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Quirk, Mary Lilly May (1880–1952)

by Leanne L. Blackley

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Mary Lilly May Quirk (1880-1952), politician, was born on 7 December 1880 at Coonamble, New South Wales, second child of Julius Franz Frederick Deal, a butcher who had been born at sea, and his Victorian-born wife Emma Margretta, née White. By 1890 Julius was a butcher at Balmain, Sydney. Educated at Rozelle Superior Public School, Mary began work as a domestic servant. At St Joseph's Catholic Church, Balmain, on 28 September 1898 she married John Kelly (d.1926), a 39-year-old widower from England; they were to have a son and three daughters. She later worked as a shop-assistant for Grace Bros Ltd for four and a half years and joined the Shop Assistants' Union of New South Wales.

On 9 February 1927 at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Sydney, Mary Kelly married John Quirk, a 56-year-old widower. Balmain born, he worked in the local post office and held the Legislative Assembly seats of Rozelle (1917-20 and 1927-30) and Balmain (1920-27 and 1930-38) for Labor. Following John's death in December 1938, Mary won the by-election for his Balmain seat on 14 January 1939. Both the Quirks were strong supporters of J. T. Lang in the 1930s and 'were indefatigable in the interests of their constituents'.

On Mrs Quirk's first day in the Legislative Assembly in February 1939 the 'galleries were crowded with women' who had come to see her sworn in. The first Labor woman—and only the second woman—to be elected to New South Wales parliament, she later remarked that a 'lot of people told me that I only got in on a sympathy vote . . . But at the next election they stood by me'. She supported the entry of more women to parliament, so long as they were 'women of mature experience' like herself; and she claimed to understand her male counterparts, even if she thought that men were often 'really nothing but overgrown babies'. In 1941 Quirk's supporters unsuccessfully urged (Sir) William McKell to appoint her to his new ministry. Known in the House as a 'fervent advocate for the rights of the housewife', she threatened (1946) that housewives would apply a boycott if bread and milk prices were increased. She was also 'a skilled and able fighter' for people in industrial districts. When feelings in the Legislative Assembly ran high, her presence tended to promote 'moderation and forbearance'.

After two ballots and an appeal to the Australian Labor Party's State executive about 'irregularities' during voting, Mrs Quirk lost pre-selection in May 1950 and was defeated by the A.L.P.-endorsed candidate when she stood as an Independent for Balmain in June. She became a director of the Sunshine Homes for children. Survived by her three daughters, she died on 4 March 1952 in Sydney Hospital and was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery beside her second husband. In her will she requested that 'Mary Quirk (Ex. M.L.A.)' be inscribed on her tombstone. On her death, the premier James McGirr remarked that she had 'added a special dignity to our Parliament'.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Sawer and M. Simms, A Woman's Place (Syd, 1984)
  • J. Haines, Suffrage to Sufferance (Syd, 1992)
  • M. Reynolds, The Last Bastion (Syd, 1995)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 5 Mar 1952, p 5158
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Dec 1938, 23 Feb 1939, 8 Feb 1946, 13 May, 19 June 1950, 14 May 1951, 5 Mar 1952
  • Sun (Sydney), 26 Mar 1950.

Citation details

Leanne L. Blackley, 'Quirk, Mary Lilly May (1880–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/quirk-mary-lilly-may-11473/text20457, accessed 26 September 2017.

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