The Jessie Street National Women’s Library is proudly celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Named after an extraordinary female figure in the realm of human rights, feminism, and international diplomacy, the library has a strong focus on women’s history, literature, and art, and on feminism. Given it receives virtually no government funding and is run by volunteer staff, the library boasts an impressive collection and also hosts but regular talks by prominent female speakers.
Jessie Street was born in 1889 and it was during the centenary of her birth that a women’s library was created and dedicated in her honour.
“Jessie Street was involved in equal rights and equal pay campaigns in the 1930s…think what an uphill battle to be doing something like that 90 years ago,” says Jan Burnswoods, volunteer at the library.
Throughout her life, Street was an active feminist in a challenging environment. A vigorous human rights campaigner, she was the only female Australian delegate at the inaugural United Nations conference in 1945. In the 1950s, she was commissioned to write a report on the state of Aboriginal affairs.
“And she wrote an absolutely stinging report,” says Burnswoods.
One of Street’s greatest achievements was the instrumental role she played, alongside Faith Bandler, in the 1967 referendum to gain constitutional recognition of Aborigines as citizens.
It’s stories such as Street’s that justify the need for a women’s library; so few people know about incredible female heros, writers, intellectuals, artists, performers and so on.
This is the only library of its kind in Australia, but there are other women’s libraries in Paris, London, Glasgow, Amsterdam, New York, Washington, and they all communicate and digitally share resources.
Jessie Street Library focuses on works by Australian women, though they also include some New Zealanders and Pacific Islanders. They rely on donations. A large part of their collection was contributed by Canberra Women’s Archives, and they regularly receive books from a handful of publishers.
“The very first collection we were given was in 1992 and it was the library of a young feminist woman [who died] and her mother gave us the books. So we’ve got a very full collection of all the feminist publications of the ‘70s and ‘80s,” says Burnswoods.
“We have a major collection of Australian women poetry. We have a lot of rare reports, pamphlets…” They have a complete holding of Ms, and iconic New York publication.
“And we have best collection anywhere of Australian women’s posters. We’ve now got about 1600 different posters.”
Each month, the library holds a lunch hour talk hosted in the City Of Sydney library in Customs House, Circular Quay in which one remarkable woman tells her remarkable story.
The library also hosts an annual fundraising luncheon event at Parliament House featuring a prestigious female speaker. This year their special guest is acclaimed opera singer, actor, author, composer, and notable Yorta Yorta woman, Deborah Cheetham AO.
The luncheon will be held in September. These events are very popular and attract a range of people from business professionals, politicians, celebrities to people who are interested in community issues. Tickets sell quickly so book early.

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