BUTTFIELD, Dame Nancy Eileen (1912–2005)
Senator for South Australia, 1955–65, 1968–74 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Nancy Eileen Buttfield, the first South Australian woman to enter state or federal parliament, and a community worker and public figure in Adelaide, was born on 12 November 1912 in Kensington Gardens, Adelaide, to Edward Wheewall (later Sir Edward) Holden and Hilda May, née Lavis. Nancy’s great-grandfather, James Alexander Holden, arrived in Adelaide from the north of England in 1856, establishing a leather business in Grenfell Street, which, under his son Henry, diversified into motor body manufacture, including sidecars for Harley Davidson motor bikes. Edward played a key role in the expansion of the business, which turned the family name ‘Holden’ into a household word in Australia. All this gave Nancy a comfortable upbringing, but no inheritance, and, as she said, ‘not one single share’.

Nancy was educated at Girton House Girls’ Grammar School from 1918 to 1923, and from 1924 to 1929 at Woodlands Glenelg Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, as a boarder for some of those years. In her final year at Woodlands she was prefect and house captain. She left Adelaide in late 1929 for a year in Paris, where, as she put it, she received ‘French polishing’. In 1931 she undertook studies in psychology, music and logic at the University of Adelaide, later studying economics. On 19 February 1936 Nancy married Frank Charles Buttfield, an auctioneer, at St John’s Church of England, Adelaide. They had two sons. Following the example of her capable mother, she threw some of her abundant energy into voluntary work, supporting many philanthropic causes including the Queen Victoria Hospital and the Mothers’ and Babies’ Health Association, for whom she considered herself a ‘professional fundraiser’. She worked for the Comforts Fund during World War II and was president of the organising committee that helped establish an Emergency Maternity Hospital in the inner western suburbs of Adelaide in 1946. At some time she became co-manager of Mile End Maternity Hospital. [1]

Close to her father, who was a member of the South Australian Legislative Council from 1935 to 1947, Buttfield was encouraged to consider a career in Parliament by a friend of her mother’s, Helen Aldecott, who was prominent in South Australian Liberal politics. Before her marriage, Nancy had joined one of South Australia’s celebrated model parliaments, choosing not the women’s version, but one near Holden’s factory that was predominantly male. Buttfield joined the Liberal and Country League (LCL) of South Australia in September 1951 and revived, then chaired, the LCL’s Adelaide women’s branch, which had lapsed, going on to become a delegate to the LCL’s council and executive (1952–54 and 1962–69). In 1954 she was endorsed to contest the seat of Adelaide for the House of Representatives, considered a Labor stronghold. An extraordinarily hard worker, Buttfield gained over 42 per cent of the vote at the May election, losing to the sitting member, Cyril Chambers. She had become the first woman to be endorsed by the LCL in twenty-seven years, but found she was left off the platform when the Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, opened the South Australian campaign. As a result of Buttfield telephoning the Prime Minister (with whom she had played table tennis at a family party), her first campaign speech was made alongside Menzies, with whom she would continue to have discreet, though timely, contacts.

Buttfield now had a foothold in the LCL. Already an executive member of the Good Neighbour Council, on Menzies’ recommendation she was appointed to the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council in 1955, on which she would serve until its dissolution in 1974. On 11 October 1955 she was appointed at a joint sitting of the South Australian Parliament to fill the Senate casual vacancy caused by the death in September of Senator George McLeay. She was sworn on 18 October. She was already nominated in fifth place for the December Senate election, and McLeay’s vacancy and her filling of that vacancy now put Buttfield in the running for a six-year term. Under the existing electoral law, if she won in December she would be eligible to continue to fill the McLeay vacancy until the periodical vacancy was due to start in July 1956. She campaigned strongly across the state, using her vehement anti-communism, spiced by the Petrov Affair, to good advantage. She was elected for a term expiring in June 1962.[2]

The importance of immigration was the theme of Nancy Buttfield’s first speech to the Senate on 26 October 1955. She believed that we ‘must increase our population as quickly as possible in order to develop our national resources’. In February 1956 she praised the establishment of Citizenship Conventions (organised by the Commonwealth to discuss ways of improving immigration programs), but concluded that Australia needed to establish ‘a long-term programme in relation to immigration’. Buttfield warned of the need ‘to combat communism’, and called for greater national cooperation, arguing for stronger links between federal and state governments. She strongly supported the Menzies Government’s social services program, but noted that the ‘women’s organizations which have leaders … on such matters as housing, health, education and hospitals, and even wages’ were often ‘deliberately over-looked’. She also urged the Government to ‘pay more attention’ to the opportunities presented by tourism.

Buttfield would maintain her interest in migration, arguing passionately for the establishment of foreign language newspapers and for the elimination of the long ‘waiting period’ before naturalised New Australians were eligible for social service benefits. Connected with her desire to populate Australia with people of European origins was a keen interest in foreign affairs, which was partly fuelled by anti-communism. As she later confessed: ‘I took myself overseas whenever the opportunity arose so that I could observe Communism in action and to understand and detect the surreptitious propaganda that was becoming so widespread in Australia’. Trips to India, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and other Asian countries in 1958 did not shake this conviction, nor did one to the USSR in 1959.[3]

Buttfield was a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs from 1959 to 1962, and again from 1968 to 1971. Her view was that of the Liberal–Country Party Coalition’s postwar governments—that the maintenance of world peace and security was the overarching requirement of national development. In July 1962 Buttfield was part of the Australian government delegation to the South Pacific Conference in Pago Pago, Samoa, and in 1963 she visited the People’s Republic of China. She commented that the visit to China helped ‘to confirm in my own mind that the West was aiding Communist propaganda rather than combating it by refusing to recognise Red China’. In June 1965 she was part of a parliamentary delegation to East Asia. She was a delegate to Inter-Parliamentary Union conferences in Belgrade in 1963, where she spoke on safeguarding peace, and in Paris in 1971, when she discoursed on the recently established Senate committee system, and the need for a code on the rights of witnesses of such committees.

When South Australian Premier Tom Playford lobbied the Minister for National Development, Senator Spooner, regarding the South Australian exclusion from the agreement between the Commonwealth, and New South Wales and Victoria, on the diversion of waters for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme, Buttfield asked questions, both in the Senate and in the party room. In 1957 when she did not receive a direct response from Spooner, she took the matter to the Prime Minister, who subsequently ensured South Australia’s inclusion in the River Murray Waters Agreement. A frequent visitor to the Snowy Mountains Scheme, in 1962 she arranged a meeting between Playford and Menzies on the Chowilla Dam proposal, joining other South Australian Liberal senators and members in a deputation to the Prime Minister, seeking Commonwealth support for the project. Her overall approach to Commonwealth–state relations can be summed up in this extract from her speech during the States Grants (Special Assistance) Bill in 1962:

If South Australia has a claim to participate in activities designed to increase exports I will fight for that as hard as I can, because that is in accord with the Government’s policy … but I am not prepared to rise in the Senate and say that we must have what we want right now regardless of the national outlook.[4]

Buttfield held a long-standing belief in the national benefit of tourism. In 1957 she attended the second Pacific Area Travel Association conference, held in Canberra. The following year, she moved for the establishment of a Senate select committee on tourism. The thrust of her argument was that the Commonwealth should be taking advantage of an international travel boom to encourage tourism by making grants to state travel authorities. Her cogent speech was supported by the Leader of the Opposition, Senator McKenna, and the Democratic Labor Party, but not by Spooner and most of the coalition.

In 1959 a press report of a party room debate on tourism claimed she had described Country Party senators as ‘wet blankets’. This, she said, was incorrect, her exact words having been ‘senile, old wet blankets’. Under pressure from Menzies, Buttfield apologised to her colleagues, but she was ahead of her time: the Australian Tourist Commission was not established until 1967. The sexism of the media, with which Buttfield had to deal, is illustrated in the patronising tone of the Adelaide Advertiser of October 1959, which referred to her ‘woman-like’ anger and ‘feminine finesse’, and declared that South Australia’s ‘voluble and volatile Senator Nancy Buttfield had to learn a political lesson this week’. According to this organ of the Adelaide establishment, the lesson was ‘that you don’t publicly attack members on your own side of politics if you want to remain popular’.[5]

In Parliament, Buttfield had fielded barbs and occasional insults with confidence, a quick wit, and an ability to think on her feet and meet challenges head-on. None of this impressed the LCL. Prior to the December 1961 election, she was placed third on the party ticket behind the senior senators Mattner and Hannaford and she again campaigned vigorously. Scheduled to open the Angaston Show, and never shy of the term ‘housewife’, Buttfield entered a home-made cake in the competition, thus winning some extra coverage in the Angaston Leader. Coming sixth on the poll, she was returned to the Senate only because of the casual vacancy caused by the death on 11 September 1961 of Senator Pearson, midway through his term. This was something of a reprieve, albeit only for three years. At the 1964 election she was placed third on the LCL ticket behind newcomer Gordon Davidson, after Davidson had mounted a well-organised campaign to secure second spot. Outraged but helpless, the League of Women Voters re-formed the Women for Canberra Movement, which distributed its own ticket with Buttfield in number one position. This caused a minor stir, the Adelaide correspondent of the Canberra Times writing that Buttfield’s ‘special brand of feminism and independence’ had irritated ‘the faceless men in the State Liberal party executive’, while social commentator Max Harris in a letter to the Advertiser wrote that ‘the reason for virtually sacking Senator Buttfield is reported to have stemmed from a rural element in the LCL which believes that politics is for men, and that women should stay at home breeding kids and feeding the chooks’.[6]

Buttfield was defeated, despite outpolling Davidson on first preferences by nearly 24 000 votes. Out of the Senate by the beginning of July 1965, she turned to a career as a radio and television personality, taking part in Channel 9’s Twenty Questions, and Beauty and the Beast, and in Radio SDN’s Candid Comments (later Fair Go). A member of the Council of Children’s Film and Television, in November 1964 she had successfully requested an amendment to the Television Stations Licence Fees Bill, which, with the support of the Opposition, and of fellow Liberal Reg Wright, provided a relief in licence fees to television programs with artistic or Australian content.

In the preselection contest in March 1967 for the November Senate election, Buttfield was placed second on the LCL ticket. Returned to the Senate, she was sworn on 13 August 1968. She had long shown her interest in health issues, and in December 1969 was appointed to the Senate Select Committee on Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse in Australia. During this inquiry, she undertook day and night sorties in Kings Cross with the New South Wales drug squad. From September 1971 she chaired the Senate Standing Committee on Health and Welfare’s controversial review of the Repatriation Act. Though, by 1973, she was no longer the chair of the committee, in November of that year she was invited to present the committee’s report in the Senate as deputy chair in acknowledgement of her particular contribution. In spite of vehement protest from groups such as the Returned Services League, the committee had recommended major changes to the Repatriation Act, including a review of pensions.[7]

Menzies had recommended against Buttfield’s first campaign slogan: ‘A woman’s home might be her centre, but it need not be her boundary’, but it encapsulated her position on women’s issues. The Prime Minister had also warned that she might not find the party machine easy, a view that was soon borne out when, early on in the Senate, Buttfield felt that Senator Rankin, the Liberal Party Whip, went out of her way to make Buttfield’s position difficult, frequently asking her to prepare speeches that she was never given the opportunity to deliver. In December 1960 all the female senators were put to the test, when Labor’s Senator Willesee moved to recommit the Public Service Bill for the purpose of ensuring that salaries payable to female officers should not be less than those paid to male officers. Buttfield, with other Liberal women, had long supported equal pay for equal work, but now voted with the party to defeat the measure. While the issue, as she said, was basically one of arbitration, the fact that these women succumbed to political pressure was an indication of the power of the party machine. To disobey was to lose preselection. Buttfield would continue to press the Government to remove the bar against married women in the Commonwealth Public Service, but without avail.[8]

Appointed DBE in 1972, the first resident South Australian woman to be knighted, the following year Buttfield was again dropped to third place on the ticket and decided not to stand. Later she wrote: ‘It seemed to me that the Liberal Party was never very loyal to me through most of my time in politics’. Clyde Cameron, political opponent and personal friend, considered that Buttfield ‘was made to pay a terribly unfair price for her refusal to become a groveller to the Liberal Party machine’. While she had occasionally disagreed with her party and crossed the floor, she had been a hard-working and loyal backbencher. In 1974 she returned to the family farm, Fainfield, at Chain of Ponds in the Adelaide Hills, which she and Frank had bought in December 1955, and on which they had lived in disused railway carriages while the house was built. In 1975 one of Buttfield’s sons, Andrew, stood for the Senate as a member of the Workers Party, but was unsuccessful.

An accomplished woodcarver and capable farmer, Buttfield sponsored the Fainfield Venture Youth Club on the family property for some ten years. Becoming interested in disabled children, she was patron of the Riding for the Handicapped Association and in April 1973 a delegate to President Nixon’s Committee on Employment for the Handicapped in Washington, DC. In February 1975 she was the inaugural member of the National Advisory Council for the Handicapped. A keen needlewoman, she endowed a national biennial prize for embroidery, the Dame Nancy Buttfield Award for the Decorative Arts, in 1990. She remained a director of the Co-operative Building Society of South Australia until 1985, having served for twenty-seven years, the first woman to be appointed. She had led the way to greater participation for women in shaping the life of the nation.

Survived by her sons, Nancy Buttfield died at Adelaide on 4 September 2005. The Advertiser, while choosing to describe her, ambiguously, as a ‘robust eccentric’, conceded that she had ‘forced open the door of respect for generations of women who followed her’. Some of the parliamentary tributes paid to Buttfield recalled that, with the support of Menzies, she had been the first women to drink at the previously male-only members bar, braving, as she put it, ‘the abject horror’ of her male colleagues. The ABC television commentator, John Temple, described something of her bracing effect: ‘She is a hard worker, a getter of things done. She is given to having ideas. This is all very disturbing for the kind of politician who thinks fire in the belly is something you take a pill for’.[9]

Alison Mackinnon

[1] Nancy Buttfield, assisted by June Donovan, Dame Nancy: The Autobiography of Dame Nancy Buttfield, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, 1992, pp. 31, 56, 60–3, 65, 68–9, 76–82; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Helen Bruce, Reference Archivist, University of Adelaide.

[2] Buttfield, Dame Nancy, pp. 47, 86, 93; Liberal Party, SA division, Records, SRG 168/1/43, bundles 1–2, SLSA; Helen Jones, In Her Own Name: A History of Women in South Australia from 1836, rev. edn, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 1994, pp. 323–4; Advertiser (Adel.), 12 Oct. 1955, p. 1; SAPP, Joint Sitting of the Two Houses for Choosing of a Senator, 11 Oct. 1955; CPD, 18 Oct. 1955, p. 539, 15 Feb. 1956, p. 6.

[3] CPD, 26 Oct. 1955, pp. 709–12, 16 Feb. 1956, pp. 23–9, 28 Mar. 1957, pp. 225–6, 15 Mar. 1961, p. 203; Buttfield, Dame Nancy, p. 102.

[4] CPD, 22 Apr. 1971, pp. 984–5; Buttfield, Dame Nancy, pp. 121–2, 157; CPP, 49/1964, p. 16, 60/1972, p. 19; CPD, 1 Oct. 1957, pp. 238–9, 8 Oct. 1957, p. 386, 19 Nov. 1957, p. 1317, 16 Aug. 1962, p. 272, 22 Aug. 1962, pp. 351–5; Advertiser (Adel.), 14 Nov. 1962, p. 1; CPD, 14 Nov. 1962, pp. 1384–5.

[5] CPD, 22 May 1956, p. 842, 17 Apr. 1958, pp. 580–93; News (Adel.), 3 Oct. 1959, p. 24; Buttfield, Dame Nancy, p. 112; CPD, 8 Oct. 1959, p. 1025; News (Adel.), 9 Oct. 1959, p. 3; CPD, 20 Oct. 1959, pp. 1072–3; Advertiser (Adel.), 24 Oct. 1959, p. 2.

[6] CPD, 22 Apr. 1971, p. 985, 3 June 1969, p. 1951; Buttfield, Dame Nancy, pp. 131–9; SAPP, Joint Sitting of the Two Houses for Choosing of a Senator, 28 Sept. 1961; Advertiser (Adel.), 23 May 1963, p. 3, 6 Oct. 1964, p. 8, 19 Nov. 1964, p. 3; CT, 11 Dec. 1964, p. 2; Advertiser (Adel.), 20 Nov. 1964, pp. 4, 11.

[7] CPD, 12 Nov. 1964, pp. 1678–87, 19 May 1964, pp. 1264–6; CPP, 204/1971, 234/1973; CPD, 7 Nov. 1973, pp. 1575–9; Bulletin (Syd.), 7 Oct. 1972, pp. 15–19; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 14 Sept. 1972, p. 3; CPD, 25 Sept. 1973, pp. 838–40; CT, 8 Nov. 1973, p. 9.

[8] Buttfield, Dame Nancy, pp. 92, 97–8, 110; CPD, 8 Dec. 1960, pp. 2235, 11 Apr. 1961, p. 380, 2 May 1961, p. 671, 9 Apr. 1964, pp. 552–3, 23 Sept. 1964, p. 649, 24 Mar. 1965, pp. 93–4, 17 May 1962, p. 1449, 16 Oct. 1962, p. 833, 13 Nov. 1962, p. 1325, 22 Aug. 1962, p. 356.

[9] Advertiser (Adel.), 1 Jan. 1972, p. 1, 18 Dec. 1973, p. 10; Buttfield, Dame Nancy, pp. iii, 106–8, 133; Biographical details, Dame Nancy Buttfield Papers, PRG 1161/3, SLSA; Advertiser (Adel.), 8 Sept. 1990, p. 4; ‘Dame Nancy Buttfield: First South Australian Woman in Parliament’, Women and Politics in South Australia, SLSA, viewed 12 Mar. 2009, <http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/women_and_politics/parl6.htm>; Advertiser (Adel.), 10 Sept. 2005, p. 26.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 207-213.

BUTTFIELD, Dame Nancy Eileen (1912–2005)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for South Australia, 1955–65, 1968–74

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1956–62

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1959–62, 1968–71

House Committee, 1968–71

Select Committee on Drug Trafficking and Drug Abuse in Australia, 1969–71

Estimates Committee C, 1970–71, 1971–73

Library Committee, 1971–73

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1971–74

Estimates Committee E, 1972

Estimates Committee D, 1973–74