Ethel Emma Black was born at Kaiti, Gisborne, on 12 May 1904, the daughter of Ethel Louise Evans and her husband, Walter Stuart Black, a carpenter who also had a small farm. After attending local primary schools she became a prefect and dux of Gisborne High School. In 1921 Ethel went south to study history at the University of Otago. A bright and dedicated student, she won a hockey blue, and graduated BA in 1924 and MA (honours) in history in 1926. She then spent a year lecturing in history at the university, where she met medical student David Gervan McMillan.
After three years as history mistress at Nelson College for Girls, Ethel Black married McMillan at Gisborne on 4 September 1929. The couple, who were to have two sons, settled in Kurow, North Otago, where Gervan purchased a medical practice. A long-time social activist and New Zealand Labour Party member, he became the doctor to the construction workers at the nearby Waitaki hydroelectric scheme. The miserable conditions in the workers’ camps jolted Ethel’s social conscience, and convinced her that ‘socialism was the only possible answer’. She took an active role in the discussions with neighbours such as the Reverend Arnold Nordmeyer, teacher Andrew Davidson and trade union leader Jerry Skinner, who often gathered at the McMillan home to hammer out ideas for a national health service. She also played hostess to visiting Labour leaders such as M. J. Savage, and joined the party about 1930. In 1934 the couple moved to Dunedin, and the following year Gervan was elected MP for Dunedin West as Labour swept to power.
Ethel McMillan began her public career with the Plunket Society and the Otago Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools Board (1936–50). She was appointed a justice of the peace in 1939, and served on the Otago Hospital Board for a number of years. In 1950 she became the first woman elected to the Dunedin City Council, on which she was to serve for 30 years (until 1970 she was its only female member). After serving briefly as a cabinet minister (1940–41), Gervan McMillan had resigned from Parliament in 1943 to resume medical practice. Diagnosed with heart disease, he died in 1951, aged 46. In 1953, to avoid ‘moping’ in her widowhood, Ethel stood for Labour in a North Dunedin by-election and won the seat, joining her old friends Nordmeyer and Skinner in Parliament.
McMillan was to spend 16 of her 22 parliamentary years in opposition. Although a senior MP when the Labour government was elected in 1972, she did not achieve cabinet rank. She had an intense personality with a somewhat frosty manner, and had fallen out of favour with party leader Norman Kirk. Earlier, she had chaired the Public Health Committee (1958–60), earning a reputation as Parliament’s ‘Queen of Quiz’ for the number of questions she asked. In opposition she was especially critical of the National government’s economic record, its erosion of Labour’s social security measures and its attitude towards equal pay for women. Her relentless pursuit of Dunedin and Otago interests, including the building of a new airport and maternity hospital for the city, earned her a reputation as a diligent and sympathetic local MP.
While her parliamentary career was somewhat disappointing, after she stepped down in 1975 McMillan continued to pursue a successful public career in Dunedin. The first woman trustee of a savings bank in New Zealand (1960), she chaired the Dunedin (later Otago) Savings Bank’s board from 1964 and remained a member until she turned 81. She served on the executive of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery Society and the Otago Museum Trust Board, and was president of the New Zealand Library Association in 1976–77. A member of the city council until 1980, she chaired its library committee and was a determined advocate of Dunedin’s new library, opened in 1981.
Many in Otago were disappointed at the paucity of official recognition she received (she was made a QSO in 1976), but she continued with her busy life from her pleasant home in Highgate, Dunedin, until her death on 13 August 1987. She was survived by her two sons, both of whom achieved prominence in medicine: Bruce was a distinguished orthopaedic surgeon and Malcolm a professor at the University of Otago School of Dentistry. She is commemorated by a plaque and a tunnel of roses, known as the Ethel McMillan Walk, in the Dunedin Botanic Gardens.
Ethel McMillan was a tireless promoter of her adopted city of Dunedin and helped to pave the way for the increasing numbers of women who were to enter local and national politics from the 1970s.