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Jessie Agnes (Jess) Grant (1897–1980)

by Laurie Aarons

"I sometimes think that the tasks are more formidable than when we were young, there's the influence of the multi-nationals and the media corrupting people's minds. They want to destroy class consciousness and that's what the kids today have to face up to to win people to a class position."

Jess Grant said this last June in taping an eight-hour talk about her life and political activity which covered half a century. She spoke with tremendous optimism and joy about the influx of young people into the Communist Party in Queensland and their ability to tackle these great tasks.

"I'm not booming myself up, but no-one would ever wrench me out of the party. That was the party I found and no-one's going to get me out," Jess said. And only death could do it, for Jess Grant died on August 3, two days before her 83rd birthday.

Her death snaps another link with the pioneers of the working-class movement. Her father, she told me, worked to elect one of Labor's first MPs in Queensland. She was always radical in outlook, although she was over 30 when she became politically committed.

She began work as a pupil teacher in Mount Chalmers and soon joined the Teachers Association. She became an active unionist on moving to Brisbane, and began to read books by writers like Bellamy, Jack London and Upton Sinclair, obtained from the WEA library.

The Depression threw her into political activity. She describes a Blue Mountains holiday in 1930, where she noticed youngsters walking over the mountains wearing sandshoes. She asked the coachdriver what they were doing.

"Be your age Queensland," he answered "They're not hiking for fun, they're looking for work. Their people can't keep them, they're living on the dole."

She went to the first communist she'd met, Jim Elder, and asked him what was wrong. He explained the causes of the capitalist economic crisis and soon after an outstanding woman communist, Ruby McGroorty, joined her up into the party.

She took the name Ogilivy because of possible victimisation. This was real enough.

She became a member of the Teachers state executive representing the Mackay branch, and in 1935 moved for support of sanctions against fascist Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia.

"Then they whacked," said Jess. She got only one other vote, and was swiftly transferred from Brisbane to Roma. Rightwing Labor premier Forgan Smith, the member for Mackay, issued the edict: "Keep her out there! She's never to come back to Brisbane."

She did return, but only by resigning from the department in 1937. She began work in the Brisbane district committee and was elected to the first Queensland State Committee formed in 1938.

This began a long career of responsible fulltime work in the party until she retired at 69, broken only by a period working in the Darwin office of the Northern Australian Workers Union. She left when women were ordered out just before the Japanese bombed Darwin in February, 1942.

Her jobs included organising the CPA members in the Armed Forces, from Sydney, when we kept contact with 4,000 people, most of whom joined in the services.

She spoke with particular satisfaction of her work with foreign-born communists — Italian, Yugoslav, Austrian and German refugees from Hitlerism — who were conscripted into Employment Companies where they did the hardest and dirtiest work.

After the war she worked with the party's Control Commission, entrusted among other things with guarding the party's records and organisation against attack from the class enemy.

She did this with exemplary care through the turbulent years of Menzies' fervid anti-communism — The Communist Dissolution Act, the 1951 Referendum, the Petrov Commission — and the accompanying Industrial Grouper attacks.

She looked after Party finance for the National Committee, helped comrades with advice and help. She was truly the CPA's grand old lady whose political ability, discretion and human warmth are treasured by all who met her.

Jess told me she was a feminist before she was a communist, though she says she didn't have the deeper understanding of women today. "I was strong for women's rights in the teaching profession, for equal pay, I defended women everywhere I heard them spoken against."

Jess Grant was a woman of great integrity and independence. She was strong of will and brave, shown in her long political life and her serenity in long physical pain and knowledge of her imminent death.

She worked with many well-known political leaders as an equal. She knew and respected their strengths and saw clear-eyed their faults — often telling them of the latter.

Jess lived frugally all her life, by choice, to serve the working people and the cause of human progress. Her life is an example that inspires all who knew her.

She made up her own mind on the vital political issues of the 1960s. She never wavered in her belief that the CPA made the right decisions on these international questions, while always championing unity of the left, despite the deep ideological differences.

Her final message is: "A real class war is in the offing. Therefore we need a united left ... It takes a lot of energy to face up to the problems today."

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Citation details

Laurie Aarons, 'Grant, Jessie Agnes (Jess) (1897–1980)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/grant-jessie-agnes-jess-33761/text42261, accessed 15 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Jess Grant, (right), 1945

Jess Grant, (right), 1945

Tribune (Sydney), 21 September 1945, p 3

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ogilivy, Jessie Agnes
Birth

5 August, 1897
Mount Morgan, Queensland, Australia

Death

3 August, 1980 (aged 82)
Mount Morgan, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Occupation
Key Organisations
Political Activism