Jessie Mary Grey Lillingston Street was born in Ranchi, in Bihar, India on 18 April 1889. She came to Australia in 1896 when her mother inherited the family property, Yugilbar station, on the Clarence River, near Grafton NSW. The eldest child, Jessie was educated by governesses and at Wycombe Abbey, a progressive school for girls in Buckinghamshire, UK. On her return to Australia she enrolled at the University of Sydney where she met her future husband Kenneth Whistler Street. As a keen sportswoman, she was one of the founders of the University Women’s Sports Association and coach of the University’s women’s hockey club.
Jessie’s lifelong concern with justice for the disenfranchised led her to join the ALP in 1939. She failed to win pre-selection for the seat of Eden-Monaro in 1943 (which the ALP won) but was endorsed as the candidate for Wentworth, which she narrowly lost, after distribution of preferences. She was again not successful when she stood for Wentworth in 1946. Jessie stood as an independent Labour candidate for the seat of Phillip in 1949, but was again defeated. However, throughout her life, Jessie worked tirelessly for the causes about which she was passionate – equal rights and justice for all, elimination of all forms of discrimination, and world peace and disarmament.
THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Jessie was always concerned about women’s issues. In London, 1914, she worked with disadvantaged mothers and children while participating in the women’s suffrage movement. Jessie attended the 1914 Rome conference of the International Council of Women and in New York in 1915 she worked at Waverley House, a support centre for women arrested for prostitution. Following her marriage in Sydney in February 1916, she wanted to retain her maiden name for her public work but this was frowned upon so she became Jessie Street. She joined the Women’s Club and the Feminist Club, was Secretary of the National Council for Women, and was a driving force behind the formation of the United Associations of Women. Always practical, Jessie set up the House Service Company, a business to provide employment and training for women in housekeeping and the Social Hygiene Association, to promote sex education.
An abiding concern for Jessie was the right of women to economic independence, including the right to work beyond marriage, to receive equal pay, child endowment, and maintenance when a marriage broke down.
In 1942 disguising herself as ‘Jane Smith’ Jessie worked in a munitions factory in Footscray, Melbourne to discover what factory conditions were like. Concerned that, after the war, women would lose many of the gains made in workforce participation and equal status, Jessie campaigned for women’s participation in post-war reconstruction and social reform. She convened the Australian Women’s Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace, which established the 1943 Australian Women’s Charter, and she financially supported the publication of its journal, the Australian Women’s Digest.
WORLD PEACE AND DISARMAMENT
An avid traveller, her work with the League of Nations, which promoted peace, disarmament and conflict resolution, took her to its headquarters in Geneva in the 1930s. She also investigated social and economic changes and national social insurance (pensions and social welfare benefits) in England, Europe, the USSR and the USA. With her husband’s success in the legal profession (he became a judge in 1927, rising to Chief Justice in 1949) Jessie’s enthusiasm for social and economic conditions in the USSR was controversial and she was known as ‘Red Jessie’ although she was never a member of the Communist Party.
However, the surprise attack by the Nazis on the USSR in 1941 saw public opinion turn. Jessie established the Russian Medical Aid and Comforts Committee in NSW to raise funds to support the Russian allies; her ‘sheepskins for Russia’ appeal aimed to help the Russian people in the winter blitz through the export of Australian sheepskins.
At the end of the war, Jessie was the only woman appointed to the Australian delegation to the 1945 San Francisco United Nations Conference on International Organization, which proposed establishing a successor institution to the League of Nations.
1945 SAN FRANCISCO
Working with other women, she ensured the Charter of the United Nations, which promoted human rights without distinction based on race, language and religion, also included the word “sex”. Jessie was Australia’s first representative on the UN Economic and Social Council Commission on the Status of Women.
After leaving San Francisco she toured war devastated Europe and the USSR. She was president of the Australian Russian Society, but her work for better understanding of the USSR was controversial during the Cold War period. Her official involvement with the United Nations ended in 1948. In 1950 she moved to England, as an executive member of the World Peace Council.
Addressing London peace rally, September 1948
Sheepskins for Russia
RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS
On her return to Australia in 1956 she championed the cause of Indigenous people, encouraging the formation of a national organisation in support of Aboriginal advancement and working on gaining an amendment to the Australian Constitution that would remove discriminatory references to Aborigines. Her suggested amendments were eventually carried in the 1967 referendum.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The National Library of Australia have digitised a large collection of Jessie's papers. You can see a view of the digitised on the NLA website.
Australian Dictionary of Biography
National Archives Uncommon Lives