Eliza Ellen (known as Ellen) Melville was born on 13 May 1882 at Tokatoka, Northern Wairoa, New Zealand, the third of seven children of Alexander Melville, a boatbuilder and farmer, and his wife, Eliza Annand Fogerty, formerly a schoolteacher and governess. Until she was seven, Ellen was taught at home by her mother, who instilled in her the value of education.
Ellen Melville attended the tiny Tokatoka School, then in 1895 won a Junior District Scholarship to attend Auckland College and Grammar School. The law as a profession was just opening up to women, and in 1898 Melville passed her matriculation and her Solicitors' General Knowledge Examination. She received her early legal training at the Auckland firm of Devore and Cooper (later Devore and Martin), and in 1904, encouraged by her employers, began studying law at Auckland University College night classes. In December 1906 she became the second New Zealand woman to be admitted to the Bar and, three years later, the second to establish herself in sole practice; the first had been Ethel Benjamin.
With her professional career established, Melville turned her attention to the chief interest of her life: the advancement of women. The feminist movement in New Zealand was at a low ebb and she devoted herself to rebuilding it through the formation of women's societies, and through advocating women's involvement and participating personally in public life.
In March 1911 she was the prime mover behind the formation of the YWCA Women's Club in Auckland as a place for working women, mainly office workers, to meet and discuss current issues. She was a leading figure in the revival of the National Council of the Women of New Zealand (NCW), calling the inaugural meeting of the Auckland branch in 1917 at the rooms of the Civic League. The following year she travelled to Wellington to attend the national conference at which the NCW was formally reconstituted. She became the first president and was nine times president of the Auckland branch of the NCW, and between 1919 and 1922 was dominion president. In 1924 she travelled to Europe with fellow NCW member Elsie Griffin to 'get in personal touch with the women's movement throughout the world'. In Scotland she stayed with Lady Aberdeen, president of the International Council of Women, and she helped Lady Astor, first woman member of the British House of Commons, in her election campaign. In 1934 she was a delegate to the conference of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association in Honolulu.
The Auckland Women's Club (later the Auckland Lyceum Club), the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, the Women's Forum, and, during the depression of the 1930s, the Auckland Unemployed Women's Emergency Committee, were some of the other organisations in which Melville held office. Her briskness, efficiency and strong sense of purpose occasionally led to opposition from other women, but she was never deterred by controversy. Her legal skills were freely put at the disposal of the many women's organisations she supported.
The law provided sufficient financial security for Melville, as a single woman, to be active in public life, although her income was always modest. In 1913 she and other women such as Rosetta Baume and Emily Maguire formed the Civic League, to encourage women to stand for public office. Auckland women called for Melville's own candidacy for the Auckland City Council in 1913, and in that year she was successful in becoming the first woman in New Zealand to be elected to a city council; she was to retain her seat until 1946. Journalist Robin Hyde noted that Melville was initially viewed by her male colleagues as 'rather an improper joke', but she was ultimately respected for her 'logical mind and abundant common sense…. The contributions she made to debates were always models of their kind, brief, completely thought-out and containing original ideas of real value.'
In 1919, when the Women's Parliamentary Rights Act was passed (a reform Melville had agitated for), she announced her candidacy for the Reform Party in the Auckland electorate of Grey Lynn. Despite polling well in this Labour stronghold, she was rebuffed by her own party at the next election when it chose an ex-Liberal to contest the seat. Melville said bitterly that 'the only conclusion to be taken was that they did not want a woman in Parliament'. Instead, she stood as an independent candidate in Roskill in 1922 and, in 1926, in Eden where she split the vote, causing Reform to lose the seat. She continued to seek election in 1928, 1931, 1941 and 1943, standing a total of seven times, but although she polled strongly each time she was never successful. In 1944 she founded the Women to Wellington movement to encourage Auckland women to run for Parliament.
In her local-body life there were also obstacles. Although she was a long-serving member of the key finance committee of the Auckland City Council, had invigorated Auckland's library system, and usually came in near the top of the poll, she was several times passed over as deputy mayor. This led to protests from Auckland women's groups who objected 'to sex being regarded…as a disqualification for leadership'.
Melville believed that politics should be a partnership of men and women, with women taking an equal share in governing; but she also argued that women had a responsibility to look after women's interests, stating that, 'We have only ourselves to blame that government and government departments take no interest in women.' Politically she was conservative, particularly on economic matters. Although she had a broad platform, her parliamentary campaigns gave her the opportunity to publicly advance the agenda of the NCW, including the raising of the age of consent, the appointment of women police, and the need for a motherhood endowment.
For much of her adult life Melville lived with her parents and sister in Mount Eden, Auckland. She took a keen interest in the lives of her nieces and nephews. In her leisure time she grew native plants and went motoring, on at least one occasion combining this with the promotion of New Zealand-made goods. She liked fashionable clothes, often sewing them herself, and making her own hats. She was always attractively dressed, although she refused to wear make-up.
Ellen Melville died on 27 July 1946 in Remuera. The Pioneer Women's and Ellen Melville Hall in central Auckland was erected in memory of her 33-year membership of the Auckland City Council and her service to women, and Melville Park in Epsom commemorates her support for Auckland's sportswomen.
Although she worked tirelessly to complete the work of the nineteenth century feminists in attempting to remove so-called women's disabilities, Ellen Melville represented a new breed of feminism. She was an independent professional woman who vigorously sought full participation in public life. She encouraged other women to follow her and to form strong women's societies, which would take women's concerns into the arena of public affairs. Melville was one of the key figures in the revival of the feminist movement in the twentieth century.