Life

Jessie Street (centre) under the banner at the 5-Power Peace Pact rally in London, 1951. (National Library of Australia, NLA 2683/11/4)

An active life

Born in 1889, Jessie Street was the eldest of the three children of Mabel Ogilvie and Charles Lillingston. Her childhood was spent in India, England and Australia. After her marriage to Kenneth Street, the couple settled in Sydney where Jessie Street was prominent in the women's citizenship campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s.

Jessie Street held several federal government advisory appointments in the 1940s, but this career was terminated in the early years of the Cold War. Her political activism in the 1950s and 1960s was on an international scale. She died in 1970.

Yulgilbar years

Yulgilbar 'Castle', built by Jessie Street's grandfather, Edward Ogilvie on his Clarence River property in 1863. (Mitchell Library)

Jessie Lillingston was born in northeastern India in 1889. She moved to Australia in 1896, when her mother inherited Yulgilbar, a cattle property in northern New South Wales. Jessie Lillingston grew up there, preferring mustering cattle to lessons with her governess.

From 1903 to 1906 she went to school in England, and in 1908 began an Arts degree at the University of Sydney. She campaigned for better facilities for women's sport and helped found the first hockey club and the university's Women's Sports Association.

When she graduated in 1911, she was secretly engaged to law student Kenneth Street. On a family visit to England that year she eagerly joined a suffragette cousin in demonstrations for the vote. This was her first political campaign.

She returned to Yulgilbar and focused her energies on setting up a dairying operation. Opportunities for farming in the New South Wales coastal valleys had been transformed by a railway connection and the rapidly increasing population.

On another trip abroad in 1914, Jessie Lillingston was one of six Australians in Rome for a conference of the International Council of Women. This was a worldwide organisation of women lobbying for women's equal citizenship, and gaining the right to vote was only a first step. With campaigns from sex education to seats in parliament, they sought to remove legal, political and economic obstacles to women's full participation in society. At the age of 25, Jessie Lillingston became part of this international movement.

Jessie Lillingston was in London after war was declared in 1914. She learnt to drive and offered her services as an Army driver, but was rejected because she was a woman. She did voluntary welfare work for the war effort instead.

Socialite or socialist

Passport photograph of Jessie Lillingston, 1915. (National Library of Australia, NLA 2683/11/6)

In 1915 Jessie Lillingston went to New York to work in a program rehabilitating young women accused of prostitution. At the end of that year she returned to Australia to marry Kenneth Street, then an Army officer stationed at the Holsworthy internment camp near Sydney.

After Jessie and Kenneth Street married in 1916, she joined Sydney's Feminist Club, the Women's Club, and the New South Wales National Council of Women. Through her own family, and through her husband's, Jessie Street had the social standing and the financial means to live a comfortable life. By 1931, when Kenneth Street joined his father as a judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court, the couple lived with their four children in a pleasant house in Sydney's affluent eastern suburbs.

Jessie Street said it was the Depression in the late 1920s that made her a socialist. In 1929 she was a founder of the United Associations of Women. As well as organising help for unemployed families and work programs in the Depression, they wanted to target the sources of these economic problems. To many people this made her a class traitor, and even within the women's organisations this caused divisions.

In 1938 Jessie Street visited the USSR for the first time and became convinced that socialism was an experiment worth trying. The following year she joined the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, and gave a series of lectures on the impressions she formed during the weeks she had spent there. When the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in August 1939, key office-bearers resigned and Jessie Street agreed to be president of the Society.

On 3 September 1939 Australia joined Britain's declaration of war on Germany and its allies. For two years the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR was an unpopular body and its members under attack. In June 1941, when Germany breached the pact and invaded the Soviet Union, the former enemy suddenly became an ally. From October 1941, Australia had a Labor government under Prime Minister John Curtin. Like most Australians, he had never been to the USSR. Jessie Street lost no time in providing him with the benefit of her first-hand experience there.

In 1943 Jessie Street made her first attempt to win a seat in the House of Representatives. She came close to winning the 'blue ribbon' seat of Wentworth in Sydney's eastern suburbs – her own neighbourhood – for the Australian Labor Party she had joined in 1939. At this election the first two women to enter the Australian parliament won their seats, but Jessie Street was unsuccessful. Her tally of votes was impressive, however, and she won Labor Party pre-selection for the seat again in 1946. She was labelled a 'dilettante Liberal-Socialist', but once more achieved sound support from voters.

For the duration of the war, the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR directed its efforts to the Russian Medical Aid and Comforts Committee. From its establishment in 1941 the Committee enjoyed widespread support and Jessie Street became the key figure in the 'Sheepskins for Russia' campaign. For the next three years substantial funds were donated to help the besieged Russians and the Red Army.

Russian medical aid organisations were also formed in Britain, where Clementine Churchill was a leading figure, and in the United States. Direct contact with Soviet officials increased Jessie Street's expertise at a time when few Australians had first-hand knowledge of the Soviet Union.

In 1945 Jessie Street made her second visit to the Soviet Union and, on her return, reported on the extensive war damage in city and country, and people's gratitude for Australia's help.

Although unsuccessful in a bid to become Australia's representative in Moscow when the diplomatic post was resumed there, Jessie Street was well known in her unofficial liaison role. She continued to promote Soviet practices in improving the status of women, despite the growing hostility to the USSR in Australia as well as in the United States, the United Kingdom and western Europe.

Labelled 'Red Jessie', her name began to evoke suspicion rather than respect as relations between the USSR and western nations chilled.

At the 1949 federal election, Jessie Street stood as an Independent for the seat of Phillip. She had been expelled from the Labor Party after refusing a directive to cut connections with all Russian organisations. The Labor government of Ben Chifley was defeated at this election by RG Menzies' new Liberal Party in a coalition with the Country Party.

Allegations that she was a communist were rejected by Jessie Street, and there is no evidence that she ever joined the Communist Party in any country. She described her views as socialist and, as someone with the choice of being a socialite instead, to some this made her a class traitor. As the Cold War began, her support for reforms in communist countries was widely reported at a time when this could seem a betrayal of Australia.

In January 1950 Kenneth Street became Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court, a role that made him Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales and his wife the 'second lady' of the state, next to the wife of the Governor. Under a barrage of press attention, Jessie Street decided to continue her work for equality and international cooperation overseas. She left in June 1950, beginning an exile that lasted six years. During this time her activities were monitored by ASIO, and the Australian Government attempted to withdraw her passport.

Frozen out of her own country by the Cold War, although she intended to return sooner, Jessie Street was warmly embraced by the international peace movement and became a leading figure in the World Peace Council in the 1950s and 1960s. As western governments considered the Peace Council to be a communist front organisation, allegations against her continued.

Among those defending Jessie Street against the accusations was her daughter, Philippa Fingleton.

For the rest of her life these Cold War suspicions hindered her work, whether for the status of women, human rights for colonised people, or the constitutional position of Aboriginal Australians.

In 1966 Jessie Street published an autobiography, Truth or Repose, covering the years to 1945. She died on 2 July 1970.

Lobbyist

Jessie Street addresses the 5-Power Peace Pact rally in London’s Trafalgar Square in 1951. (National Library of Australia, NLA 2683/11/4)

At the League of Nations

The women's organisations Jessie Street joined in Sydney in the 1920s were the legacy of the 'founding mothers' of Federation, who had won for Australian women the right to vote on the same basis as men.

But the vote was just one item on the equal citizenship agenda of these groups. The suffragists in Australia in the 1890s were part of a growing international network that worked for the removal of all legal, economic and political barriers to equality for women in countries around the world. In 1919 the new League of Nations, the world's first international forum of governments, became the focus for these women's organisations. At the annual General Assembly in Geneva, League members were lobbied on a range of measures, including divorce and custody law reform, equal pay, the right to provide jury service, access to contraception, and the provision of child care.

A national Australian Federation of Women Voters was established to liaise with the international groups and to ensure the federal government appointed a woman to each annual delegation to the League of Nations General Assembly. In 1929 Jessie Street and journalist Linda Littlejohn founded the United Associations to link New South Wales groups to the national body, of which Jessie Street was a vice-president.

In 1930 Jessie Street went to a League of Nations-sponsored birth control conference in Zurich, and spent September in Geneva. She joined representatives of the international women's organisations lobbying the League, and helped found Equal Rights International.

The Australian Federation of Women Voters provided a united front to lobby the Australian federal government and to seek equality for women in all the dominions and colonies of Britain. Key issues on the status of women were raised at the Imperial Conference in 1937, including provisions for nationality and domicile. These reforms were to ensure that married women's legal status would depend on the laws of their own country, not their husbands' nationality or place of living.

In 1935 the League of Nations agreed to a worldwide survey of the legal, economic and political status of women in member countries. The women's organisations in each country tried to ensure their governments responded to the questionnaire sent to them. The published reports of information collected for the League's 18th General Assembly in September 1937 remain an important catalogue of the status of women worldwide, particularly in countries where national archives have since been lost.

Lobbying the Australian Government

From its foundation, equal pay for women was a key issue for the United Associations of Women. Lobbying of state and federal governments on this issue continued during World War II, with the focus on pay and conditions for servicewomen and those engaged in war industries.

The Advisory War Council established the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) in 1941, despite the opposition of the Minister for the Air, Jack McEwen, and the Labor shadow minister, Norman Makin. Both men opposed the enlistment of women. Makin introduced the obstacle that if the proposal went ahead, WAAAF members should receive equivalent pay rates to men serving in the RAAF. Air Force Chief Charles Burnett forced the proposal through, arguing that the recruitment of women was vital in achieving the required numbers of telegraphists and radio operators.

The Advisory War Council decided that servicewomen would be paid like women in civilian occupations, at two-thirds of the male wage rate. The Labor government of John Curtin took office in October 1941 and was heavily lobbied on this inequity.

Three weeks after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Jessie Street provided the Prime Minister with her arguments for self-sufficiency as a key issue in Australia's defence policy. On 16 March 1942 Jessie Street and Erna Keighley travelled to Canberra in a determined attempt to lobby Minister for Air Arthur Drakeford. Ten days later Jessie Street was again lobbying at Parliament House in Canberra. On that occasion, while waiting to see another minister, she witnessed the arrival of US General Douglas MacArthur.

During the war years, Jessie Street also argued the case for an equal role for women in postwar reconstruction. She found a strong ally in HC Coombs, appointed Director-General of Postwar Reconstruction in 1943. In 1943 and 1946, conferences were held to draw up a charter of requirements for women in every area of Australian society to participate more fully in decisions affecting their lives.

Lobbying for peace

In the 1950s and 1960s, Jessie Street was prominent in campaigns for peace, disarmament, and halting the nuclear arms race. The need for an agreement among the five major powers was a prominent campaign issue in the years after World War II. A worldwide petition was circulated to demand international cooperation, while the division between the Soviet Union and Western nations became the Cold War.

People in countries devastated by World War II provided massive support for the cause of international cooperation. This became 'the people's cause' and a group known as the 'Partisans for peace' organised a world congress to be held in Sheffield, England, in 1950. When the British government refused to admit delegates from communist countries, the congress met instead in Warsaw. Delegates to this congress founded the World Peace Council.

Jessie Street led the 25-member Australian delegation at this congress and was elected to the Council's Bureau. At the World Peace Council's congress in Berlin in July 1952 she was again prominent.

As a leading member of the World Peace Council, Jessie Street attended meetings regularly during the six years she spent overseas from 1950, and was a regular speaker at its huge rallies.

Jessie Street combined work on the status of women and on the rights of colonised people, with her Peace Council duties in the countries of Asia, Africa and Europe.

Jessie Street made her last visit to India, Pakistan, Europe and England in 1967, still campaigning for peace at the age of 78.

Lobbying for Indigenous rights

From the 1930s the organisation Jessie Street founded – the United Associations of Women – included in their campaigns the improvement of conditions for Aboriginal people. The 1943 Woman's Charter included clauses for equal rights for Indigenous people throughout Australia. After Jessie Street returned to Australia at the end of 1956, she pushed for constitutional change to achieve Indigenous rights.

In June 1957 Jessie Street toured outback areas of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory to witness for herself the living conditions of Aboriginal families. She lobbied the Minister for Territories, Paul Hasluck, for equal access to social services for all Aboriginal families as each state had different provisions. She also proposed to Hasluck the amendment of the Australian Constitution that was finally achieved at the referendum in May 1967.

Government appointments

Jessie Street at the Status of Women Commission, New York, 1947. (National Library of Australia, NLA 2683/11/10)

In 1942 the Labor government of John Curtin appointed Jessie Street to the Aliens Classification and Advisory Committee. This committee assessed individual cases of people interned under wartime security regulations. She travelled to internment camps in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland in the three years she served on the committee.

In February 1945 Jessie Street took part in an inter-governmental conference held at the Lapstone Hotel in the Blue Mountains. This conference was organised by the United Nations Refugee Relief Association, established during World War II. After the United Nations organisation was established in 1945, international refugee relief was the responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

After the war Jessie Street served on the government's Immigration Advisory Committee. She provided reports and proposals for the assimilation of migrants.

The Curtin government appointed Jessie Street to Australia's delegation to the conference to found the United Nations, held in San Francisco from April to June 1945. The only woman on Australia's delegation, Jessie Street took an active part in the committees set up to establish the Human Rights Commission and the Commission on the Status of Women.

With a group of women delegates, including diplomats from South America, Scandinavia and India, Jessie Street lobbied to ensure the Charter of the United Nations recognised women as equal participants, maintaining the position achieved in the Covenant of the League of Nations 26 years earlier.

The establishment of the United Nations, its Human Rights Commission and its Commission for the Status of Women were welcomed by the international organisations of women that had been closely involved in the humanitarian work of the League of Nations.

After the San Francisco conference, Jessie Street travelled to London and Paris, speaking on the new international organisation and its proposed agencies. She also obtained permission to travel to Berlin, then under occupation by allied forces, and to return to Australia via India. Despite the difficulty of obtaining transport and accommodation in Europe in the months after the war ended, Jessie Street also managed to visit the Soviet Union in November 1945, flying from Berlin in a Russian military plane via Riga to Moscow.

When the six commissions of the United Nations were established in 1946, members of the UN Economic and Social Council had decided to relegate the Commission for the Status of Women to a sub-commission of the Human Rights Commission. Intensive lobbying restored it to the status of a full commission.

The 51 member nations of the United Nations sent delegations to the annual General Assembly. Representation on the United Nations commissions was determined by ballot of all the member nations. Commission personnel were appointed by the governments of the nations with elected representatives.

Australia lobbied for membership of the Economic and Employment Commission, and the Statistical Commission. Jessie Street was recommended as a possible appointee to the Status of Women Commission should Australia gain membership.

The voting results for members of the United Nations commissions gave Australia wider representation than anticipated. Australia received its largest number of votes for the Commission on the Status of Women, polling third of the 15 nominated nations.

The terms for members of the Status of Women Commission were drawn by lot for two, three or four years. Australia drew a two-year term and the Labor government of Ben Chifley appointed Jessie Street to the position.

Jessie Street left Sydney by flying boat on 28 January to travel to the first meeting of the Status of Women Commission at Lake Success, outside New York City, on 10 February 1947. An international representative of the Australian Government, all her travel documents were arranged for her, including an advice to customs of her offical status.

Jessie Street was elected vice-president of the Status of Women Commission on the second day of its first session. Danish diplomat Bodil Begtrup was elected the Commission's first president.

On her return to Australia, Jessie Street set out to establish a national coordinating committee to ensure women throughout Australia had the opportunity to hear about and participate in the work of the Status of Women Commission. She was assisted by the Department of External Affairs, which circulated letters to women's organisations in all six states. In May and June 1947, she travelled to every state for meetings to establish committees on the status of women.

From her Adelaide Hotel on 2 June 1947, Jessie Street reported progress to the Department of External Affairs, noting that the work for the status of women would necessarily include representation of women in trades unions. She was also firm in her view that direct liaison with women's organisations was essential. She argued that the new United Nations Association would not be effective in liaising on the specific issues before the Status of Women Commission.

The new Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, John Burton, cabled Jessie Street in Hobart insisting that no separate coordinating committees should be set up and that all liaison must be through the United Nations Association.

Jessie Street went to New York for the second session of the Status of Women Commission in January 1948, and again spent several months meeting women's groups and peace campaigners in England and Europe.

Jessie Street returned to Australia for Christmas 1948 to a growing controversy about her political affiliations. The Australian Government did not permit her to attend the meeting of the Human Rights Commission to draft the Declaration of Human Rights, although as vice-president of the Status of Women Commission she was entitled to take part. In January 1949 she left the Australian Labor Party, rejecting the demand of the party executive that she resign from the Australia–Russia Society.

Jessie Street's two-year term on the Status of Women Commission expired early in 1949 and the Chifley Labor government did not reappoint her for a second term. In the December 1949 federal election, Labor lost office and Jessie Street was offered no further government appointments. She remained active in international campaigns for human rights, for peace and for disarmament. Although she had no government credentials, she occasionally represented non-government organisations at the United Nations.

Sources

Bandler, Faith, Turning the Tide: A Personal History of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1989

Cain, Frank, The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation: An Unofficial History, Spectrum Publications, Richmond, Victoria, 1994

Radi, Heather (ed.), Jessie Street: Documents and Essays, Women's Redress Press, Sydney, 1990

Rowse, Tim, Nugget Coombs: A Reforming Life, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2002

Sekuless, Peter, Jessie Street: A Rewarding But Unrewarded Life, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1980

Street, Jessie, Truth or Repose, Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1966

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017