Jessie Street

Jessie Mary Grey Street (1889-1970), feminist, was born on 18 April 1889 at Chota Nagpur, India, eldest of three children of Mabel (born Ogilvie) and Charles A. G. Lillingston, of the Indian Civil Service. After Mabel inherited 'Yulgilbar' station on the Clarence River in 1896 the family moved to New South Wales. Jessie was educated by governesses and in England. She graduated BA from the University of Sydney in 1910.

On extended overseas visits Jessie took an active interest in the women's movement. In l916 she married Kenneth Whistler Street, whom she had known at University, where he studied law. She became a busy wife and mother while at the same time an active participant in the League of Nations Union, which she joined in l918, and in several women's organisations. She was secretary to the National Council of Women (1920), which comprised many of the state's philanthropic bodies, and later president of the Feminist Club (founded in 1914 with the aim of achieving 'equality of status, opportunity and payment between men and women'.) By 1929 Jessie believed there was a need for a stronger women's organisation, one that would actively campaign for real equality of status, opportunity and liberty, for equal pay for equal work, equality of moral standards, the election of women to public office and the promotion of international peace and understanding. These were the aims of the United Associations of Women; it was hoped it would become an umbrella association for others with like aims.

Jessie Street was the founding president and held that office for most of the next 20 years. While her name and social position (her husband was Justice of the Supreme Court from 1931) attracted some, the main appeal of the Associations was to women like herself: well-educated, dedicated feminists who wanted action as well as words, who could afford help with young children and housework and who wished to use their leisure time constructively. The youngest of her four children was born in 1926.

Nurses were encouraged to join the United Associations and were aided in the establishing of the New South Wales Trained Nurses' Association, which registered itself as a union and in 1936 gained an award. Married women teachers were supported in their protests against dismissal and their attempts to have the legislation repealed. The UA campaigned for wages for housewives and equal pay for women. Muriel Heagney (q.v.) joined it and she and Jessie initially cooperated on equal pay campaigns but later disagreed on methods of achieving it, Jessie favouring introduction by instalments.

Through the United Associations Jessie was involved in the Australian Women's Charter, which articulated a wide range of women's wartime and postwar reconstruction needs, and also in the Women for Canberra movement. While the United Associations supported the 'non-political' stance of the Women for Canberra Movement, Jessie was in 1943 the endorsed Labor candidate for the federal seat of Wentworth, an anti- Labor stronghold, which, with the United Associations aiding her campaign, she almost won. She started and was a contributor to The Australian Women's Digest (1944-48), a lively monthly which promoted the Women's Charter and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts.

Jessie had taken a keen interest in the work of the League of Nations. In 1945 she was the only woman in Australia's delegation to the San Francisco conference which established the United Nations Organization; she helped found its Status of Women Commission and was Australia's representative on the Commission in 1947-48. She was under attack at the second Women's Charter Conference in 1946 for her alleged communist sympathies - her wartime campaigning for Sheepskins for Russia and the Movement for Friendship with the Soviet Union - and her opponents succeeded in having her replaced on the Commission in 1949 by a conservatively inclined Queenslander, Elsie Byth.

For much of the 1950s cold war period Jessie Street was overseas acting as United Associations' liaison with the women's movement outside Australia. She became Lady Street when her husband was created KCMG in 1956. In Sydney in 1957 she attended the foundation meeting of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which in 1958 became a constituent member of the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. She campaigned vigorously for constitutional rights for Aborigines. In Truth or Repose, her memoirs (1966), she wrote that her relationships with Indians in childhood led to her never being colour conscious, but that in her teens she realized 'the reasons given . . . for the discriminations practised against coloured people were the same, and had the same basis, as the discriminations practised against women . . . the reason for these discriminations was to protect the status, rights and privileges of the white man vis-a-vis women and the coloured races'.

Jessie Street died on 2 July 1970. Because she was an outspoken exponent of social reform and a member of the Labor Party, she was looked at askance by the class to which by birth, marriage and economic status she belonged. Because she was 'bourgeois', as categorised by some of the adherents of Women's Liberation, she has not always received the respect she deserves. She shaped the style of feminist campaigning for over two decades and her methods are still in use: identifying women's rights; making programs relevant to all women; promoting women in politics; lobbying politicians and coupling feminism with a wide range of other reforms.

Winifred Mitchell

Jessie Street 'Truth or Repose' 1966.