In my last blog I wrote about some of the intriguing women who spoke out against Australia’s involvement in the Great War, in one way or another. In researching this subject, I came across Jennie Scott Griffiths. A prolific writer who called upon Australian women to oppose conscription, she combined her activist-journalist career with raising nine children to adulthood.
Not a whole lot has been written about Griffiths. She is the subject of a short unpublished biography by Bill Sutton (I’ve taken the title of my blog from his essay, held in the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland), and historians Diane Kirkby, Joy Damousi and Ray Evans have referred to her in passing. Labour historian Terry Irving, who wrote her ADB entry a while ago, is currently working on a book about Griffiths. Terry generously helped with advice and some of the images for this blog – I’m looking forward to reading his book.
The transnational Jennie Scott Griffiths
Quite a number of our anti-war feminists and pacifists actually came out from England, either shortly before or during the War. Jennie Scott Griffiths hailed from more exotic climes. Born in Texas, USA, in 1875, young Jennie Wilson studied law at university, and became the first female court reporter in that state. Then, clearly an adventurous young woman, she set off with her brother to the British colony of Fiji, where her life took another turn.
In Fiji, Jennie met Arthur George Griffiths. They married and she became a mother the following year, in 1898, with another eight babies following roughly every two years from then on. Not content with the demands of domestic life, she started working as an editor for the Griffiths family-owned newspaper, the Fiji Times.
The family came to Australia shortly before the War. They were living in Sydney in 1912 when Jennie tragically lost her second youngest daughter, and eight months later their tenth and last child, another little girl, was born.
Around the same time Jennie, a self-described militant suffragette (‘because the conditions in life for men and women are unequal’) somehow managed to land the role of editor of a magazine called the Australian Woman’s Weekly.
This wasn’t the Australian Women’s Weekly (that didn’t start until 1933). But in the 1970s the editor of that later paper, Ita Buttrose, re-discovered and reprinted one of Jennie’s editorials. Jennie recorded an argument she had with a friend on how women who, even if they were fortunate enough not to experience sexual oppression themselves, should still take up the cause of women’s rights, to protect those women who did.
“Don’t you see, Millicent, my dear,” said I, “that only the few have these privileges, but all might have their rights? That, while there is not enough cake to live on, as it were, that is no reason why everyone should not have bread?”
Wrote Buttrose: ‘Thank you Jennie Scott Griffiths for putting so well a conversation that could still quite easily take place in 1978. Just how far have we women really progressed in 65 years?’
But Jennie didn’t last out the war at the Woman’s Weekly. In 1916, she was sacked from the magazine for her anti-conscription views. By then, she had a strong foothold in the labour and left media, having taken over the ‘Women’s Page’ of the left-wing newspaper, The Australian Worker, from Mary Gilmore (who was also opposed to the war), back in September 1914.
The anti-conscription campaign often appealed to women’s fears as mothers of sons. Jennie, with her six boys, could easily have followed that line – but instead, she focused on the impact of conscription on working women and girls. Many of her anti-conscription articles can be found today on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website.
In ‘Women and Conscription,’ for the left-wing Westralian Worker, Jennie pointed out, ‘Under conscription in Great Britain, women are working in munitions making and other “war” trades at 13s. 11d. per week of 60 hours…in scores of places workers have been so crowded together that three women shared the same bed in relays of eight hour shifts.’ She continued to write for the mainstream press, too, and used it to draw the attention of middle-class pro-conscription women to the harsh effects of male conscription on the lives of poor women, and especially children. Jennie particularly disliked war propaganda in the school system: ‘the insidious poison of the jingoism with which their minds are being stuffed in our schools.’
In late 1917 the Griffiths moved to Queensland, joining a number of other socialist activists who saw in the country’s last remaining Labor government there the hopes for a socialist revolution (it was, of course, the year of the Russian Revolution).
In Brisbane, with the War Precautions Act prohibiting the flying of the red flag still in place, a protest march was organised in 1919. Jennie assisted the Children’s Peace Army to make three hundred miniature red flags for the event. The march was attacked by returned soldiers, sparking three days of riots in Brisbane, during which Jennie held her own, hauling a big man to the ground and put a red ribbon around his neck. In the wake of the arrests, she wrote articles challenging the Australian government’s claim to be a ‘free and enlightened democracy,’ directing her efforts towards freeing the gaoled ‘Red Flag’ protestors.
Return to the States
In 1920, the Griffiths returned to the United States (two of their older sons stayed behind). In the US, she remained active in the International Workers of the World (‘the Wobblies’) and in women’s groups, and became involved in the struggle for African American advancement. Unlike many others on the left, Griffiths also opposed the Second World War when it broke out, and her socialist views were evident in a rather bitter anti-war poem she composed in 1941, titled ‘Why Shouldn’t You Die?’
Griffith herself saw out both world wars. She died in San Francisco in 1951. The impact of her years in Australia during the war had shaped her from a feminist law student into a lifelong anti-war activist of the left.
For me, I can’t help but be amazed by the energy and determination of this incredible woman – her ‘brain and pen always ready when needed’, as her comrades in the Women’s Peace Army put it.