Grace Benny

Susan Grace Benny (1872-1944), local government councillor, was born on 4 October 1872 at the Crown Inn, Adelaide, eldest daughter of Agnes Ellen (born Harriot) and Peter Anderson, farmer. Grace, whose mother died when she was nine, grew up on the family's sheepstation, 'Springfield', Yorke Peninsula. She went to a small girls' boarding school at McLaren Vale, then returned home and taught her younger sisters. On 16 July 1896 she married her cousin, solicitor Benjamin Benny.

They established a home, 'Stoneywood', in the suburb of Seacliff, and had three daughters and two sons. Active in community life, Grace was honorary secretary of the Seacliff Cheer-up Society during the war and joined the local progress association and spinning and croquet clubs. In 1918-19 she was on the Liberal Union Sturt District committee and was president of the Brighton Women's Branch of the Liberal Union.

Her husband had been mayor of Brighton, South Australia, in 1903-05, and Grace became the first female member of a local government council in Australia, on 22 December 1919. She spoke of being elected but although she was nominated for the new ward, Seacliff, council procedure meant that she was appointed by state government proclamation. She was energetic, wiry and tenacious, 'one of those wholesome, cheery women, broadminded and tolerant'.

Benny claimed credit for several improvements at Brighton: the opening of a cliff to enable free access to the beach; the installation of electric lights; and the allotment of reserves as a children's playground and public garden. She successfully supported the abolition of segregated sea-bathing, so that families could swim together. Whereas legislators commonly believed that women were incapable of attending night meetings, Benny regularly did so. She retained her seat through two elections but left local government on losing a mayoral contest in December 1922.

A justice of the peace from 1921, she heard state children's, police and women's cases, applying what she called, with Kipling, 'God's own commonsense' to administer justice. Her husband, a federal senator in 1919-26, resigned and was convicted of embezzlement, sentenced to three years' hard labour and declared insolvent.

Grace Benny relied on inherited money to help support her children, all of whom lived with her. Unusually resourceful for a woman who had never worked for a living, she moved her home to the city and ran the Elite Employment Agency throughout the depression, to the satisfaction of employers and unemployed, for many of whom she provided a meal and a bed.

She separated from her husband and after his death married Cecil Ralph Bannister, a tramway worker and clerk twenty years her junior, in Melbourne on 23 February 1944. They lived in Adelaide, where Grace continued her justice of the peace duties; she died on 5 November 1940. The Brighton Council named a crescent and a community centre for women's groups after her.

Suzanne Edgar and Helen Jones