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Street, Lady Jessie Mary (1889–1970)

by Kay Keavney

from Australian Women's Weekly

Jessie Street, at United Nations, 1940s

Jessie Street, at United Nations, 1940s

National Library of Australia, 26295506

Few Australians are born with a spoon as silver as Jessie Street's.

Her father traced his ancestry back to Alfred the Great. Her mother's home was a castle. Her husband, Chief Justice and Lieut-Governor of New South Wales, gave her the title of Lady Street.

For most of her long life (she died on July 2 at the age of 81 ) she was independently wealthy.

If ever a woman was born to luxury and ease, it was Jessie Street.

But Jessie was a remarkable child who became a remarkable woman.

"God," she used to say, quoting Emerson, "offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please. You can never have both."

"Truth or Repose" was the title she gave her autobiography, published in 1966. And Jessie's choice was certainly not Repose.

She was a fighter. From an incredibly tender age she fought injustice wherever she thought she saw it.

It brought her world renown and an awful lot of abuse. This hurt, but never deflected her.

They called her a Communist (which she wasn't) for her admiration of the U.S.S.R. They ridiculed her as a "battle-axe" (which she wasn't) for her lifelong feminism. They labelled her a traitor to her class for her Socialist opinions (which perhaps she was).

Was idolised
She was also idolised by most of those who knew her, not least by her sons and daughters.

("Even when we didn't agree with her," said daughter Philippa, "we wouldn't have had her any different. We were very proud of her. She was unique.")

Her distinguished and highly conservative husband, Sir Kenneth, always maintained a tactful silence about his wife's public activities.

However, the story goes that at one large and elegant dinner party she was being even more outspoken than usual. Sir Kenneth's neighbor at the table demanded, "Who IS that young woman?"

Said Sir Kenneth, adjusting his glasses, "I haven't the faintest idea."

(Philippa laughed when I asked if this story were apocryphal. "Mother," she said, "probably invented it. She had a tremendous sense of humor.")

Certainly, the Law student who fell in love with beautiful young Jessie Lillingston should have guessed what he was in for.

She was a rebel and activist from the age of three.

"Even at that early age," she wrote, tongue firmly in cheek, "I had some instincts as to the relations of cause and effect, and the basic need to remove the cause of the trouble."

At three, she concluded her new baby brother was to blame for her mother's ill-health. To remove the problem, she suggested throwing him over a nearby cliff.

Her feminism began almost as early. Born in India in 1889, she sailed home at six years of age. Full of health, life, and the spirit of inquiry, she wanted to climb the rigging and have the run of the ship.

Alas! "Little girls," she was told, "don't do such things.''

Evidently, little boys did. Jessie was fiercely indignant. This was her first real brush with injustice.

But worse was to follow.

She went to live in feudal splendor on her grandfather's enormous property, "Yulgilbar," in northern N.S.W. Home was a vast and beautiful Spanish-style castle, but Jessie's greatest joy was to ride with the stationhands. She could ride like a centaur, bareback, but she had to ride sidesaddle, "like a lady."

Later she was barely allowed to ride at all. In the interests of turning her into "a little lady," she was called in out of the sun, made to take an interest in a canary instead of her beloved horses, and practise the piano for hours on end.

Around ten years of age, it came home to her that these nonsensical restrictions would plague her as long as she lived if she didn't do something.

Jessie always thought things through logically, and acted on her decisions.

Clearly the solution here was to become a boy.

If one prayed sincerely, she'd been told, one's prayers would be answered. Very well, then. Solemnly, sincerely, Jessie prayed to be turned into a boy.

Her faith was absolute. When nothing happened, she was furious, not because her prayers weren't answered but because she had been deceived.

She didn't lose (never lost) her faith in prayer. But from then on this extraordinary little girl prayed to "know and understand the truth."

She also made a vow. She would never let her sex stand in the way of anything she wanted to do, and she would fight all her life for equal rights and opportunites for women.

She certainly lived up to her vow. Out of her feminism grew all her subsequent battles for other "underdogs": Aborigines, refugees, prostitutes, the poor, and ultimately humanity itself, in her fight for world peace.

"Bushranger"
Much against her will, her parents sent their little rebel to England for schooling. But she fell among green pastures. Her school was highly progressive, and knew her affectionately as "The Bushranger."

She came home at 17, determined to start such a school in darkest Australia. But first she must go to university. That was almost unheard-of for girls in the first decade of the century.

Huffed her father, "You'll probably meet some bounder and marry him."

But Jessie won this round. She never started her school, but she acquired a BA and a highly eligible fiance.

Kenneth Street was himself the son of a Chief Justice and Lieut-Governor of N.S.W. Jessie's parents breathed just a little easier.

But Kenneth had years of study ahead of him. Meantime, Jessie and her family went off to England, and with gleaming eyes Jessie flung herself into the thick of the suffragette movement.

Came World War I. Jessie wanted to serve. She took out a mechanic's certificate and volunteered to drive an ambulance in France.

She was roundly refused on the grounds of her sex. It nearly broke her heart. It also stiffened her will to fight for women.

She went to the United States and worked in a settlement-house caring for prostitutes. She was especially adept at delousing their hair.

Then Kenneth graduated, and she came home to marry him. She bore him two sons and two daughters, ran a big house and a big staff, and filled her home with love.

As the children got older, she could give more time to her causes. ("We never felt bereft," said Philippa. "When we wanted her, she always seemed to be there.")

As her experience broadened, so did her causes. She worked with the League of Nations Union, the Feminist Club, the National Council of Women, the United Associations of Women, and she founded a flourishing business supplying welltrained domestic staff.

It was the Depression and its sufferings that turned her toward Socialism.

Always practical, she came up with a whole range of schemes, including rebuilding programs, a national insurance scheme, and a farming community for unemployed women.

About this time she joined the Labor Party.

On a Grand Tour in 1938, she and Philippa called in on the Soviet Union.

Jessie fell in love with the place from the moment she discovered (by panting up the platform to the engine) that the driver of the Moscow train was a woman!

From then on, at home and abroad, she constantly sang the praises of a regime which gave women equal status and opportunity. It made her thoroughly unpopular, until Hitler invaded Russia.

She founded the Russian Medical Aid and Comforts Committee, which raised a million dollars. Her name became synonymous with "Sheepskins for Russia."

She went to work in a munitions factory and joined the requisite union. She led the fight to win equal status for Australian servicewomen. She appealed directly to Eleanor Roosevelt to protect the rights of the Australian wives and children of U.S. servicemen.

In 1943, as a Labor candidate, she came within a whisker of winning a blue ribbon Liberal seat.

Founding of UN
Official recognition came to her at last in 1945. Her close friend Prime Minister John Curtin sent her to San Francisco with the Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference of Inter-national Organisations.

It created the United Nations Organisation and affirmed its Charter. Jessie was overjoyed. Of all causes, world peace came closest to her heart.

With a handful of other women, she had Clause 8 inserted in the Charter, guaranteeing women equal status within the Organisation.

This might have been the beginning of a distinguished official career for Jessie Street. But John Curtin died during the conference. Later Labor fell. The "Cold War" started, and Jessie's confirmed pro-Russian views were more unpopular than ever.

"What," I asked her old friend and fellow-feminist Vivienne Newson, "did she think about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia?"

"She was too ill to know about it," said Mrs. Newson. "I've always been glad she didn't know about it."

Until her serious illness two years ago, her energies and activities never flagged. She was in the vanguard of the fight for Aborigines.

"She was always brimming with practical ideas," said Faith Bandler, national secretary of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

"Our organisation itself was Jessie's brainchild. So, in fact, was the national referendum. She rang me up late one night in 1956 (she always rang very late or very early!) and said in her lovely, cultivated voice:

"You can't get anywhere without a change in the Constitution, and you can't get that without a referendum. You'll need a petition with 100,000 signatures. We'd better start on it at once."

"And we did. Jessie's role in our movement was absolutely vital. And she never wanted honor and glory. She'd give ideas away, and the credit along with them."

"She had absolute integrity," said Hattie Cameron, another old friend. "And she was a great deal of fun. Men loved her. Parties bored her, but she enjoyed a drink, and she was immensely stimulating to be with.

"She was an idealist, but she wasn't emotional about it. She had an intensely organised and practical mind."

"There was no malice in her," said Vivienne Newson. "Some of her own set couldn't forgive her for being 'a traitor to her class.' It hurt her, but she never hit back in malice.

"She laughed a good deal. She would roar with laughter. And she never learnt the meaning of defeat."

Said Dorothy Irwin, still another old friend, "In Australia, you needn't say 'equality of status for women.' Say 'Jessie Street' for short."

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Lady Jessie Mary Street

Citation details

Kay Keavney, 'Street, Lady Jessie Mary (1889–1970)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/street-lady-jessie-mary-11789/text35298, accessed 17 October 2018.

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