AWW NSW celebrates 75 years. I want to tell you a story.
A story of one woman who stood tall, who stood up for what she believed in, who devoted her life to service and empowering others. A woman who had a unique ability to tell it like it was, to inspire activity, unity and positive change for those in her community. A woman who, with many others, stood against gender bias and created a legacy for this generation of women to carry forward.
I am of course speaking about Mrs Jessie Mary Vasey OBE CBE, founder of the War Widows Guild.
Beginning her work to support women impacted by war well before she became a widow herself, Jessie was never going to stand idly by while war widows in the 1940s and 50s were denied access to their late husbands’ pensions and were living off just £2, 10 shillings (under $200/week). She was never going to stand by while war widows’ pensions could be revoked at will, when government felt it was ‘desirable’ to do so.
She wasn’t going to stand by while war widows remained ‘invisible, left out and forgotten; the sacrifice they had made for the community overlooked’.
But she wasn’t going to accept charity either, for she knew the truth of who these women left behind by war. They were not helpless – they were well educated, intelligent, articulate, resourceful and resilient women. Women who needed each other more than ever. ‘Our women don’t want to be the objects of charity, pity and patronage … the most dangerous of all forms of social service is benevolence from above … we want to give these women hope, to make them proud of being war widows and not ashamed.’
So she did what she did best, she used her voice, she rallied her peers and joining with like-minded organisations, created what is now known as the Australian War Widows. In NSW, we have existed for 75 years and with the anniversary of our first meeting, which took place on 4 June 1946, we take a moment to pause and remember who we were, what we have achieved and where we are going.
Over the last few years, we have talked a lot about change – changing needs, changing demographics, changing landscapes of services in the veteran sector. We talk about reform. We talk about transformation – but is that really what is happening, or are we simply returning to our foundations?
For us in New South Wales it is the latter. While we have expanded our membership criteria, and that will mean changes, what it doesn’t mean is a loss of who we are and what we stand for. Rather, the expansion of our membership criteria represents the will of those who built this organisation to hand on their legacy to a new generation who needs it, who can use it and who can carry its work on – because the work isn’t done.
As the spouse of a veteran wounded in war myself, it is hard not to be inspired and not to want to answer the call, to step up to the plate and bring this organisation to a new generation while we can still benefit from the guidance and wisdom of the generation that created this for us.
I’ve said it numerous times: those who stand behind the Defence Force are the silent majority. They are generally unseen and unheard, yet they are charged with the responsibility of taking care of our nation’s veterans. Often, they are isolated in their experiences and challenges; challenges which still seem to disproportionately affect women.
The voices of women and veterans’ families have never been more important than now. We hear many stories of veterans who are impacted by their service, but we don’t hear the stories or needs of those who carry the burden of service long after that service ends.
They are the stories we want to tell; for those are the stories that will bring about significant and meaningful change and lasting bonds. Those are the stories that unite widows, women, veterans and families.
Just like the war widows of 1946 and beyond, the women and families connected to the Australian Defence Force are no Cinderellas. We are not waiting for someone to come and save us; we don’t want pity or charity. We want to be empowered with skills to help ourselves and our loved ones. We need each other and we need a place to belong. We have been gifted that place and it is up to us to keep this legacy alive, to join, to be seen, to be heard and to help each other.
Imagine the future we can build.
Renee Wilson, CEO Australian War Widows NSW Ltd.
You no longer need to be a War Widow to join our organisation. You just need to have a connection to Defence service and a motivation to accept the gift of membership to this unique and inspiring organisation. If you are not already a member and want to join with us, please call (02) 92676577 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.