Though not elected in the formal sense, Grace Benny’s appointment followed a nomination from the Seacliff Progress Association, supported by a petition signed by the majority of ratepayers of Brighton asking the Governor to appoint her as one of two councillors for the new ward. Her appointment was made by the state government, It had symbolic importance at the State level because it marked a significant milestone in the political advancement of women in South Australia. Susan Grace Benny was the first woman in Australia to benefit from the amendment of electoral laws that promoted gender equality in the electoral process.
An article “The Municipal Elections” (Southern Cross, Fri 8 Dec, 1922, p.11) titled “Lady Kitty’s Letter” reported:
“Mrs Benny has the honour to be the first woman Councillor in South Australia… Mrs Benny, who simply brims with energy, is in every movement in Brighton and Seacliff that makes for the wellbeing of the town… Mrs Benny’s personality is most attractive. She is one of those wholesome, cheery women, broad-minded and tolerant, with on immense public spiritedness that makes her invaluable for the work she has taken up. She has 'entered the council from a sense of public duty, believing that' there is work to be done in municipal life which will not even be commenced unless a woman undertakes it. Congratulations to Mrs Benny, and all success to her in this new sphere of work.”
Winning the Vote
At first, voters and councillors were men only, but under the 1861 Municipal Corporations Act, women became the first in Australia eligible to vote in local government elections, well before they could vote in parliamentary elections. Many years were to pass before any woman was elected to council – the first to succeed in South Australia (and in Australia) was Susan Grace Benny, to Brighton Council in 1919.
In the age that Grace was born and grew up, most women in the nineteenth century in Australia lacked many civil, political and social rights. Women's lives revolved around raising families and domestic work. Property was in the name of fathers and husbands. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, many women began to believe that the only way to bring about change was to influence the law-makers. Without a vote however, how could women do this? The answer was- to win the right to vote.
So 17 years before Grace was elected, white women won the right to vote in Australian federal elections in 1902. Women began using their political voice to lobby for improvements that would directly benefit them. Their focus was mainly maternalistic with an emphasis on philanthropy, social welfare, economic independence, and the centrality of home to national life. Gradually there became demands for equal rights with men.
World War One-transforming daily life
World War One from 1914 to 1918 transformed daily life. An estimated 10,000 patriotic clubs, societies and sewing circles sprang up to support our troops; knit, pack parcels and write encouraging letters to men in the armed forces. It was "a completely new sector of the economy”. Although it was mainly middle-class and elite women providing leadership of various patriotic societies, many working class female-dominated workplaces formed special working bees to raise money and make comforts for the troops, adding to their already heavy workloads whether paid or unpaid.
By the end of 1918, the First World War was over. Although there was a strong sense of national pride in what the Australian troops had accomplished, there was also sadness at the terrible toll and recognition that as a nation we needed to take care of survivors, war widows and their children. Anger about cost of living led to food riots and protests. This sparked activism among women of all classes and politics. World War I and its aftermath brought significant changes to Australian society, including greater numbers of women into the public sphere.
Susan Grace Anderson growing up
Against this background, Grace, as she was known, was born in the Crown Inn Hotel, Currie Street, Adelaide on 8 October 1872. She was the eldest daughter of Agnes Ellen (nee Harriot) and Peter Anderson, a farmer and elder of John Knox Free Presbyterian Church, Morphett Vale. The Andersons bought a property “Burnside” in the Adelaide foothills but the venture was not successful so the property was sold and they moved to Morphett Vale. From there, the Andersons moved to a sheep station “Springfield” near Stansbury, Yorke Peninsula. Her mother died when she was nine and Grace attended a small boarding school for girls in McLaren Vale, later returning home to “Springfield” to teach her younger sisters.
At the age of nearly 22 on 16 July 1896, Grace married her cousin Benjamin Benny, a solicitor, at “Springfield.” Benjamin was the eldest son of the late George Benny, Free Presbyterian Minister and teacher, and his wife Susanna, nee Anderson (Grace’s aunt).
Benjamin Benny was born in Aldinga, South Australia on 21 October 1869. He was educated at state schools and then at the University of Adelaide, becoming a solicitor. When his father died penniless in 1879, Benjamin’s uncle, William Steele Benny, paid for his education at Thomas Caterer’s Commercial College, Norwood, South Australia. In 1887, Benny was articled to his uncle’s city law practice for five years. He completed his final certificate in law at the University of Adelaide in 1891 and was admitted to the Bar in 1892. After his uncle’s death in 1898, Benny inherited the business.
After Grace moved to Adelaide, where Benjamin worked. Grace and Benjamin established a home at “Stoneywood “, 81 Marine Parade, Seacliff afterwards called Devon House).
They raised three daughters, Kathleen, Eleanor and Mary and two sons, Ronald and Geoffrey. The children all had a private school education. Grace maintained an interest in poetry and literature and she and her husband accumulated a valuable library of over 2000 volumes.
Active in community life
Both Grace and Benjamin were prominent in community and public life. Benjamin served as Mayor of Brighton from 1903-05 and, in October 1919, he was elected the first Commodore of the Brighton and Seacliff Yacht Club. He was Vice-President of the South Australian Law Society, and served as Mayor of Brighton Council from 1903 to 1905. In 1919, he was elected to the Australian Senate as a Nationalist Senator for South Australia.
Active in community life, during World War I, Grace active in Adelaide, Brighton and Seacliff Cheer-up Societies honorary secretary). (Cheer-up Societies were a South Australian patriotic organisation founded during The Great War, whose aims were provision of creature comforts for soldiers in South Australia). She founded the Seacliff Spinning Club to provide wool for women to knit items for the soldiers. She was President of the Seacliff Croquet Club, a foundation member of SA Croquet Association and a prominent member of the Seacliff Progress Association. Interested in politics, she was on the Liberal Union Sturt District committee in 1918, president of the Brighton Women's Branch of the Liberal Union and president of the women's branch of the South Australian Liberal Union from 1918-1919.
Through that position, she ensured that equality of divorce for women was placed on the party's platform and in 1918 this became law. According to research documents, Grace was an educated and intellectually aware woman with an interest in politics and social justice and stood for public office as a means to advance the position of women in the Brighton District.
Appointed to Brighton Council 22nd December 1919
The official Brighton Council minutes record that:
" The meeting on 22nd December 1919 was rather unique in that it was the occasion when Councillor Susan Grace Benny took her place at the Council table as the first woman member of the council of the Corporation in Brighton in the newly created Seacliff Ward.”
At the time of her appointment to Council an account of her achievements published in the Advertiser (13 December 1919, p.11) described her as a ‘live wire’, and ‘broad minded and tolerant, and by no means a woman of the suffragette type, and probably is better known in Brighton than any other woman in the district’ .
While serving on the council, Grace achieved several improvements at Brighton. Among them were the opening of a cliff to enable free access to the beach, installation of electric lights and the allotment of reserves as a children's playground and a public garden. She successfully supported the abolition of segregated sea-bathing making it possible for families to swim together. Whereas legislators commonly believed that women were incapable of attending night meetings, Grace regularly did so. In 1921 she became SA's third woman Justice of the Peace hearing cases relating to state children, police matters and women. She won two further elections, but left local government after an unsuccessful attempt to be elected Mayor of Brighton in 1922. With only two nominations for the position, Grace lost to Ernest Anthony who won by 724 votes to 187. Perhaps society at the time was not ready for a female mayor.
Hard Times for the Benny Family
In October 1924 Grace’s husband, Benjamin Benny, had begun to overreach himself financially with land speculation in three states, accumulating debts and embezzling clients’ funds. He had three periods in hospital during 1925 due to a stroke followed by nervous breakdown. On 26 January 1926, he resigned from the Senate. On 13 February, he was arrested and later charged with several counts of fraud. Again he entered hospital. On 2 March 1926, Benny was struck off the roll of barristers with debts totalling £32 607. On 3 May 1926 in the Supreme Court, Adelaide, he was convicted of fraudulent conversion and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
Grace now had to rely on money she had inherited to support her children. Being unusually resourceful for a woman of her time, who had never worked for a living, she moved into her husband's office in King William Street, opened and ran the Elite Employment Agency throughout the Depression. Released from gaol on 21 May 1928, Benny lived apart from Grace, finding work as a salesman in Beck’s Bookshop. He died at the Adelaide Hospital on 10 February 1935 and was buried in Scots Cemetery, Morphett Vale. His wife, three daughters, Kathleen, Eleanor and Mary, and his two sons, Ronald and Geoffrey, survived him.
No longer had working, on 23 February 1940, Grace (aged 68) married Cecil Ralph Bannister in Melbourne. Cecil was a tramway worker and clerk twenty years her junior. They lived in Adelaide, where Grace continued her duties as a Justice of the Peace.
Grace died aged 72 at North Adelaide on 5 November 1944, survived by her second husband. She was buried in the Scots cemetery, Morphett Vale in the graveside of her first husband. On 3 April 1945 the Public Trustee auctioned her shack on Government Road and building block on the Esplanade, both at Port Noarlunga.