917-18), on the consumers' council of the Ministry of Food (1918-19) and as secretary of the standing joint committee of industrial women's organizations (a female version of the Trades and Labour Council). She was a councillor for the Borough of Kensington and a member of the advisory committee for London magistrates.

In 1926 Phillips was nominated by the Durham Women's Advisory Council and the Monkwearmouth miners as a prospective candidate for the multiple-member constituency of Sunderland. Returned in 1929, she unsuccessfully recontested the seat in the disastrous election of October 1931. By this time she was already ill with the cancer which caused her death in London on 23 January 1932.

Phillips was the first Australian woman to win a seat in a national parliament, and the only one to have been elected to the House of Commons. Born into an eminent Jewish family, she died an atheist, having also rejected her Australian experience as crude and uncivilized. Her preference was for the intellectual, artistic, and cultural life of Europe; her religion was socialism and the power of organization for women and the working class. A Liberal colleague, Violet Markham, wrote of her: 'Like everyone who worked with her, I learnt to value not only her first-class brain, but the human qualities and warm heart she never cared to reveal to the casual acquaintance. Marion Phillips did not suffer fools gladly but she had … deep feelings for suffering and injustice and a crusader's spirit for their redress'. She never married, but left her meagre estate (£267) to her long-time friend and companion in politics Charles Wye Kendall.

Select Bibliography

  • M. O. Reid, The Ladies Came to Stay (Melb, 1960)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne. The First Century 1875-1975 (Melb, 1975)
  • L. Fox, E. Phillips Fox and his Family (Syd, 1985)
  • League Leaflet, 1911-17
  • Lone Hand, 2 Feb 1914
  • Labour Woman, 1918-32
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 25 Jan 1932, p 17 and 28 Jan 1932, p 12
  • Marion Phillips papers (British Labour Party Archives, London)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Phillips, Marion (1881–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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