May Holman (1893-1939) was Australia’s first female Labor parliamentarian, winning the WA state seat of Forrest in 1925 and holding it through the next four elections. After Edith Cowan, she was the second woman in Australia to be elected to parliament. Since her constituents were mostly timber workers, she worked to improve their conditions and helped introduce the Timber Industries Regulation Act 1926.
“Surely it is not too much to expect that those who are making big profits out of the industry should do something towards saving the lives of those who work for them” (WA Legislative Assembly, 19th Oct 1926)
She famously travelled throughout her electorate perched on the cow catcher of the steam train, and was also a member of the Royal Commission inquiring into Sanitation, Slum Clearance, Health and Housing Regulations. Yet she always dressed stylishly and the few photographs of her in the public domain show her wearing furs. In her youth she had been a gifted musician and organised concerts and plays. She was very feminine in appearance, as were most women of her time, but wasn’t afraid to tackle the serious social problems of the depression era.
Despite the widespread respect she earned as an advocate for workers’ and women’s rights, she was not immune from being patronised by male parliamentarians. On one occasion when replying to an interjection suggesting she might need a chaperone while inspecting papers with one of her political opponents she told the assembled members ‘In this House I am, as has been said on a previous occasion, no lady, but simply a member’ (WA Legislative Assembly, 31st August 1932).
The Adelaide Advertiser (24th July 1928), in an article on May Holman, said that “If it were only for the sake of one’s party every woman in public life should strive to look her best,” and comments on Miss Holman’s “particularly trim ankles.”
Most of the contemporary media reports on May Holman mention her ‘style’, ‘feminine’ nature and the fact that she was the only woman in the WA parliament. After her death, she received many glowing obituaries – she seems to have been genuinely respected for her political work, but could never evade the patronising references to her femininity. This may have been influenced by the fact that the only other female politician that the public had known was Edith Cowan, who was 60 years old when she was elected to the WA parliament.
Media researchers in recent years have done much more in-depth studies of the ways in which female politicians and public figures are portrayed by the press. Researcher Blair Williams of the Australian National University says that whether media coverage of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was positive or negative, it was usually tied in some way to her gender. Whatever she did, no one could forget the fact that she was a woman and simply focus on her actions as a politician. This attitude is particularly obvious in the reporting of leadership ‘spills’. When Gillard took the Prime Ministership, she was backstabbing and treacherous. When Turnbull did the same, he simply ‘claimed’ the role.
Women in public life are criticized for their clothing and appearance, no matter what they wear. Some choose the more masculine blazer or pantsuit, others are more traditionally feminine. The former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was famous for her braided ‘crown’ hairstyle, chosen deliberately to appeal to the nationalistic aesthetic – she looked like both a pretty peasant girl in a folk costume, and a saint in an Orthodox icon. It certainly deflects attention from her career as an energy oligarch and later accusations of political corruption.
May Holman ‘performed’ her femininity in public life, whether consciously or unconsciously; many female politicians today do not. Whatever their professional role, and even in spite of the genuine respect they may receive in their careers, many women are still expected to maintain their femininity, not just in appearance but in behaviours and mannerisms. When Julia Gillard was photographed in her kitchen, she received considerable public criticism for the fact that there was no evidence that she did any cooking, and even the fruit bowl was empty. Women in leadership are supposed to have a ‘feminine’ style of management, involving empathy, soft skills, greater communication and more democratic decision-making processes. Never mind that these concepts would be beneficial for any leader, they have been characterised and classified as ‘feminine.’
In evaluating women professionally, it is important to look past the perceived presence or absence of femininity and simply judge them on merit and performance. The Gender and Work Research Collective based at James Madison University runs a blog on women in the workplace called The InformHer. A recent article on femininity in the professional sphere made the observation that “in order for women’s continued growth, we must catch ourselves when we judge other women for acting “too feminine” or valuing a woman with masculine behaviors more than an equally competent woman with feminine behaviors.”
May Holman travelled to Geneva in 1930 to attend the League of Nations conference. The Australian Federation of Women Voters had successfully lobbied the Prime Minister to include a woman in every Australian delegation. Her purpose in attending the conference was to gather information on “various points of national responsibility for the welfare of women and children.” (The West Australian, 25th July 1930). That particular conference tried, and failed, to develop a system of international law. This result was not achieved until the establishment of the International Law Commission by the United Nations in 1948. At the Fifth Commission of the 1930 assembly, May gave a speech on behalf of the Australian government on drug abuse and human trafficking.
Not all of her ideas can be applauded today – she opposed non-British migration and supported isolationist foreign policies. However she did campaign for equal pay for male and female timber workers, and focused on policies relating to education, maternal health and sanitation. In 1928 a woman told her that no woman should sit in Parliament until she was 40 years old (May Holman was born in 1893). May replied that such a view was nonsense, belonged to the Stone Age, and the idea that a political woman should be a walking caricature. According to her, there was no reason at all why a woman should not sit in Parliament.