May Mills OBE 1890-1984

Mills in 1943 at the start of her SAPTU Presidential Term. Source: South Australian Teachers' Union. ‘Editorial’ in The South Australian teachers’ journal. Vol XXIX, No 5, June, 1943.

In 1989, ‘Playing Fields May’ OBE died. Her obituaries and tributes concentrated on her contributions to women’s sport. May Mills believed in promoting women’s freedom and activity, establishing the first girl’s hockey team in the 1920’s, which went on to win premierships, and organising Unley High students to build their first playfield, upon which Julia Gillard once played as a student. Just before retirement in 1953 she organised the land acquisition, funding for and construction of the South Australian (SA) Women’s Memorial Playing fields to provide opportunities for women to play sport competitively (up to the national level) and to honour women who had served in both World Wars.

If May Mills ‘only’ did this her life would have been still been full and noteworthy, however three other aspects of her life attracted me to researching her life for my History Masters degree: firstly, her passion for education and advancing the interests of women teachers and their students which led, secondly, to her activism as (the first and only female) Union President of the SA Public Teachers’ Union in 1943-44; thirdly her soroptimism and feminist legacy. She led an unusual life for a woman, remaining single and living with her sister Margaret aka ‘Rit’ as co-owners of the merino sheep property, Sturtbrae (Mills was the stud master after her father’s death from 1933). Sturtbrae was also the venue for many of her professional activities, such as her work with the National Council of Women (NCW). Mills even later ran (unsuccessfully) for Parliament in 1959 and was the only female candidate who didn’t nominate ‘domestic duties’ as her employment.

Her legacy is the SA Women’s Memorial Playing Fields and the Flinders University May Mills Re-entry Scholarship for women, the latter funded by her bequeath of her half of the Sturtbrae estate to the University. She is honoured as one of 150 notable Adelaide citizens by a plaque in North Terrace, Adelaide. Her only existing published biography is an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography .