Jessie Street (BA 1910), who was born in 1889 and died in 1970, lived well before Professor Soutphommasane’s time. Yet he first felt her impact when he was just 19 years old.
“It was January 2002, and I had won a scholarship to spend six weeks in Canberra at the National Archives,” Professor Soutphommasane said.
“My task was to help prepare for an exhibit that would coincide with the centenary of the High Court. My fellow scholar, a young historian from Newcastle, worked on an infinitely more interesting project: the friendship between Jessie Street and human rights activist Faith Bandler.”
From this, he learned of Street’s efforts to amend the Constitution to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be counted in the Census and be included in legislation – which ultimately led to the successful 1967 Referendum to this effect.
“Jessie’s style was exemplary of human rights leadership. It should never be about the glory, but always about acting in concert with others,” Professor Soutphommasane said.
Speaking at the Jessie Street Trust annual lunch at the NSW Parliament, he outlined Street’s many achievements – among them, her role as a member of the Australian delegation to the UN Charter Conference in San Francisco in 1945. There, she lobbied for and achieved the recognition of equal rights of men and women in the Charter’s preamble and equality in employment for the sexes in its body.
She continued to serve the UN – first, in the establishment of a permanent Commission on the Status of Women, and then as vice-chair of that Commission. Street also ran for federal parliament (unsuccessfully on three occasions).
The Jessie Street Trust lunch was held at the end of National Reconciliation Week, and amid renewed interest in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which proposed an Indigenous advisory body to parliament.
“In light of the many injustices that continue to afflict First Peoples, it seems excessive to dismiss a call for a non-binding advisory voice to the Parliament,” Professor Soutphommasane said.