Janet Clarke

Janet Marion Clarke (1851-1909), philanthropist, was born at 'Doogallook' station, Victoria, on 4 June 1851, eldest daughter of Charlotte Agnes (born Cotton) and Peter Snodgrass, squatter. He was agent for a syndicate involved in the bribery of politicians and in financial difficulties when he died in 1867. Janet became governess to the children of William Clarke, heir to William Clarke, pastoralist and landowner. The younger William's wife died in April 1871 and on 21 January 1873 he married Janet. They had four daughters and four sons.

On his father's death in 1874, William became the largest landowner in Victoria and Janet 'uncrowned queen of society'. He built a mansion, 'Rupertswood', on the Sunbury estate and hired Melbourne Town Hall for a lavish ball during Melbourne Cup week. In 1888 their Melbourne home, 'Cliveden', designed by William Wardell (architect of St Patrick's Cathedral), was completed and Janet made this 'small palace of a house' the centre of Melbourne social life.

Janet was more than a decorative society lady, elegantly and expensively displaying her husband's wealth and worth. She believed wealth brought obligations and she was active in management and benefactor to a wide range of associations. In 1885 she was a founding vice-president of the District Nursing Society which provided skilled nursing at home for sick poor women. She was an executive member of the Queen's Fund, from which financial assistance was available to women left impoverished by loss of male relatives, and a member of the Charity Organization Society. She served on committees of the Women's Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children, the Talbot Epileptic Society and the City Newsboys' Society. In 1902 she was foundation president of the Victorian National Council of Women, which sponsored a hospital for infectious diseases. Janet resigned (though she later rejoined) the committee of the Women's Hospital when the resident doctors asserted their right to determine eligibility of patients on medical rather than moral grounds.

Her cultural sponsorship included the fashionable and artistic Austral Salon (among the earliest of the clubs for women), the Dante Society and the Alliance Fran├žaise. She persuaded her husband to donate 5000 pounds in 1889 for a Hostel for Women University Students (renamed Janet Clarke Hall in her honour in 1921) and presided over its ladies' committee until her departure in December 1891 on a family visit to England. She severed all connection with it when Trinity College, the recipient of her donation, steadfastly refused residence to women from other colleges, but she renewed her financial support some years later and in 1904 helped fund-raise for the University. She served on the council of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School for Girls.

Following her husband's death in 1897, she preferred Janet Lady Clarke to Dowager Lady Clarke. In 1904 she was founding vice-president of the Australian Institute of Domestic Economy which organised cooking demonstrations, talks on child care, physiology, table decorations and home upholstery. Its school (later the Emily McPherson College) aimed to solve the domestic servant problem, to instruct the 'cottage home' wife of the national importance of her work, and to provide additional skills for women employing servants. It became the Education Department's training school for teachers. Janet spoke frequently of the need to enhance woman's domestic sphere.

She opposed giving women the vote but shortly before the 1903 federal election (women were enfranchised for federal elections in 1902) she organised a meeting at 'Cliveden' with the Victorian Employers' Federation and 300 women to establish an organisation to educate women against 'the disease called socialism'. As president of the Australian Women's National League (and the associated club), she founded the most powerful and successful women's political organisation in Australia. She helped organise the Women's Work Exhibition in 1907 and called a conference of 'all anti-socialistic organisations for women' at 'Cliveden'.

As a woman for whom marriage had conferred a title, enormous wealth, power and influence, Janet was a proselytiser of a domesticity she herself never practised. Her conservative appeal to the ontological bond of motherhood was in direct opposition to a class view of society then being propagated by intellectuals and the male-dominated Labour parties. She used her considerable energy and talents to establish and extend the institutional supports for the domestication of women, thus helping to contain feminist demands for equality while providing a public role for women as 'social housekeepers' and educators of working-class women in their domestic duty.

Lesley L Scholes