Citizens of the World: Jessie Street and International Feminism

By Coltheart, Lenore | Hecate, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Citizens of the World: Jessie Street and International Feminism


Coltheart, Lenore, Hecate


Jessie Street took part in her first international conference of women in 1914, and worked for political reform in Australia and within the international feminist network in the interwar years. In 1945 she was the only woman appointed to Australia's delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. With South American and Scandinavian women delegates, she played a major role in the establishment of the United Nations Commission for the Status of Women and took part in the drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights. She drew on her international experience to focus the campaign that eventually achieved the removal of discrimination against Indigenous people from Australia's Constitution in 1967. Her work for the improved status of women, for international cooperation, and in the postwar peace movement, dominated the two decades before her death in 1970.

As one of those who worked for more than fifty years in these transnational networks of women's organisations, Street's story traces the role of transnational networks of women's organisations in the twentieth century posting of human rights on the agenda of governments. The outline of this work shown here reveals the power of the 'associative citizenship' learned and practised there. But the later period of Street's work shows the impact of the Cold War on erecting barriers that divided the transnational organisations, and weakened the political participation they fostered.

Rise of transnationalism

In 1889, the year Jessie Street was born in India, the World Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) brought imperial outposts in India and in the Pacific, East and Southeast Asia and Australia, into a growing network of unions in North America, Britain and Europe. Western imperialism and Christian evangelism helped the rapid spread of the WCTU, but it is another characteristic that connects Jessie Street to these pioneer networking women. The cohesive power of the WCTU lay in the broad reform agenda developed within the networked unions who saw 'home issues' alcohol abuse, family violence, rapid urbanisation and unsanitary housing, and the needs of young children as political questions. The solution to these problems involved challenging women's unequal access to the protection of the law, and the fundamental promises of liberal democratic government - freedom and equality.

The 'white ribbon' that bound WCTU women together was an associative outlook that was as much political as religious. In Australia and worldwide, the WCTU branches lobbied for legislative and policy reform on apparently diverse issues, linking free innercity kindergartens and rural sewerage facilities with women's suffrage, employment and education. The WCTU was organised in 'departments' including suffrage, labour and capital, peace and arbitration, physical culture, and rational dress reform to implement the 'do everything' approach of founder Frances Willard. This strategy crossed a theoretical boundary between private and public spheres as well as national borders, and through acting in common purpose women were 'translated out of the passive and into the active voice'.1

Two years after the World WCTU was founded in Canada in 1886, suffragists from Europe, Britain, India and the United States, including veterans like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, founded another transnational network, the International Council of Women (ICW). Many Australian women linked to this network while travelling overseas, among them Catherine Helen Spence while in the USA and Britain from March 1893 to December 1894, and Mary Windeyer, who attended the 1893 Chicago exhibition of women's work. In 1896 Mary Windeyer and Rose Scott founded the National Council of Women in NSW, the first Australian affiliate of the ICW. With its broad base of affiliated organisations, the ICW like the WCTU developed a wide and varied reform program through the 18903.

To target what all agreed was a primary goal, the right to vote, Stanton, then aged 86, Anthony, then 82, and the 'born orator' Carrie Chapman Catt, organised a suffrage conference of delegates in Washington in 1902. …

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