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Preston Stanley, Millicent Fanny (1883–1955)

by Heather Radi

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

Millicent Fanny Preston Stanley (1883-1955), politician, was born on 9 September 1883 in Sydney, eldest of three children of Augustine Gregory Stanley, Sydney-born grocer, and his Victorian wife Fanny Helen, née Preston. Her father deserted the family and her mother was granted a divorce in 1895, afterwards calling herself Frances Preston Stanley. They lived at Surry Hills, then Paddington. Millicent's education may have been obtained at home. In her early twenties she became a Women's Liberal League organizer with a reputation for 'spirited' speeches. She ran musical evenings, mock elections and debates in the inner suburban electorates where, she said, Labor polled well because Liberals neglected women. Among her earliest political proposals was an entertainment tax to finance hospitals.

In 1913 Preston Stanley and her brother (who went on to graduate) attended R. F. Irvine's lectures in economics at the University of Sydney. She staunchly advocated business efficiency and union co-operation if living standards were to be improved. She resumed political organizing and may have visited the United States of America in 1915. In 1917 she helped to run a Loyal Service Bureau for women volunteers to release men for the strike-bound industries. The government was unenthusiastic and, perhaps in response, Millicent engaged in a flurry of feminist organizing. As president of the Feminist Club from 1919 she developed its political programme while establishing close links with other women's associations, some of which seem to have been her own creations: businesswomen's efficiency, prohibition and immigration leagues, and the Little Citizens' Free Kindergarten.

She may have worked in real estate for she later became a director of Reginald Weaver & Co. Ltd, although in 1918 and 1919-20 she was in North Queensland organizing for the Nationalists and in 1922-25 was a paid organizer of the New South Wales Alliance for the Suppression of Intemperance and a contributor to Grit. Gazetted justice of the peace in 1921, among the first women so appointed, she was president of the New South Wales Women Justices Association in 1923-26. She narrowly missed election for the multi-member State seat of Eastern Suburbs in 1922.

Calling for improved institutional care for 'mental defectives', Preston Stanley employed the terminology of racial degeneracy; her proposal inevitably meant segregating 'defectives' which, on the surface, was crude eugenicist social engineering; yet the fervour with which she pursued this issue seems that of one closely touched by the tragedy of lives wasted by hereditary disease. J. J. G. McGirr appointed her to a committee reviewing legislation on care of the mentally defective. To reduce maternal mortality she wanted a chair in obstetrics created at the University of Sydney, the registration of midwifery nurses and publicity on antenatal care. After a faculty of veterinary science was established at the university offering instruction in veterinary obstetrics, she is credited with demanding 'horses' rights for women' while on a deputation to the minister.

Elected to the National Association's State council in 1923, Preston Stanley successfully contested Eastern Suburbs in 1925. A sturdy woman, with firm chin and deep voice, she was a fine platform performer, adroit at turning hecklers' remarks: called a battle-axe, she retorted 'a battle-axe is a pretty useful weapon if it's kept sharp and bright'. In the assembly she always responded to interjections and appeared unworried by her unique position as the first woman in the parliament. She continued campaigning on maternal mortality, calling also for reform in child welfare, an amended Health Act and better housing. She castigated J. T. Lang for restricting widows' pensions to mothers with dependent children. She approved of child endowment and, though embarrassed by her party's opposition to the bill, redeemed the situation by publicly decrying Labor's offer to pass her bills if she deserted the Nationalists.

When Emélie Polini lost custody of her child, women were outraged and, under the aegis of the National Council of Women, campaigned for an Act to give mother and father equal rights in custody. Millicent joined the campaign, though almost alone of the women involved she realized a mother's disability was not so readily remedied. Justice Harvey had stated that he would have granted custody to Emélie Polini 'in normal circumstances', but refused it because, to pursue her career, she intended taking the child overseas. His attitude on sex roles decisively affected the judgment and Millicent seemed aware that the disability could be remedied only by changing community expectations of women. In the bill that she introduced in parliament she tried to get round this difficulty by strengthening a mother's right where a child was under 5 or female and by barring the mother's removal of a child from the court's jurisdiction from being an issue in custody. In the 1927 election Preston Stanley stood as endorsed Nationalist for Bondi, but lost. As successive governments failed to amend the custody Act, the campaign for it continued. Preston Stanley wrote a play, Whose Child?, based on Polini's tragedy, in which she played herself as a woman in parliament. It opened at the Criterion Theatre on 26 November 1932 in the presence of the governor and leading politicians. The Guardianship of Infants Act was eventually carried in 1934.

In 1926-27 Preston Stanley edited the Daily Telegraph's women's supplement, publishing her articles as 'My Daily Message'. When soon afterwards she resumed political organizing, it was for the Sane Democracy League. Her political rhetoric had always been anti-socialist but she now more insistently denounced communism. She married Crawford Vaughan, company director and former premier of South Australia, on 29 May 1934, misrepresenting her age as 42. Marriage in no way dimmed her enthusiasm for public life though she stepped down as Feminist Club president. On the New South Wales councils of the National and United Australia parties in 1930-42, she was a member of their executive policy committees and foundation president of the women's co-ordinating council in 1935-37. She kept up her organizational activities among women, joining the Australian Federation of Women Voters and serving as president of the Women's Legion and the British Film League.

Mrs Preston Stanley Vaughan joined the British-American Co-operation Movement in 1936, was its delegate to the Pan Pacific Women's Conference in Vancouver, Canada, in 1937, and undertook a lecture tour of America on its behalf in 1937-38. Aiming to wean Americans from isolationism, she warned that Japanese victory in China could ruin America's cotton industry and called for American and British co-operation against Japan. Back home, she suggested a publicity campaign featuring Australia's independence of Britain and told Australians they were living in a 'Fools' Paradise'. From 1940-41, as director of the Women's Australian National Service, she contributed to the war effort by mobilizing women for voluntary work and training others for service with the forces. In 1942 her Voice of Victory was published.

Her husband died in 1947. She fought her last political campaign in the Australian Women's Movement against Socialization. Again president of the Feminist Club from 1952, she was re-elected, though seriously ill, shortly before she died of cerebro-vascular disease on 23 June 1955. After an Anglican service at St Mark's, Darling Point, she was cremated. Her portrait by Jerrold Nathan hangs in Parliament House, and another by Mary Edwards is in the Dixson Library, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • People (Sydney), 23 Apr 1952
  • E. F. Smith, Millicent Preston Stanley: A Feminist in Politics (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1977)
  • Feminist Club papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Preston Stanley, Millicent Fanny (1883–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/preston-stanley-millicent-fanny-8107/text14153, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 January 2018.

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

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