Woman Henderson, Jessie Isabel

Welfare worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Jessie Henderson was born in Hobart, Tasmania in 1866, the fourth daughter of shipping merchant, Charles Dodwell and his wife, Martha. Educated in Hobart, she moved with her parents to Melbourne in the late 1880s. After a short period as a governess she married estate agent, George Henderson, in 1891. The mother of six children, she commenced her career in charity work at the local level in the early years of her marriage.

In 1912, when her youngest daughter was three, Henderson joined the committee of the Melbourne District Nursing Society (MDNS), the base from which she was to have her greatest influence in the field. During World War I she was involved in relief work and as a campaigner in the pro-conscription cause, having lost two of her sons at Gallipoli (Leader, 7 October 1916). 'An affirmative vote', she argued, 'will show that we women have realised that we were the trustees of a great nation, and that we have proved ourselves worthy of the responsibility laid upon us' (Leader, 15 December 1917). After the war she vested her hopes for peace in the League of Nations and worked to educate women about its functions (Argus, 29 April 1921).

Wives, she asserted were the partners not the servants of their husbands. 'Two bosses on an equal footing is the only possible rule' (Kalgoorlie Miner, 19 November 1921). Supporting arguments for women to be represented on all Government boards she reassured her audience that 'women did not aim at superseding men, but rather at making their own point of view, and to supplement that of men' (Mercury, 2 December 1926). 'The proper sphere for women', she argued, 'was wherever they could be of use', adding 'once a woman got a grasp of the work of an administrative body, the fact that she was a woman ceased to be of importance to other workers' (West Australian, 22 January 1929).

Henderson was a founding member of the Housewives Association, and a longstanding member of the National Council of Women, including a term as president from 1921-2. This was followed by her election as MDNS president from 1923 to 1947. In this position she oversaw many changes in the Society's operations, including the establishment of an after-care hospital, an ante-natal service and the introduction of a birth control clinic. Her talents were recognised on a state wide level with her appointment to the new Charities Board in 1923, and later as chair of its metropolitan standing committee. During the 1930s depression she worked with Muriel Heagney to establish the Unemployed Girls Relief Movement, arguing for the appointment of trained women workers to prevent girls from being demoralised through their experiences (Argus, 15 February 1932). She also chaired a branch of the Australian Comforts Fund during World War II. 'We were weary after the last war', she declared. 'Many of us rested far too much ... but that must not be the case this time ... we must not cut the cloth to fit the means; we much cut the cloth larger and larger and hope the money will come' (Argus, 16 November 1940).

Henderson's multiple involvements enabled her to lead movements to bring some order to the philanthropic work taking place in the city, first through the Central Council of Victorian Benevolent Societies, and later through a planned Council of Welfare Workers (Argus, 27 February 1937). 'The object of the [Charities] Board', she explained, 'was to create such a chain as would meet every need, at the same time allowing each institution or committee to be self controlled'. Charity, she said, should be curative rather than ameliorative. 'This cannot be done by merely handing out money or food ... There must be two parties working for improvement: the society and the recipient, who must help to overcome his own difficulties' (West Australian, 17 September 1929).

Voluntary work, Henderson believed, allowed women to display their leadership skills. 'Leadership was important whether it was for the home, the state or the nation' and 'many fine leaders could be found among hospital auxiliaries' (Argus, 15 July 1941). 'Women ... had an opportunity to do great things, and should educate themselves to meet the responsibility of power' (West Australian, 25 January 1929). Despite this commitment to voluntary work, Henderson also played a key role in the introduction of professional social work. She was an early advocate of a central registry of cases (Argus, 6 August 1920) and later served on the committee established to introduce almoner training at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and select the trainees. Her youngest daughter was one of the first to enter the course.

Described by her grand-daughter as 'wily and diplomatic', Henderson always aimed for 'consensus rather than confrontation'. Despite her sometimes controversial views, reporters perceived her as 'typically feminine' (Kalgoorlie Miner, 19 November 1921). Awarded the CBE in 1937, Henderson was widowed in 1939 and died in 1951.

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