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Mary Alice (May) Holman (1893–1939)

by Margaret Brown

This article was published:

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Mary Alice Holman (1893-1939), by unknown photographer

Mary Alice Holman (1893-1939), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an13684347

Mary Alice (May) Holman (1893-1939), politician, was born on 18 July 1893 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, first of nine children of John Barkell Holman, miner, and his wife Katherine Mary, née Row. That year her father moved to the Murchison goldfields in Western Australia, the family following in 1896. May was educated at convents in Dongara and Perth. She was a gifted musician, gaining licentiates in singing and pianoforte, and she organized choirs and performed in concerts, plays, balls and fêtes with flair and enthusiasm; she had her own band, 'The Entertainers'. Her first jobs were in 1911 as a typist at the Trades Hall, as a pianist at cinemas, in a pierrot show and from 1914 on the Westralian Worker. On 9 May 1914 she married Peter Joseph ('Joe') Gardiner, a Labor member of the State parliament, in the District Registrar's Office, Perth; they were divorced in 1920, having never lived together.

Holman's mother was active in Labor women's organizations and her father was a Labor member of the Legislative Assembly in 1901-21 and 1923-25. He was secretary of the State branch of the Australian Timber Workers' Union almost continuously from 1908 to 1925. May had grown up 'in an atmosphere where men and women are credited with existing on the same intellectual plane' and with great family and Labor loyalty. From 1918 she assisted her father at the Timber Workers' Union in clerical and book-keeping work and arbitration, spending nine months in the Victorian Arbitration Court. She knew much about timber families' lives and, after J. B. Holman's death in 1925, was briefly acting secretary of the union and won pre-selection for his blue-ribbon seat of Forrest, a predominantly timber electorate.

She won the by-election, thereby becoming the first Labor woman parliamentarian in Australia, and retained the seat through four following elections. A woman friend noted that, although 'a good looker and well dressed', May Holman was 'never assertive or spectacular, she was a woman of the people'. She saw herself primarily as the representative of the families' interests, in the small forest settlements of her electorate. She spoke effectively in the House of their lack of medical care, decent housing and schooling, and their dangerous work. The Timber Industries Regulation Act, 1926, was largely her work. Holman visited the camps regularly, at first in timber trains, perched on the 'cow catcher', and later in her own 'Tin Lizzie'. She had excellent rapport with the workers, a good grasp of industrial problems, and could discuss women's affairs with the housewives.

From 1933 Holman was secretary to the Parliamentary Labor Party. She was involved with the Labor Women's Organization, having been minute secretary at its first State conference in 1912. She was a long-time president of Perth Labor Women; president, then secretary of the Labor Women's Central Executive from its foundation in 1927; and president, from its inception in 1929, of the Labor Women's Interstate Executive. She established country women's branches and in 1935 made a successful interstate tour for the Labor Women's organizations. On the nomination of the Women's Service Guilds and the women's executive of the State branch of the Labor Party, she had been a substitute delegate to the League of Nations Assembly at Geneva in 1930. She was ill while overseas; her health was always poor, she suffered from asthma and a weak heart. Particularly after the 1930 trip, Holman spoke out in favour of equal citizenship rights for women.

In 1937, in evidence to the royal commission on youth employment, she described her work as convener of a party committee dealing with youth employment problems. She supported raising the school leaving age to 16, child endowment, equal pay for men and women, and improving training and working conditions of female domestic servants. In 1938, at her instigation, a royal commission to inquire into sanitation, slum clearance and health and housing regulations in Perth was set up; Holman was a member. She also attended the British Commonwealth Relations Conference in New South Wales.

Holman was not a radical and belonged to the mainstream of the moderate Western Australian Labor movement: she came to oppose non-British migration and she supported an isolationist foreign policy. She dedicated her life to the reform of society as it existed. When she died on 20 March 1939, following a car accident on the eve of her re-election to the Forrest seat, she was widely mourned. At the requiem Mass at St Mary's Cathedral, Perth, her pall was accompanied by a guard of honour of eight women representing Labor organizations. She was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. Her brother E. J. F. Holman was elected in her place and held the seat till 1947.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Popham (ed), Reflections (Perth, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia), 1925, p 10, 1926, p 1469
  • Votes and Proceedings (Western Australia), 1938, 1, (4)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 8 Apr 1939
  • Labour History, 1981, no 41, p 110
  • Herald (Melbourne), 10 June 1927, 13 June 1930
  • Observer (Adelaide), 4 Aug 1928
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Apr, 20 July 1928, 12 Apr 1930, 3 Sept 1938
  • Mail (Adelaide), 2 Mar 1929
  • Daily News (Perth), 15 Dec 1930, 22 Mar 1939
  • Westralian Worker, 31 Mar 1939
  • R. Joyce, Feminism: The Ideology, Application, Successes and Failures in the Labor Women's Organizations 1905-1917 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1977)
  • MS 842/6, no 11 (National Library of Australia)
  • ALP, state executive file 1688A/340.454, 378, 474, 486, and minutes 1573A, vol 5, 6, and Labor Women's Central Executive, minutes, 2011A/2 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Souvenir of May Holman's 10th Anniversary, 1935, PR 5652/2 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Holman family papers 1744A (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Brown, 'Holman, Mary Alice (May) (1893–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mary Alice Holman (1893-1939), by unknown photographer

Mary Alice Holman (1893-1939), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an13684347

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gardiner, Mary Alice

18 July, 1893
Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia


20 March, 1939 (aged 45)
Western Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.