MRS JESSIE VASEY OBE CBE (1897-1966)
The War Widows’ Guild was founded by Jessie Vasey – a most remarkable woman.
It was she who chose the motto for the Guild. The Guild’s motto exemplifies the spirit of Jessie Vasey. Almost single-handedly she founded a self-help organisation that assisted women widowed through war to come to terms with their loss and sacrifice and to provide for themselves and their children.
Her husband first drew Mrs Vasey’s attention to the plight of war widows. They talked together about how they could do something to help these widows after the end of World War II. But General Vasey died in an air crash on his way to rejoin his troops in New Guinea in March 1945, towards the end of the War. His widow then came to understand and feel even more deeply the desperate situation of women widowed through war.
Although she was a daughter of a Queensland grazier, and a university graduate with first-class honours and two sons, nonetheless after she became a widow she suffered the same despair as every other widow. Through her remarkable and indomitable nature she overcame her despair to become the inspiration that helped heal so many other widows. She gave the rest of her life in pursuit of her vision – to bring war widows together to speak with one voice in the improvement of their circumstances, and to help each other overcome the disadvantage they had suffered.
In 1945 Mrs Vasey established the War Widows’ Guild in Victoria, the following year in New South Wales and thereafter in every Australian State and the Australian Capital Territory. By the time of her death in 1966, the Guild had grown into an influential national lobby group. Today war widows throughout Australia enjoy the outcome of her tenacity. According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs the number of those eligible to become war widows is now slowly decreasing from a peak in the numbers of war widows which occurred in 2004.
Mrs Vasey was the President of the Guild from 1945 until her death in 1966.
There are many stories told that illustrate the lengths to which Mrs Vasey was prepared to go in the service of “her” widows – from scrubbing the floors to intellectual argument and skilled advocacy.
One story about Mrs Vasey, reported in her biography and the story of the War Widows’ Guild by Mavis Thorpe Clark, No Mean Destiny, provides some insight to the lengths she was prepared to go in promoting the needs of war widows.
Vasey Family 1942
A “kindly, if patronising politician” said, “But dear lady, why should widows need to organise at all?”
Mrs Vasey replied “Because we believe in self-help.”
“But we’ll do it all for you …”
“And what”, snapped the widow of Major-General George Vasey, “qualifies you to decide what women need? … Just as returned men understand each other’s problems, so do war widows. Only a widow knows what a widow feels.”
And when the man looked unconvinced, she added wickedly, “I happen to know that you can’t even get along with your own wife.”
When Mrs Vasey told that story in later years, she always admitted that it was a mean blow, but she had already discovered that not all men, even returned men, saw the widow’s plight as her husband had seen it.”
War widows today have much to thank Jessie Vasey for – their pension, their health entitlements, and the recognition of their sacrifice by the Australian society and government which provides compensation and care for its war widows second to no other country in the world.
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
Major General Vasey served in the First and Second World Wars. He served in the Middle East and in France in the First World War.
After the war he had two periods of service in India, including active service. In 1937 he took up the post of General Staff Officer at Army Headquarters in Melbourne.
When the Second World War was declared in 1939 he was promoted to Colonel, appointed Chief Administrative Staff Officer of the 6th Australian Division and was despatched to the Middle East, serving in Greece, Crete and Syria. In 1942 he went to New Guinea commanding the 6th and then the 7th Divisions, serving on the Kokoda Trail and in Ramu Valley. After being hospitalised in Australia, he was returning to New Guinea in March 1945 when he died in a plane crash near Cairns. His wife, Jessie Vasey became a war widow.
Major General Vasey was reported to have been a brilliant tactician and officer, and also a man with a sensitive awareness of another’s suffering or sorrow. He genuinely cared for his men and always put them first. He was a very tall person with a presence which instilled courage and confidence in his troops.
This plaque in Cairns War Cemetery is not the only memorial to Major General Vasey – another is sited at Trinity Beach near where his plane crashed in 1945.