Minutes and memos

Minutes, memos and other internal correspondence are often more revealing than public responses. Jessie Street dealt with the governments of eight prime ministers from 1932 to 1966, either as a lobbyist, or as a member of official bodies. At least 16 different government agencies were engaged with this very active citizen.

Most of Jessie Street's letters, advice, phone calls, petitions or delegations were addressed to a particular minister or to the senior official of a government agency. She also had direct contact with some prime ministers.

This section offers a glimpse at how those governments dealt with Jessie Street.

The 'behind the scenes' reactions to some of Jessie Street's campaigns are traced in departmental records and prime ministerial correspondence. Her work for the Australian Government also led to confidential exchanges between officials, as a wartime Security Services document shows.

Sheepskins for Russia

As chair of the Russian Medical Aid and Comforts Committee in 1941, Jessie Street requested permission to buy rationed woollen goods to send to the USSR. Although the Curtin government later supported the campaign, at this early stage (when the government had been in office only a month), Minister for Supply and Development Jack Beasley advised the War Cabinet against diverting these goods away from Australian and Empire forces. If Jessie Street's campaign were successful, he warned, the heavier demands could become 'seriously embarrassing'.

Equal pay

EJ Ward to John Curtin, 21 March 1942 and 23 March 1942. (NAA: M1415, 72, p. 110)

Jessie Street firmly maintained that gaining equal pay and employment conditions for women was best pursued through the trades unions. After she clashed with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Council of Action for Equal Pay over strategy, however, she pursued a separate campaign. Letters from Curtin's Minister for Labour and National Service, Eddie Ward, show how easily governments can deflect citizen lobbying aimed at the wrong target.

In March 1942 Jessie Street went to Canberra with a colleague to argue for equal pay and conditions in the newly established Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). When she complained to Prime Minister John Curtin about the ability of the Secretary of the Department of Air, Curtin sought a response from Arthur Drakeford, the Minister. Drakeford defended the Secretary, Major Langslow, complaining to the Prime Minister about Jessie Street's determined lobbying tactics. Drakeford also pointed out that he agreed with Jessie Street that the decision on pay and conditions for the WAAAF had been wrong and that many women's organisations had protested to him.

Aliens Classification and Advisory Committee

Interstate travel was severely restricted due to the war, but Jessie Street was able to travel when on duty for the Curtin government's Aliens Classification and Advisory Committee. If this work took her to other cities she often arranged meetings for the United Associations of Women, the 'Sheepskins for Russia' campaign and other activities. This might have been the reason the Director-General of the Wartime Security Service intervened when clearance was sought for a routine visit to Melbourne in 1944. His directive that permission would be given only on a written request from Attorney-General HV Evatt also suggests concern about the role of Evatt's secretary, Alan Dalziel, a member of the Australia–Russia Friendship Society of which Jessie Street was president.

Charters for women

Transcript of address at Assembly Hall Margaret Street Sydney, 7 August 1946. (NAA: A6119, 360, p. 38)

A security file on Jessie Street contains a transcript of her opening address to the 1946 'Woman's Charter' conference. Proceedings of this conference, aimed at ensuring the fullest participation of women in postwar reconstruction, were widely publicised by the participating organisations, but this transcript was surreptitiously taken down in shorthand. A newspaper report of another address by Jessie Street a year later was extracted and transcribed for the same file.

Indigenous rights

Official responses to Jessie Street's involvement in the campaign for Aboriginal rights suggest some of the reasons for the delay of 10 years between her first draft of the amendment of the Australian Constitution, and the referendum on the issue in 1967 when Australian voters overwhelmingly supported the changes.

Soon after her return to Australia in December 1956, Jessie Street began lobbying the Minister for External Territories, Paul Hasluck, on the rights of Aboriginal people. In March 1957, Hasluck sought information about the organisation she had founded in 1929, the United Associations of Women.

When Paul Hasluck received information from the NSW Police Special Branch identifying the United Associations of Women as '95% clean', he advised his Departmental Secretary to treat it as confidential and to approach ASIO 'if you wish'.

The Department of Territories assisted Jessie Street to arrange her tour of outback areas in May and June 1957, but questioned her motives in 'Personal and Confidential' and 'Strictly Confidential' exchanges within the Department of Territories and advice to the Administrator of the Northern Territory.

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

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

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

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017