LEADING LIGHTS: Helen Julia Huxham

‘The present international calamity would not have happened’ speculated Helen Huxham ‘if women had taken their place in politics earlier’. [1] She was an extraordinary woman, remembered as the most important woman involved in the ‘development and progress’ of Labor in Queensland, ‘politically and industrially’ that is apart from Emma Miller.[2] At her untimely death in 1925, accolades poured in: ‘We regarded her as the most gifted woman in the Labor movement in the State and she was always of incalculable value in our election campaigns, on the platform and in an organising capacity.’ [3] And just as Mabel Lane’s, her home was a hub ‘in a constant state of invasion’ and her correspondence full of requests for assistance.

Historian Helen Hamley warned of the ‘dismissive’ and ‘brief’, hence tokenistic references to women in Queensland labour historiography in 2001; while at the same time alerting us to the importance of Helen Huxham as labour organiser and feminist.[4] Little is known about Helen Julia Dougherty’s early years; her most active involvement was in promoting women’s unions, in promoting ‘justice, peace and better social conditions’, in working ‘tirelessly’ for the Labor between 1907 to 1920. And much of the little that we do know about her is only available because of her relationship to her second husband, who was a senior Labor politician and Queensland’s agent general in London.

Born Helen Julia Dougherty, her first husband was Meiklejohn. On 13 October 1897, widowed, she married John Huxham; they had one daughter. John Huxham was an importer and sporting and musical goods retailer; he was elected to Queensland parliament in 1907. Their daughter’s blindness, caused by meningitis when seven, presumably encouraged the couple’s active interest and support for people with disabilities and the wider health and welfare sectors. John Huxham, ‘quiet, moderate, a teetotaller’ was also a Baptist lay-preacher, as noted by G N Logan in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. ‘Some people’ observed a contemporary, attribute John Huxham’s ‘political success to the fact that he is Mrs Huxham’s husband’.[5]

What we can glean from a cursory newspaper search is that Helen Huxham was a very experienced speaker in her own right, ‘the most successful lady orator on Labour and economic subjects’. There are very many reports of her talks and lectures to groups across the state, references to her public speaking not only indoors but also at rallies, to small groups and large crowds, and she often took the place of her husband on the podium when he was unavailable. She advocated the rights for women workers, took a position on the Recruiting Committee organised by the conservative National Council of Women to protect women workers’ rights, and was extremely outspoken against compulsory military service through conscription. And on numerous occasions she had to defend herself against attacks in the conservative press.

How active she was in the Women’s Peace Army is less easy to discern. Helen Huxham did attend the reception for Adela Pankhurst and Celicia John on their visit from Melbourne. Presumably she was onboard the government boat on its trip down the Brisbane River accompanying her husband when Cecilia John, a contralto, sang the outlawed song ‘I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier’. Presumably she was also acquainted with the tirade of abuse John Huxham had to face in Parliament and the conservative press in the days following as the elected representative responsible for the use of the Otter. Perhaps that is as far as her involvement with the Women’s Peace Army went? ‘Equally dominant’ in that life-long happy union of husband and wife, both ‘equally sensitive to the calls of humanitarian amelioration’, how did the Huxhams, and Helen in particular respond to Australia’s participation in the war?

Helen Huxham believed that once women achieved universal suffrage across the globe, war was less likely. She was reported as saying: ‘Women had taken a place in politics not a moment too soon. If they had taken that place earlier it was within the bounds of possibility that the present international calamity would not have happened.’[6] And while she was prepared to denounce conscription, she urged women to be ready to do their share, and to ‘watch their own interests’. She pointed out, on numerous occasions, that many of her menfolk, her son, her nephews were at the war front. Was she a member of the WPA? She worked alongside the WPA, and she spoke about Margaret Thorp’s wonderful anti-conscription work at a recognition of Thorp’s contribution to the campaign.

After the war, and after standing for Labor Party preselection for the Senate, unsuccessfully, Helen Huxham was appointed a Justice of Peace. She accompanied her husband to London in July 1924 when he was agent-general, and died prematurely soon afterwards.

[1] ‘Bremer Celebrates’, Daily Standard, 2 August 1915, p. 4.

[2] ‘The Late Helen Huxham’, Daily Standard, 17 November 1924, p. 10.

[3] ‘Buranda Tribute’, Daily Standard, 17 November 1924, p. 10.

[4] Helen Hamley, ‘ “If you’ve got the women… you’ve got the men”: Women Activists in the Queensland Labour Movement 1880s to 1920’, The World’s First Labor Government, Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 2001, pp. 59-74.

[5] ‘The Week in Brisbane’, The Catholic Press, 23 September 1915, p. 27.

[6] ‘Bremer Celebrates’, Daily Standard, 2 August 1915, p. 4.

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