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Benjamin, Phyllis Jean (1907–1996)

by Dianne Snowden

This article was published online in 2020

Phyllis Jean Benjamin (1907–1996), politician and housewives’ advocate, was born on 30 August 1907 at Mosman, Sydney, eldest of three children of Frederick George Allsopp, flour miller, and his wife Ethel May, née Barnes, both New South Wales born. Phyllis was educated at Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Pymble, and Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar schools at Darlinghurst and Bowral. She trained in elocution and took part in amateur performances. During a production of Our Miss Gibbs she met Albert Hansen Benjamin (d. 1965), an electrical engineer who played violin in the orchestra. The couple married on 10 March 1926 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney. They would have one son and three daughters.

In 1941 Albert was appointed as the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission’s chief electrical engineer. The family relocated to Hobart where Phyllis became active in community work and local theatre. During World War II she had joined a Voluntary Aid Detachment in Sydney; she also drove ambulances for the Australian Red Cross Society and worked in the munitions factory owned by H. Jones & Co. Pty Ltd in Hobart. Appalled at the working conditions for the women in the factory, she threatened to organise a strike in protest but was persuaded that it would not be in the interests of Australian military personnel on active service.

By 1945 Benjamin had joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Her future son-in-law, Bill Neilson (premier of Tasmania 1975–77), was a close colleague and confidant. From 1950 to 1954 she was a member of the Tasmanian ALP executive. She had a strong interest in social justice and was noted for her ‘quick wit and keen mind’ (Tas. HA 1996, 125). Her political interests included transport, housing, consumer affairs, pensioner welfare, and the needs of those with a disability. From 1951 she was also State president of the Federated Association of Australian Housewives and served three terms as Federal president (1951–53, 1967–68, 1976–78). Championing many issues that affected women, she once rallied Tasmanian housewives to boycott purchasing meat as a protest against high prices.

In May 1952 Benjamin successfully stood for the Legislative Council seat of Hobart, supposedly unwinnable for the ALP. At the time the council’s franchise was still property-based, necessitating the purchase of a block of land in her name to enable qualification. She later likened her parliamentary debut to ‘exchanging one stage for another’ (Canberra Times 1968, 19). On election, she expressed her conviction that female parliamentarians represented all members of society, not just women, and consequently needed a sound knowledge of all legislation. A delegate to the 1963 ALP conference in Canberra, she was one of those dubbed the ‘36 faceless men’—so-called for their power within the party to shape policy. She was deputy leader (1956–68, 1972–76) and leader (1968–69) of the government in the council. In the latter role she became the first woman in Australia to lead an Upper House.

Alongside her political work, Benjamin was a prominent member of business and professional clubs and numerous other community organisations in Tasmania, including the Flying Angel Club (Mission to Seamen), the Aged Pensioners Association, and the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She had been president (1961–63) of the National Council of Women of Tasmania and its convenor of laws and suffrage. For several years she chaired the Salvation Army’s Red Shield appeal; she was also a member of the Royal Hobart Hospital board, and the University of Tasmania council. Maintaining her interest in the arts, she was president of the Repertory Theatre Society and the Hobart Orchestral Association, and chair of the Tasmanian Ballet Company.

Benjamin retired from parliament in May 1976, then the longest serving Labor woman parliamentarian in Tasmania. Two years later she stood down as State and Federal president of the housewives’ association. A life member of the ALP, she had been appointed MBE in 1956 and AO in 1977. In the mid-1980s she moved into the Strathaven Nursing Home, Berriedale. She died there on 6 April 1996, survived by her four children. In 2005 she was admitted to the Tasmanian Honour Roll of Women.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘No Safe Electorates for Women.’ 29 February 1968, 19
  • Davis, Richard. Eighty Years’ Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903–1983. Hobart: Sassafras Books and the History Dept., University of Tasmania, 1983
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Top Upper House Post to Grandmother of 16.’ 23 May 1968, 5
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Women of Achievement.’ 30 September 1970, 22
  • Reynolds, Margaret. The Last Bastion: Labor Women Working Towards Quality in the Parliaments of Australia¸ Chatswood, NSW: Business & Professional Publishing, 1995
  • Reynolds, Margaret, and Jean Willoughby, eds. HerStory: Australian Labor Women in Federal, State and Territory Parliaments 1925–1994. Townsville, Qld: Margaret Reynolds, 1994
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney). ‘She’s M.L.C., Hobart.’ 14 December 1952, 23
  • Sunday Tasmanian. ‘Pioneer Woman MP Dies at 88.’ 7 April 1996, 10
  • Tasmania. House of Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, 23 April 1996, Part 3, 121–27

Additional Resources

Citation details

Dianne Snowden, 'Benjamin, Phyllis Jean (1907–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benjamin-phyllis-jean-27654/text35183, published first in hardcopy 2020, accessed online 21 September 2021.

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