Jessie Street

18 Apr 1889
2 Jul 1970
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Lady Street (née Lillingston, commonly known as Jessie Mary Grey Street; 18 April 1889 – 2 July 1970) was an Australian suffragette, feminist and human rights campaigner.

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. The National Women’s Library and the Jessie Street Gardens are named in her honour. On her husband’s knighthood in 1956 she became Lady Street.

Street was born on 18 April 1889 at Ranchi, India. She was the eldest of three children. Her parents were Charles Lillingston, a civil servant, and Mabel Lillingston (née Ogilvie)

In 1896, Street’s mother inherited her parents’ property Yulgilbar station in New South Wales. Her father resigned his position with the civil service and the family moved there. Street initially studied with a governess, and later was sent to England to attend Wycombe Abbey School in Buckinghamshire

In 1906 she returned to Australia and two years later she became a resident of Women’s College at the University of Sydney. In 1911 she graduated from the university with a Bachelor of Arts degree. While studying, she was captain of the university’s women’s hockey team and attended the first meeting of the New South Wales’ Ladies Hockey Association. She also played in the first interstate game between New South Wales and neighbouring Victoria and was a founding member of the Sydney University Women’s Sports Association

Apparently inspired by the British Anti-Slavery Society when visiting England in the 1950s, Jessie Street was the initiator of the 1967 “Aboriginal” amendment of the Australian Constitution with fellow activist Faith Bandler. She “masterminded the formation of the Aboriginal Rights Organisation, which led to the successful” Australian referendum, 1967 (Aboriginals) and even drafted petitions calling for the Referendum.

Jessie Street published a number of papers relating to Aboriginal people based on her observations during her numerous visits to Aboriginal Settlements. These include a Report on Aborigines in Australia, May 1957, Report of visit to Pindar Camps,’Report of visit to West Australia in connection with Aborigines’; ‘Suggestions for Northern Territory’ (Between Camooweal and Darwin); Comments on the ‘Report from the Select Committee of Voting Rights of Aborigines’; and ‘The question of discriminations against Aborigines and the United Nations

Jessie Street campaigned for equality of status for women, equal pay, appointment by women to public office and their election to parliament. In 1911 she attended a conference of the International Council for Women in Rome. She was also co-founder (1928) and President of United Associations of Women. Jessie was the only Australian woman delegate at the founding of the United Nations in 1945 and established (co-founder of) the UN Commission of the Status of Women and Charter of women’s rights.

Jessie Street stood as the Labor candidate for the safe conservative seat of Wentworth in NSW at the 1943 federal election. The electoral result saw Street achieve a 20 percent primary and 14 percent two-party swing, falling less than two percent short of securing a majority of votes, and subsequently lost to the sitting United Australia Party member Eric Harrison. Eric Harrison stood with his back to Jessie whilst she gave her concession speech and refused to shake her hand.

She was a co-founder of NSW Social Hygiene Association (1916) and was a foundation member of the Sydney Branch of the League of Nations Union in 1918. She attended League of Nations Assemblies in Geneva in 1930 and 1938. She was a colleague of Pablo Picasso on the World Peace Council Executive. During the Second World War she was chairman of the Russian Medical Aid and Comforts Fund.

She was friendly towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War which led to her being depicted as “Red Jessie” by the press. This depiction aroused suspicion and led to her being monitored by four Australian intelligence agencies. This surveillance has ensured her life has left a long trail of documents within the National Archives of Australia.

Three generations of the Street family have served their state as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Street’s father-in-law, Sir Philip Whistler Street, her husband Sir Kenneth Whistler Street and her son Sir Laurence Whistler Street all attained that position. Her cousin Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon was a British politician and ornithologist. These connections were sometimes seen as being in tension with her social activism.

Her daughter Philippa married the Australian Test cricketer and journalist Jack Fingleton.

On 15 May 2015 Australian politician Fiona Patten admitted, following a decade of much-publicised claims to the contrary, that she was not a close blood relative of Jessie Street.

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