Wycombe Senior and International Campaigner, Lady Jessie Street
17 September 2020 - All
Wycombe Senior, Lady Jessie Street – dubbed “Red Jessie” by those who opposed her activism – was one of the 20th Century’s most prominent international advocates for women’s rights and equality. Her international campaigning led to gender equality being recognised in the Charter of the United Nations and a constitutional amendment to eliminate discrimination against Aboriginal people in Australia.
Fifty years since her death in 1970, we celebrate this Wycombe Abbey former pupil, who studied alongside Elsie Bowerman. Today, it seems fitting that Wycombe Abbey hosts the largest Model United Nations (MUN) programme in the country, which acts as a forum for girls to debate the themes of equality, non-discrimination and universal human rights that she devoted her life to achieving.
An Australian folksong telling the story of Jessie’s life describes her upbringing as a “high-born lady from the gentry of the land”. She attended Wycombe Abbey from 1904 to 1906 before emigrating to Australia to study for a degree at the University of Sydney. Dame Francis Dove’s firm belief that girls should be able sportspeople certainly had its impact, and Jessie became captain of the university women’s hockey team, competed in the first women’s inter-state match and was president of the women’s sport association.
Travels with her parents first fired Jessie’s interest in women’s rights. Visiting New York, she took a break from the holiday to volunteer at a home for young women arrested for prostitution. She was an early pioneer in the promotion of sex education and was instrumental in the establishment of Australia’s first contraceptive clinic in Sydney in 1933. During the Second World War, she opposed government regulations that meant women suspected of infecting servicemen with venereal disease could be summarily arrested.
However, it was women’s right to economic independence that became Jessie’s principal cause, describing equal pay as the “very foundation of human liberty”. She campaigned for the right of married women to work, for child support to be paid direct to mothers and for maintenance grants for divorced women. Her activism soon attracted international attention as she lobbied the League of Nations in Geneva to provide greater recognition of women’s economic rights in its treaties and resolutions.
It was Jessie’s international reputation that led her to be appointed as the only woman in Australia’s first delegation to the United Nations in 1945. Jessie was determined that the organisation’s new charter should recognise the right of men and women to hold any role at the United Nations on equal terms. Her lobbying led to the adoption of Article 8 in the Charter, which states that “The United Nations shall place no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality.”
Jessie’s work at the United Nations reunited her with another Wycombe Abbey Senior, Elsie Bowerman, and the two former classmates worked together establishing the Commission on the Status of Women – the United Nations body that has become the driving force behind international efforts to achieve gender equality. When, on 25 February 1947, sixteen leading women from across the world met in the Commissions first ever meeting, two participants were Wycombe Abbey Seniors: Jessie as Vice President and Elsie as Secretary.
Jessie’s greatest cause if measured by her influence today was the rights of the Aboriginal people. Alarmed by their lack of political voice, she supported Aborigine leaders in becoming politically organised and wrote a report for the United Nations on their plight. Jessie drafted an amendment to the Australian Constitution to remove discriminatory references in 1956. It took more than a decade of campaigning to achieve its confirmation by referendum in 1967.
Jessie’s life was the embodiment of Dame Francis Dove’s vision for Wycombe Abbey: creating young women with deep understanding and empathy for the needs of others. It is a vision that lives on in many aspects of Wycombe Abbey life, including through the MUN programme, where issues of equality and human rights are regularly discussed in a setting promoting consensus, cultural empathy and understanding of the viewpoints of others. Her contribution to the early days of the United Nations is recognised in the Bowerman-Street Prize: an award given to the best team at the annual WASAMUN political and international affairs conference hosted at the School.
Jessie is celebrated in a song by the Australian folksinger-turned federal judge Judy Small AM, which ends with the lyrics: “You were an inspiration to the women of your time. Jessie Street, you’ll always be a heroine of mine”. Jessie’s devotion to championing the rights of others certainly justifies her status as a heroine for past and future Wycombe Abbey girls.
We are very grateful to artist Loredana Crupi for producing a digitally colourised image of Jessie from a photograph taken not long after she left Wycombe Abbey for Australia.