I borrowed Jessie Street, a Revised Autobiography from the library because I recognised the author’s name. Jessie Street (1889-1970), was occasionally mentioned as an icon of the feminist movement when I was a young woman. A straw poll at work, however, revealed that no one had heard of her, not even colleagues of the same generation as me. I hope this is not indicative. It would be an injustice if this pioneer of social justice has been forgotten.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography badges her a feminist, but Street was much more than a feminist: she was an activist for social justice in many fields. This is the blurb from the back of the audio book box:
Known as “Red Jessie” to a generation of Australians, Jessie Street was a key figure in Australian political life for over 50 years. The only Australian woman delegate at the founding of the United Nations in 1945 and the initiator of the 1967 “Aboriginal” amendment of the Australian Constitution, her life was one dedicated to peace and justice. First published in 1966 and now revised and edited in 2004, this powerful autobiography truly reflects Jessie Street’s energy, charm and practical humanitarianism.
And this is the summary from Wikipedia:
She was a key figure in Australian political life for over 50 years, from the women’s suffrage struggle in England to the removal of Australia’s constitutional discrimination against Aboriginal people in 1967. She is recognised both in Australia and internationally for her activism in women’s rights, social justice and peace.
This autobiography, edited only for clarification and to augment missing detail, and including letters from Street’s later life, reveals Street to be a strong woman, not afraid to burn bridges in support of a principle. The ADB quotes her belief that throughout history, ‘vital changes of policy have been brought about by moral pressure‘, and this book in her own words confirms her unwavering faith in the morality and justice of her various campaigns. From the beginning of the book where she struggles against the limitations of being a girl and makes her way to university despite her father’s fears that there she will meet and marry a ‘bounder’, to her initiation into major activism in the British suffragette struggle, and then on to her public life in Australia and on the world stage at the UN, her confidence in the moral authority of her campaigns never wavers.
She campaigned for so many causes, I almost lost track of them all – and this is why I think it is wrong for Jessie Street to be forgotten. If young people today do not realise just how recent and hard-won some reforms are, they fail to guard them. They should also be wary of making assumptions about where the threats lie: it was not a bunch of loony fundamentalists who lobbied against women’s rights in the UN, it was the US and UK that fought hardest against it, and that was only 60 years ago. Jessie Street campaigned for the right to birth control, equal pay, superannuation, child endowment, the right of women to hold property and to earn an income, the right to have a meaningful job and keep it after marriage. As I write, the NHS is being privatised in Britain, a girl’s right to education is being lost in places like Pakistan, and women are still denied the right to birth control in countries where religion dominates political discourse.
Apart from anything else, however, this book is interesting because of Street’s passionate tone, her chatty conversational style and the anecdotes she shares. On the day the peace was declared at the end of WW1, for example, she was in town en route to a bridge party in the suburbs. She joined in the enthusiastic celebrations, arriving very late for the party to the disapproving frowns of her friends. This was before the days of radio in every home – and they didn’t know!
Perhaps the dimming of her beacon arose in the wake of the fall of communism. Street’s early commitment to socialism as a means of achieving gender equity didn’t bother me because support for socialism was widespread amongst intellectuals of her era, especially during the Depression. But I was bothered by her uncritical assessment of the Soviet Union based on her 1938 visit there just before the outbreak of WW2, and a further visit post-war, where (like me in 2012) she was shocked by the senseless destruction by the Nazis. But while I understand that she was impressed by the Soviet commitment to gender equity in matters of education, job opportunities, political representation and equal pay, I was uneasy about her failure to mention the excesses of Stalinism, which she must have known about. Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, accelerating the disenchantment of intellectuals who had admired the Soviet regime in the 1920s and 30s. Street began writing her memoirs in 1960 when she had had time to digest this changed perspective, publishing her first volume Truth or Repose in 1966. (She never finished the second volume). I expected her to editorialise on her experience, contrasting her impressions from the visit with the reality of Stalinism when it was exposed, but there was no acknowledgement that anything had changed. To the contrary, from the letters included on the last two CDs, it seems her enthusiasm for socialism never wavered.
Still, it’s a very interesting book, and it brings to life an era when women were beginning to emerge from centuries of discrimination. It was exciting to hear about Senator Dorothy Tangney and Dame Enid Lyons MP, the first women to sit in the federal parliament in 1943. Street was a bit dismissive of their power to change anything, because men held onto power in so many institutions and because she thought these two women lacked the fighting spirit that was needed, so she decided to continue fighting for equality from outside parliament. She took on equal pay for women in the services and had some success, but pay inequality persisted, as indeed it still did when I first started work.
Jessie Street’s excitement about her appointment to the United Nations was tempered somewhat by the awful plane flight to Honolulu, in a plane which had theatre seats and baggage strapped to the floor. It is the inclusion of detail like this, a reminder that international travel was not the safe, well-regulated mode of transport that it is today, that gives this autobiography its lively tone. But also most interesting was Street’s embarrassed discovery that she could not afford to participate in the same activities as the other delegates because she was being paid much less than the other (male) delegates. It’s amazing how common this type of discrimination was, and galling to realise just how it compromised women’s participation in so many fields of endeavour.
Things went badly wrong for Jessie Street in her later years, and the last two CDs reveal that she went into voluntary exile in Britain to protect her family from the opprobrium of the ‘Red Jessie’ label. There is an outraged letter to Harold Holt, in which she accuses the then Prime Minister of using parliamentary privilege to slander her, solely because she held different political opinions. In another letter to one of her children she rejects the label of fanatic because she is committed to social justice and to peace and disarmament. ‘It takes many drips to fill a bucket’ she said, a fitting epithet to this account of a life spent earnestly working for what she thought would be a better, fairer society.
It is a pity that the narrator gabbled sometimes in this recording. I think that Louis Braille audio should have re-recorded some parts of it.
Author: Jessie Street
Title: Jessie Street, a Revised Biography
Editor: Lenore Coltheart
Narrator: Fiona Press
Publisher: Louis Braille Audio
Source: Kingston Library