When 16 year-old Beatrice “Tennyson” Miller and co-worker Edith Lamb stepped into the head office of the Bank of New South Wales 120 years ago, their arrival caused quite a stir.
As the first two women ever employed by the then 81-year old bank, special rules were put in place to prevent them from distracting their male colleagues or offending customers, like starting earlier, using a separate entrance and remaining within their designated office.
But this was just the start of the new ground broken by the feisty, independent Miller. Originally employed as a “lady typewriter” to copy letters, memos and minutes, she went on to work for the bank for 41 years until her retirement in 1939.
New analysis of the bank’s records reveal that among her pioneering activities, Miller was the driving force behind what is most likely the very first superannuation fund for women employed in the private sector, established 80 years ago in 1938.
Today, it’s hard to imagine this safety net didn’t always exist for all.
The Provident Fund available to male employees of the bank first evolved in the 1860s, when all new young men had to provide money – like a bond or guarantee – as proof of their good character and to protect the bank against any losses, accidental or otherwise, during their employment. This pool of money, held as the “Fidelity Guarantee Fund”, grew over time as there were very few incidents resulting in losses.
At the behest of employees in 1862, the fund was altered so pensions could be drawn once the men reached retirement age – 60 years. The bank agreed to pay interest, and from 1872 male staff could pay additional annual contributions.
This Fund was ahead of its time.
The government’s old age pension didn’t come into being until 1910, was means-tested and was only available at age 65 (and, of course, mandatory super contributions only came about in 1992). Women were entitled to that government pension if they were widows, or part of a married couple, the money being paid to their husbands.
But it wasn’t until the advent of the Women’s Fidelity Guarantee and Provident Fund in 1938 that, for the first time, female staff could retire with the same dignity of financial independence as their male colleagues.
Miller had agitated for this throughout her career. Fittingly, it came into force the year before she retired.
All female employees were entitled to join and, on retirement, were paid an annual income equivalent to 60 per cent of their final year’s salary. Contributions were set at 3 per cent of the employee’s income per annum, and could be withdrawn when women left the bank for any reason.
When established, almost all of the bank’s 755 female employees – 17 per cent of the bank’s employees – joined the new fund. Although most had started with the bank prior to the creation of the fund, and had therefore made no annual contributions, the bank made provision to pay the annual pensions of all the women who joined, including Tennyson Miller.
It would be another 23 years until, in 1961, the bank offered a similar scheme to external customers – the same year, incidentally, that the bank had a woman in a customer-facing role for the very first time.
This serves as a reminder of the severe limitations facing women at the time, only changed through agitation by people like Miller.
Aside from a small handful of women who joined the bank after her and Lamb in 1898, it wasn’t until male staff shortages brought about by enlistments during the First World War that numbers of women genuinely swelled. These women joined as temporary replacements and were expected to leave when the men returned, despite their contribution, skill, and experience. They were also issued standardised uniforms in 1934, whereas men were allowed to wear their own suits and ties.
All were subject to the marriage bar, in force until 1966, which meant that a woman was forced to leave employment when she married, lest she take a job away from a man who was expected to support his family. We have anecdotal evidence that numerous women working for the bank flouted this law by hiding their marriages – single working girl by week, married mother on weekends.
Women were also required to have a male guarantor for any significant financial action, such as applying for a loan including a mortgage, taking out insurance or setting up a savings product such as a Trust Fund.
To have access to – and payment of – an independent, guaranteed income at retirement must have felt truly liberating.